As the rapid economic development in India and China highlights Asia’s global influence, contemporary Asian artists have captured the international attention as the paradigm shifts in art practice. Among them, Shilpa Gupta is a prominent female artist now based in Mumbai, India and active at exhibitions globally. Employing a wide range of modern media such as photography, video, digital, audio and visual installation, she provides a first-hand understanding of globalisation through mundane experience of life and a uniquely female approach. As such, her narration is in-depth and universal.
Sound and voice take the crucial role in Gupta’s works. A recent case in this point is her sound installation I Keep Falling at You at “Sound Art: Sound as a Medium of Art” at ZKM (from March 2012 through Jan. 2013). Gupta hung more than one thousand of microphones from the ceiling, as if they were a bunch of ripe grapes or a swarm of bees in the nests. She deftly composed the digital material to natural shape. Her sound installation is better hearing than explaining. I Keep Falling at You is an audio art piece as well as a visual one. The voice from multiple microphones chants: “I keep falling at you. But I keep falling at you…” “Your garden is growing on me, I will take it away with me.” This colonial metaphor is transmitted by means of multi-channel sound effects which give the audience a touch of unease, yet forced upon us the idea of unavoidable globalisation which is threatening our daily life.
In Untitled (2004-5), Gupta proposed a question about autonomy and the heaviness of the multiple roles played by women in society today. On the screen of this interactive video, seven women are dressed differently to appear as if they are playing various roles. Standing at a certain distance from one another, they act or react only by command made from the audience who touched on the screen. Each figure moves, runs or jumps only by command. Their rigid movement looks awkward, as if these seven women figures were puppets or robots with no real life of their own.
Gupta’s investigation of female roles never restricts her concerns for nation-state issues. While the nation-state issue in today’s globalised world has become the state of floating, invisible boundaries. In 2009 Lyon Biennale (curated by Hou Hanru), Gupta made a metal gate with sharp points on its top. The gate embodied a message of no welcome. By detecting the movement of the viewers from hidden sensors, the gate can automatically open or close with high pitched noise. As a result the gate repeatedly hit the walls as interacting with the movements of the audience, the metal gate eventually damaged the wall.
Warfare, the conflict between nations and different religions, has caused tremendous anxiety mixed with depression. Gupta uses her art as a media to explore the angst and to examine its cause. In earlier work Blame(2002) which she created in the same year of the 2002 Gujarat genocide, the tragedy resulted in thousands of Muslims deaths, Gupta distributed bottles of simulated blood in and around Mumbai train stations. The inscription labelled on the bottle read: “blaming you makes me feel so good, so I blame you for what you cannot control – your religion, your nationality.” Through this artwork, Gupta challenged the frontiers and limitations of human-nature in conflict.
In Half Widows (2006), Gupta set a camera on the ceiling to capture a solitary female figure in white dress. The woman was anxiously wondering around and moving across on the white floor. She recited and murmured to herself: “he said he loves me,” “he loves me,” “he is back.” The shifting tense in her words showed that her thoughts were not staying in a stable state, but kept floating from past to present, then from present to past. She fantasised that her husband is still alive. Her words were addressed to him, or were simply prayer. Yet her spirit remained unsettled. Her own existence was completely occupied by the worries of her husband’s unknown situation.
Gupta often hid a live camera to capture viewers’ movements and to interact with her works. Two microphones of In Our Times (2008) swing back and forth due to the interaction with the camera. The microphones broadcasted different speeches by Jinnah and Nehru at the time of Independence of India and Pakistan in August 1947. It seemed to create a debate or conversation through the swinging. Because of the interdependence between the viewers and the artist, Gupta’s artwork became an experience created by the viewers.
In Speaking Wall (2010), Gupta set a row of bricks toward against the wall. As always, she has embedded a motion sensor in the wall to detect the distance of the viewer from the wall. According to the distance the order from the wall is transmitted, to tell the viewer stepping ahead: “Step a bit closer… closer… But you are still unable to see me. And the distance is convenient.” “One step forward. So its fine. So I no longer need your ID. No longer need to know your name, your religion, your sex, and the place you come from…” Finally the wall announces: “I am no longer able to enter my house.” By this announcement, the wall presented an absolute border.
Gupta’s most up-to-date project is to continue her touring solo exhibition titled “Will We Ever Be Able to Mark Enough.” As an ambitious Asian woman artist, she provides her subjective vision of the world. This exhibition toured to Canada in 2011, Belgium in 2012 and this year will be showing in Austria in May until July. Among the works of this touring project, Cages and Threat are specifically provocative and thoughtful. Gupta sets three rusty metal cages, one inside the other. The cages suggest the air of imprisonment, lack of freedom, and entrapment. Although the viewers stand outside of the cage, the cages cast bizarre shadows which cause a vibe of claustrophobia. In the same exhibiting space, she built a wall of brown soap bars which were inscribed “threat.” Different from the usual process of an exhibition in which artworks can be sold to arts patronage, Threat is not for sale but given away. Viewers are encouraged to take a “threat” soap back home to use. By using the soap, the participant is diminishing the “threat.” Through this practice, Gupta’s work initially challenges the producing – selling process of regular art economy. Meanwhile Gupta induces the viewers to cross the boundary of viewing and, to further participate in her art praxis to eliminate threat by means of mundane actions.
Gupta’s works examine borders of all kinds, be that visible and invisible, not only globalisation but its effects on our everyday living. She explores the polarities of angst and security, and involves viewers’ approaching in her art practice. The interaction with the participants is intuitive, often challenging, by arousing their emotional state of insecurity or security. And so, Gupta’s investigation of global capitalism, women’s concerns, human rights, militarism, and consumerism could be directly relevant to viewers’ personal experience. By blurring the roles of artist and viewer, a fluidity but interdependence of both sides would be able to complete the core value of Gupta’s art praxis.
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