Shilpa Gupta, Untitled, 2014. Commissioned and produced by the Samdani Art Foundation for the Dhaka Art Summit 2014. Courtesy of the artist, the Dhaka Art Summit and the Samdani Art Foundation.
Shilpa Gupta (b. 1976) is a Bombay based artist who uses facets of everyday life to create artworks that ask questions about methods of control and the ideas behind boundaries and borders that shape our perception of world order. While these works are deeply rooted in the Indian context where the artist lives and works, they grapple with universal issues such as freedom and security, and Gupta’s work is enjoyed and exhibited all over the world, in important exhibitions such as the New Museum Triennial, Yokohama Triennale, Lyon Biennale, Sharjah Biennale, Gwangju Biennale, Shanghai Biennale, and Sydney Biennale. Her works are also part of prestigious institutional collections including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, and the Devi Art Foundation in Delhi.
Soap, microphones, sign hoardings, books – these are some of the familiar materials that the artist uses to engage audiences with wider and deeper issues. The artist studied sculpture and worked part time in graphic design and she has a remarkable ability to transform mundane imagery into something profound. In her 2009 work Threat, Gupta created a sculpture with 4,500 bars of soap, engraved with the word ‘Threat.’The audience is invited to take a bar of soap away and use it if they wish, washing away any trace of any imagined threat by the end of the exhibition. Fear is a tool often used to manipulate groups of people in power struggles, and Gupta’s works, often harnessing participation and interactivity, shake up our ideas about why we are asked to act the way we do.
Those in authority are able to control the media and what information gets disseminated to the public. What if the microphones that pundits speak into were able to speak truth and drone out lies? Gupta created a body of work of ‘singing microphones,’ which use Gupta’s voice to amplify issues that are often silenced. In 5 Singing Microphones from 2009, Gupta attempts to count the countless number of individuals who disappeared during times of political unrest such as Partition, creating a sense of urgency to remember those who transformed from people into mere numbers. In the same year, she also created a series of works using chalkboards, conventional tools to teach children about counting, and these chalkboards show the sign of countless markings, complete with accumulated chalk dust from writing and erasing, demonstrating the Sisyphean task of trying to count the people that governments want you to forget about. The phrase “Will we ever be able to mark enough?” leaves lingering questions in the minds of her audience. Stimulating memories, on both an individual and a collective basis, is an important part of Gupta’s practice.
In her 2008-2009 work 100 Hand Drawn Maps of India, Gupta asked a different person each day to draw a map of their country, and none of the drawings matched. Gupta’s works shed light on the problem of imposing borders on groups of people whose history on the land is much older than that of new nation-states. In her 2011-2012 work 1:14.9 which is part of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum collection in New York, Gupta wound the idea of the 1188.5 meter long fence between India and Pakistan by manipulating thread into an elegant ball at a 14.9 to 1 ratio, nimbly caging this 1947 imposed border which symbol of violence and religious prejudice.
Interested in the formation of territories under the project of nationhood, the artist traveled to chhitmahal, Indo-Bangladeshi enclaves with a combined estimated population of 51,000 people who are technically foreigners in another country. In other words, there are landlocked islands of India within Bangladesh, and Bangladesh within India. In her poignant floor-based sculpture, Gupta describes the situation poignantly with the use of a mark on carved stone.
Depending on which side of this marking you may now be, you may or may not have an identity card, you may or may not need to take a fake name to enroll into a school, you may or may not be able to deliver your child with the real father’s name in the neighborhood hospital, you may or may not still be able to have electricity this evening even though the cable passes through your house, irrespective of the fact that your family may have lived here before countries were formed one night.
The people in these enclaves believe that they are there because their communities were part of valued kingdoms, making them special and unique from their neighbors who have access to national public services that are granted from having an identity card. People who live in the chhitmahal do not have identity cards, so in order to give birth to a child in a hospital, or to enroll their children in school, they have to use the identity of someone with an identity card as the father, so there are several children with false identities. One of the works in this solo project obscures the names of a mythical classroom, showing how a name in these regions may likely not be just what it seems. Most of the people in the chhitmahal have been living there for centuries, and can easily ask their close neighbors with identity cards to lend false names as “relatives.” Gupta presents a work reflecting on the longstanding relationship between these “illegal” people and their ancestral land, showing images of feet firmly planted on the ground that they “belonged to” for centuries. Border markers can be anywhere, even floating in water as Gupta shares with us with her photographs. A painted photograph poignantly renders the situation that being born into an enclave makes a night and day difference: electrical lines may run through the enclave, but only certified areas on either side of the chit will have light when they turn on the switch.