THE KHOJ BOOK Interview with Shilpa Gupta

In your works, forms are overlapped but often painted on different planes that maintain an unsettling distance between them. In Penumbra Passage (Canine Cases), from 2007,for example, the figure blankly looks at the viewer unaware of the stain near its mouth; or in Pulse 30,from 2002, two-dimensional figures from mythology rendered in great detail lie on top of a tactile three-dimensional piece of bread. This way of painting affects the way meaning gets formed, not instantaneously visually but in the mind. Why do you employ this approach?

Yes, the tentativeness of meaning created by certain juxtapositions can be quite discomforting. The relationship between images is kept provisional. I often employ this approach when I’m trying to make a connection between people or objects and yet it is not meant to be conclusive. For instance, Penumbra Passage (Canine Cases) comprises of a series of portraits of ordinary people/civilians from India and Pakistan, with their faces blemished by the silhouette of the disputed territory often referred to as POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir). The portraits are put in grand frames like those of royal descendants, while the map of the land that remains at the core of the dispute between the two neighbouring countries casts a shadow over these, haunting us with tales from the region.

When a lot of art is becoming instantaneous, you continue to use the structure of narrative, where elements of mythology are woven with factual data, so that the viewer decodes a work over time. Mythology, especially, has been a reference point for several artists in India. I was wondering what you think about using it at a time when people are increasingly unaware of the meanings it contains?

I use Indian mythology because I find it extremely interesting and an incredibly rich source of ideas and images. Artworks always carry the potential of being misread and misunderstood, given that they get exhibited in different venues across the world. That doesn’t discourage me, although I increasingly want to back my work up with information that assists an understanding of the context in which it was produced.

Besides mythology, I often like to take off from a familiar object or story that comes with its own set of associations and then, by the slightest alteration, inject fresh meaning. My sculptures Memoria Corona and Memoria Mausolea are examples where a pre-existing object becomes a starting point for the work. Memoria Corona was modelled on Elizabeth II’s crown in which rests the precious Kohinoor diamond that India lost to the British Empire. I inscribed the names of Indian freedom fighters on the surface of this symbol of authority and power because I wanted the crown to bear the weight of other precious treasures, the human lives that were also lost to the British Empire.

Memoria Mausolea was modelled on Bombay’s Gateway of India, which was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911. Although it was built as a gateway ‘to’ India, the last convoy of British troops, the Somerset Light Infantry, ‘exited’ the country through it in 1948. By enveloping it with perished colonial names of streets in Mumbai, which have now been replaced with indigenous names, I wanted this monument to be playfully remembered for the end of the British Empire.

Can you tell us a little bit about your working process? How do your ideas develop and do you generally work in long series?

At any given point there will be a bunch of ideas I’m toying with at different stages of completion. A certain amount of groundwork is often needed before things can take on a more definitive form. It’s then that decisions about media come into play. In a more recent series of portraits titled Synonym, for example, I’ve employed rubber stamps, which are normally used for official purposes. Since the portraits carry names out of official police records of those who’ve gone missing, I decided to bring them to the surface of the work. Depending on how far an idea needs to travel to reach its optimum effectiveness, a work may or may not grow into a series.

Has there been a clear evolution from one media/form to another or have you jumped about?

I have always worked between media, from my early days at Sir JJ School of Art in 1993 onwards. My debut solo exhibition in 1998, for instance, held simultaneously at Gallery Chemould and Pundole Art Gallery in Mumbai, comprised both paintings and sculptural installations, including the house of cards series Orchard of Home-grown Secrets, the photographic translites Escapades of the Ladder Occupants and a walk-in installation called Joint Family. Content takes precedence over form or medium for me: I like working with whatever medium best carries out the idea.

Where does your interest in storytelling come from? Do you have a favourite story?

We’ve all grown up listening to stories, reading comics and watching epics on television. However, it wasn’t until after I finished college in 1996 that my interest in the narrative school of painting evolved. I took a diploma in Indian aesthetics at Rachana Sansad, affiliated to Bombay University that gave me a more holistic perspective on Indian culture.

