Subodh Gupta was born in 1964 in Bihar and now lives and works in Gurgaon, India. Despite training as a painter at the College of Art and Craft in Patna, Gupta is today mostly known for working with everyday objects that are ubiquitous throughout India, such as the mass-produced steel kitchen utensils that millions of Indian families own, and his works have been exhibited in prestigious museums, art fairs and biennales throughout the world.
In this interview, Gupta talks about his recent solo exhibition Anhad/Unstruck (9 December 2016–7 January 2017), which was staged at Famous Studio, located in the Mahalaxmi district of Mumbai. Organised with Nature Morte Gallery, this is Gupta's first major exhibition in Mumbai in nine years, following his show at Bodhi Art Gallery in 2007. It featured large metallic works, including Birth of a Star (2016), a large stainless steel sphere that looks as though it has been squeezed down the middle by a tube of light, and Aakash, Patal, Dharti/Space, Depth, Surface (2016), an 11-ft-tall box made from crushed utensils and scrap cloth, within which performers stood on the opening night, staring out from the cracks.
TMCan you discuss your recent exhibition at Mumbai's Famous Studio? I understand that it's a very particular space, different from any space that you have exhibited in before.
SGYes, It's actually a movie studio! Most of the time it's completely booked out because they film television shows, movies and advertisements there. But my gallery, Nature Morte, booked the largest space specifically for this exhibition.
TMDid you choose this space specifically as an alternative to the white cube?
SGChoosing the location was of course a joint decision between my gallery and I. I hadn't done a show in Mumbai in a long time. The first time Nature Morte took me to see the space, despite not being able to fully see it because of all the television sets that were in place, I was immediately excited about it. I always find working with unconventional spaces to be exciting, as the work takes on a life and form of its own in the space. Also, the fact that it was a film studio was also of course very close to my heart. I've always been close to performance, as I started out in street theatre before I became an artist and my work often has a strong performative element. That performative element really came through in a lot of the work in this show, so it was interesting to have it occupying a space that has been created for performances of a different kind.
TMIn recent years, metal seems to have become your signature material, though it does seem as though you are pushing your use of materiality further than ever for Anahad/Unstruck. For example, in Birth of a Star, although metal is the dominant material, the use of light becomes the moment of tension and focus in the work, due to the way it is wrapped around the middle of the sculpture. Furthermore, in Krodh (Rage) (2016), in which a chain is picked up by an electromagnet from a steel bowl and dropped at intervals, you are integrating sound and a more performative aspect to your installation. Can you tell us more about this new shift in materiality?
SGI don't know how I feel about a 'signature' material, because as an artist, I'm always looking and exploring different materials. But yes, what is very exciting to me about stainless steel and aluminum is that despite having worked with it for so many years, I still find something new about it every time—a different aspect to play with. But I wouldn't say there is a dramatic difference in the works of these shows. For me, the progression to this point has been really natural and organic. The paintings in the show, for example, are special because they kind of bring together my training and identity as a painter with my sculptural practice, and they include the LED light, which is something I started playing around with in my work in the nineties. So, it's always nice to get to make works that are really speaking to so many elements that I'm interested in, both materially and conceptually. Sound is also something that I've been fascinated with and tried to capture in many of my works: the sounds of utensils falling [Still Life Juggler (2008)] or the sound of them being washed [Jootha (2005)]. I have two works in this show that are exploring this element, but not with a pre-recorded sound as I have done in the past, but rather with the sound being produced by the work itself: a 'live' sound in some sense.
TMThere are completely new works in this exhibition, which some may argue are a slightly different direction for you. In Birth of a Star and Krodh (Rage) for example, we see you engaging more with light and sound. This engagement differs from your past practice, which was more focused on found-object assemblages. What was the starting point for this new work?
SGSurroundings, life; our surroundings, where we are. Interesting thing, though: the other day I was watching something—I don't know which artist's work—in a dark room, and there was a very tiny light, like yellow or red, sometimes purple, and blinking. Sometimes when you go to bed, and you've switched off all the lights, you find there is some light still blinking: you see the switch light of the AC or your computer, or a DVD player, television set, or something. Some are red, or yellow, or green, and the artist's work reminded me of that. He must be getting hints from here, right? We are all surrounded with a very similar thing, and we are very much looking at the same thing, but someone picks up on something very tiny and personal—something that you did not pick up on, even if you looked at that same thing, too. So in the same way, sound work is not coming from somewhere else, sound is coming from us, like where we are and what we are surrounded with.
TMYes, everyone has his or her own gaze and perspective. I guess that is also something that shifts when you go to a new environment because everything's almost the same, but with some little differences.
SGAbsolutely. In terms of what it is going to look like physically, it's really minimal, but it's a dramatic show. The works are big. They're ambitious more than they're big in size; I think they're very experimental. A lot of them are light, there's a lot of delicate calibration—even the paintings have lights.
TMCan you speak about your background in performance and how it may have informed this new body of work in the Mumbai show?
SGAs I mentioned earlier, I have roots in performance from before I even became an artist. Also, performance has been a key part of my practice from the very beginning, with works like Pure (1999) and Spirit Eaters (2012). However, what's interesting about this body of work is that while they aren't by any means 'performance' pieces, they have strong performative elements. In Krodh (Rage), for example, there's a magnet pulling up a chain and each time it lifts the chain it's twisted in a different position. Each time the chain is released it falls in a different way, almost like watching a contortionist putting on a show. Similarly, in Anahad (Unstruck Sound) (2015), the viewer is implicated in the performance, as one's reflection is what one sees on this mirror sheet, and as it begins vibrating, one's own reflection is destroyed. In Aakaash, Pataal, Dharti (Space, Depth, Surface), there were more literal performative elements, as during the opening I had performers staring out at viewers from within the cracks and gaps of the sculpture. It was very subtle, but unnerving, because initially you didn't notice the performance. But if you happened to get up close, you suddenly saw an eye looking back at you.
TMI understand there has been a lot of production for this exhibition. How long has the studio been based in the industrial area of Gurgaon for?
SGNot long, just two or three years. I moved here because the kind of work I was making—the neighbours were complaining at my previous studio location. Trucks were everywhere! Especially when you're having a show, and the work is constantly arriving and departing. They didn't like it! But do they like me here in Gurgaon, plus I've been very quiet! I was in Gurgaon previously too, but in a more residential area.
TMHow does the team work here in the studio?
SGIt's a small team actually, six or seven people. It's like a small family.
TMHow was the reception of your work for Anahad/Unstruck? What feedback have you received from the show?
SGI got a lot of good feedback, and most importantly I had a great time putting together this show and was quite pleased with the results. But perhaps it would be best if you asked others how they liked it; I'm not so sure I'm the best person to answer this question!
TMCan you tell us what you are working on now following this Mumbai show? What are your major projects, exhibitions and residencies for 2017?
SGThe day after the Mumbai show opened, I hardly had a second to catch my breath because I had a solo show open in January at Warwick Arts Centre. Now I have a big show with my gallery in Italy, Galleria Continua, which will open in their space in Sam Gimignano in May. All of my energies are focused on that show as of now. I will also likely be showing a large work at the Smithsonian in the United States later this year. Plus, a bunch of really immersive projects that are still taking shape, so yes, very busy! —[O]