Profile | Art for the mango republic
At 50, Subodh Gupta is no longer just an Indian artist—he is now a global phenomenon
A banyan tree made of stainless steel, with buckets for leaves, is the newest addition to the lawns of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi. At the twilight hour, it catches the fading rays of the winter sun. From afar it looks as though snowflakes have gathered on its branches.
Seduced by the illusion, people walk in, pause before it with interest, break into smiles. Some pose for photographs. A little boy makes faces at his own reflection and bursts into peals of laughter as it distorts beyond recognition.
Only the birds stay away, unwilling to suspend disbelief.
Subodh Gupta looks visibly pleased by the attention his work is getting. It is the end of December, almost a month away from a show at the NGMA, probably the most ambitious one of his career so far, but the public’s eye has been arrested already. “I call this work Dada,” he tells me, “Meaning grandfather, dadaji.” Though the pun, he adds for good measure, is very much intended.
Gupta, who turns 50 this year, is as extraordinary a figure in the art scene in India as the Dadaists were in the history of 20th century Europe. Although he has been compared to Damien Hirst, his exact contemporary and the reigning master of British avant-garde art, Gupta is, more properly, a Jay Gatsby-like figure among his peers—sans the tragedy.
Gupta, not always the most talkative of interviewees, is strikingly candid in the book as he speaks about his family, inspirations, struggles, interest in food, religion, Bihari identity, and cooking—but most of all, about his artistic practice. “I do make crap work sometimes,” he confesses, “and people love it and say, ‘Ah, beautiful!’ and I’m thinking, fuck, this piece is crap.” Asked about his definition of “crap”, he refers to the lack of feeling in a piece of art—something, Gupta claims, he can always tell. “But I will never tell the world.”
One of the reasons why Gupta’s art remains so enduringly appealing is because of its innately inscrutable flavour. Made with seemingly banal objects yet bearing staggering price tags, shockingly in-the-face but also sly and subtle, what exactly is their real worth?
In the case of Gupta’s art, the question of value—an impossibly complex one when it comes to aesthetics anyway—is further complicated by his choice of materials. If Hirst used diamonds to create a skull, Gupta went for the indigenous counterpart, 24-carat gold, using it to electroplate potatoes sculpted in bronze. In 2008, he was the first to break the $1 million (around Rs.6.2 crore) ceiling for contemporary Indian art. For the last few years, and especially now, he has been touring the world, with a fan following that befits rock stars. Visitors to his studio in Gurgaon mention a chart on the wall detailing his various commitments and hectic schedule. Gupta is more than just an Indian artist. Inexhaustibly inventive, keeping the demand-supply chain for his work alive, he is a global phenomenon.
Combining the daring of Marcel Duchamp (the champion of the Readymade) with the panache of Andy Warhol (the king of pop art), Gupta has carved a singular brand for himself. Flamboyant, opulent and outrageously expensive to own, his art brings to mind writer Angela Carter’s description of The Great Gatsby as being “one of the great middlebrow classics”. But the epithet, especially when applied to Gupta’s work, is not pejorative; on the contrary, it is apt and relevant; indeed, a glowing endorsement of the mind and sensibility at work.
Gupta is one of the few artists in this country who have tried to make work that speaks directly to the masses—the much celebrated aam aadmi, who is imagined as a box full of bronze mangoes in one of his wittiest sculptures. “My family had no interest in art,” says Gupta, who was born in Khagaul, Bihar. “And I learned next to nothing in art college in Patna.”
Noticed by M.F. Husain for his paintings, Gupta went on to form the Khoj collective with fellow artists and enthusiasts in 1997. The turning point in his career, according to him, came in 1999, when he performed Pure.
Smearing himself with cowdung and mud, he burrowed into the ground and lay in the sun, surrounded by sundry objects of daily use he had collected from poor villagers. Since then, an undercurrent of drama has always run through his work.
The element of spectacle in his installations, mostly built with shining new or rusty old utensils, is often gratuitously sensational. But its effect on viewers, especially on those who have little or no interest in art, is palpable. People stopped and stared at Very Hungry God, a gigantic skull Gupta made with stainless steel containers and first displayed in Italy. They were affected by the morbid heaviness of the enormous boat, crammed with pots and pans, he installed at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2012. A few years ago, I recall witnessing a scene at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi, where security guards had to tick off a group of unsuspecting visitors for touching the utensils that comprised one of Gupta’s iconic works, a huge mushroom-shaped installation. Life becomes art becomes life in his work. Cowdung cakes, bicycles, a mutilated taxi—everything, as the title of the NGMA show says, is grist to Gupta’s artistic mill.
But for art that often towers over humanity so menacingly, the origins can be sudden and inexplicable. “I jot down thoughts on my iPhone,” Gupta says, “I take photographs. Then one day, something comes together in my head.” In most instances, the real work is made by an army of collaborators. Sometimes students join in. “I enjoy working with young people, I look at the work they are doing and give them feedback,” he says. “Art schools should get real artists to give the occasional lecture to students.”
Pots and pans are collected from various parts of the country. The new ones have been sourced from a maker in Ahmedabad. A team from South Korea helped assemble the banyan tree, while another one is busy putting together the NGMA show. But for Gupta, creativity has a meaning that transcends the notion of real physical labour, though he does make the occasional sculpture with his own hands.
“I function like a director and that’s a kind of making,” he tells Sen in the book, “even when the whole object is lying in front of me and physically I don’t have to make it, I’m still thinking about it. All these objects have been lying around all over the country, so why doesn’t somebody else make work with them? So, I am the creator at the end of the day.”
Everything Is Inside opens to the public at the NGMA, New Delhi, on 17 January, and will be on till 16 March, 10am-5pm (Mondays and national holidays closed).