Among the stories that have captivated me is one from the Hindu Puranas called the Samudra ManthanSamudra,as we know, means ‘the ocean’ and manthan means ‘to churn’. In this particular episode, the gods lose their powers due to an instance of arrogance and need the assistance of demons in order to churn the ocean to obtain nectar that can empower them again. They cast a number of herbs into the ocean and the churning produces several objects and beings that are served as symbolic offerings to please the demi-gods. Some truly fantastical forms emerge, such as the Kamadhenu or the wish-granting cow. This became a generative point of departure for a sculptural installation titled Saline, a piece made up of 150 parts.

As artists we primarily operate in galleries, yet only a miniscule section of our society visits them. With such low visibility what do you think is the role and function of art?

Art has always played several roles in society, including recording change and raising awareness on issues. Besides tickling the spirit, it can comment, critique and challenge existing ideas by generating dialogue. This can happen both inside and outside the gallery. While some works are best suited to being viewed within the clean white space of the gallery, other art interfaces, perhaps even on the street, promote more participation from a wider audience, which democratises access. However, the circulation of images through books and catalogues is a powerful means for certain works of art to reach beyond their immediate use value as exhibits.

Just as I would not undermine the effectiveness and impact of a short performance, I would not be demoralised or discouraged about the legitimacy and role of art just because limited numbers of people frequent galleries. Not only are the numbers growing, but also the works themselves have gained larger mobility by being showcased in multiple venues across the globe. It remains true though that there is a dearth of platforms for public intervention, especially in India where there is no state support for the arts.

Braids of leaves have been a constant recurrence in your work, be they in painting, floor installations or interactive performances. What do they signify?

They have served varied purposes in different works. They first made an appearance in a sculpture from 1998 titled Joint Family, where the leaves wrap aroundthe surface of houses made of packaging material that are inserted one into the other. Like an overgrown family tree, they hold up images offering clues that might uncover family secrets.

In a triptych called Braiding the Line,made in 2002, I posit the last incarnation of Vishnu as Kalki, in the form of a fisherman. His net, woven with leaves, is unfurled to reveal the colours of the Indian national flag or what might be seen as the colours of the changing seasons. Motifs from aquatic, bird, animal and human life are interwoven with the leaves, offered as samples that could be carried on to the next era after the end of the world. The leaves are often a visual apparatus for inserting or depositing other images.

In Birds of Steel made in 2006,the romantic idea of the skies as being boundless is marred by the threatening image of several airplanes that leave behind a sinister trail of black twines. Birds of Steel works by juxtaposing motifs of border disputes and invasions against the liberating image of the open sky.

Why do you use POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) as a symbol in several works? Do you have personal connections to the region or do you relate to it for broader political/humanitarian reasons?

My father was born in Lahore and moved to Punjab before Partition, and, as a young girl, I grew up listening to stories about his ancestral home. However, this hasn’t had a direct bearing on my practice. More important, I suspect, was my exposure to art with a strong social conscience, which was prevalent in the early 1990s when I was a student.I think an artist’s work can be independent of his or her personal history.

Pakistan Occupied Kashmir has been the nucleus of conflict between India and Pakistan since 1947. Its territorial form begins to function as a symbol of this strained relationship between the two neighbours, as well as of human folly. In Penumbra, I showed the disputed territory in a cold, unsettling stainless steel cradle. It’s in limbo, as are its people, rocked back and forth by political agendas and myopic policies.

As well as participating in the Khoj workshop in Mysore you helped organise Khoj Mumbai in 2005. What were those experiences like?

I think Khoj played a vital role in the late 1990s and early 2000s when there weren’t many opportunities for artists to travel and work alongside others from different parts of the world. And although there are many more openings now, I continue to value that experience of sharing an experimental studio/laboratory with others. It encourages the extension of art practice into the public sphere. Khoj’s decision to constantly bring in new hands and fresh energy is particularly important: it helps revise and renew the model year after year.