The theory of everything6 min read . Updated: 09 Dec 2016, 06:17 PM IST
In Subodh Gupta's new show, old pans turn into vessels of cosmic enquiry
In Subodh Gupta's new show, old pans turn into vessels of cosmic enquiry
The year began with a seminal show by Sudarshan Shetty at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. Called Shoonya Ghar (This Empty House), its title was inspired by a poem by 13th century poet, Gorakhnath, and rendered into music by contemporary master Kumar Gandharva. The show looked at opposing ideas in the manner that nirgun poets like Gorakhnath and Kabir viewed them, not as two ends of a pole that cancel each other out, but as two simultaneous truths that merge to create a deeper, composite meaning.
The year will end with a seminal show, which too references Kabir’s poetry.
Subodh Gupta returns to Mumbai after a nine-year gap—otherwise spent exhibiting prolifically internationally, and in other Indian cities—with what he calls his “most important show" to date. Titled Anahad/Unstruck, the show comprises large metal sculptural installations, with audio, performance and motion components, and a series of four paintings on aluminium sheets, each a 144 x 96-inch triptych with oil paint, digital printing and LED lights. The title of this series—In This Vessel Lay The Seven Seas; In It, Too, The Nine Hundred Thousand Stars—is derived from a poem by Kabir, who like Gorakhnath, belonged to the Bhakti tradition of Hinduism, and made impassioned pleas for common men and women to develop enough faith in themselves to strike a personal, lasting and loving relationship with their maker, rather than depend on intermediaries like high-caste priests.
The show, which opened on Friday at Mahalaxmi’s Famous Studio, presents Gupta’s concerns of migration and displacement, but also takes Kabir’s mysticism, seriously. The title of the painting series, for instance, is based on this poem.
“Iss ghat antar baag baghiche/ iss hi mein sirjanhara,
Iss ghat antar saat samundar/ iss hi mein nau laak taara,
Iss ghat antar paaras moti/ iss hi mein parkhan haara,
Iss ghat antar anhad garaje/iss hi mein urat poohara,
Kahat Kabir suno bhai saadhon/ iss hi mein saain hamara."
(“In this vessel lie groves and gardens, in it, too, lives the creator/
In this vessel lie the seven seas, in it, too, the nine hundred thousand stars/
In this vessel lies the philosopher’s stone, in it, too, the appraiser/
In this vessel unstruck sound reverberates, In it, too, bursts forth the fountain/
Says Kabir, listen dear wise men, in this, itself, is the Supreme Being we seek.")
This is the first time that the 52-year-old artist has used oil paint on aluminium sheet; the subject of his works are old, misshapen vessels from his studio, and unlike his earlier paintings, these works have not been made in a hyper-realistic style. The vessels look like something else instead, their cracks, holes and other minutiae are rendered visible in flat two-dimensional ways; along with the thin laser-drawn cracks in the sheet through which the LED lights shine and fade and the rusted metal effect of the digitally printed background, something stranger and other-worldly emerges—a qayanat in the vessel, a vessel of the cosmos.
There are other metaphysical concepts that Gupta’s show alludes to: Anahad is a Sanskrit word that refers to the cosmic sound that pervades the universe, and which does not emerge from the striking of two objects together. An eponymous installation comprises six stainless steel sheets, each 96x48x6 inches, hung separately and at a distance from each other. Every few minutes, they vibrate together for 15 seconds and a high-pitched buzzing reverberates in the sound-proof exhibition space. Distortion is part of this installation—even the reflection of a viewer standing before the metal sheet is subjected to it. In the centre of this room are suspended two large metal handis facing each other and almost touching. A blinding light—made from several LED panels—shines from the sliver of space between the stainless steel mirror-finished handis. This installation is called Birth Of A star, and is imposing not just in scale, but also in its metaphorical significance. If the aluminium paintings offer a sombre and meditative quality to Gupta’s underpinning cosmological narrative, these metal works that shine brightly and vibrate loudly, offer an interesting counterpoint to the artist’s theory of everything.
When Gupta graduated from the Patna College of Art in 1987, he was primarily painting; he made his first installation in Delhi in 1991, where he attended the Garhi Studios residency (it was here that he met his wife, artist Bharti Kher). The installation was called 29 Mornings, which comprised 29 stools on which he ate his meals. An accurate way of understanding the works that Gupta has come to be known by is through the technique employed by French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp who worked with found objects, elevating the ready-made into an art object. Gupta too, takes the ready-made, relocates it in his studio and gallery, and imbues it with further signification—several steel vessels come together to form a large skull, a mushroom cloud, a spillover from a bucket; a bunch of pots, pans, metal buckets, tiffin tins and vessels are arranged on a shelf with strange aesthetic symmetry to look like an abstract piece of art. Utensils form part of Gupta’s artistic alphabet, as do cow-dung, mud, other found objects; what emerges is a language unique to Gupta. The artist speaks across medium—installations, videos and photo-realistic paintings—touching upon themes of otherness, home, migration, and the struggle of millions of Indians with aspirations of class ascension.
For instance, a work that was displayed at the second Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2012, took its title from the 13th century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi’s lines: “What does the vat contain that is not in the river?/ What does the room encompass that is not in the city?/ This world is the vat, and the heart the running stream/ this world the room, and the heart the city of wonders." His installation was called, What Does The Vessel Contain, That The River Does Not, and possessed vessels, chairs, charpoy and even ceiling fans—all crammed into a 21.3m-long boat. This, he seemed to say, is what the “vat" contains. The installation, which was also shown in the London outpost of Hauser & Wirth gallery, served as a reminder of stark realities—every house may possess steel utensils, but not nearly enough of these households have food to fill them with, migration is not just a philosophical concept of belonging to the world, but a hard reality for millions.
“I was watching a documentary a year ago," said Gupta, when we met him during the installation of the show earlier this week. “In it Stephen Hawking commenting on the science of cosmos, and if there are aliens, what would be their form." The electricity had gone off to everyone’s surprise and the show’s installation was stalled temporarily. Sitting outside studio No.1, one of the many studios at Famous Studios in Mumbai, where film and television shows are shot, Gupta said, “One interesting thing that Hawking said, if you’re looking for aliens in other planets, the answer is not ‘go up there and find them’. All the answers are on our planet earth.
“I’m looking at my art and the form of the cosmos, through my own plates and pans."
At Famous Studios, Mumbai, Monday- Sunday, 11am-7pm, till 7 January, presented by Nature Morte, New Delhi. There will be a walkthrough with Subodh Gupta and curator Germano Celant today at 5pm.