Endlessly fascinated by everyday objects and the intimate rituals of Indian home life, Subodh Gupta has produced a new series of subdued and contemplative works. The soft-spoken 46-year-old artist is known for creating glitzy installations made from accumulations of found objects, like the gleaming stainless-steel thali pans and milk pails of Very Hungry God (2006). That monumental, 2000-pound, skull-shaped sculpture earned him the moniker “the Damien Hirst of Dehli.” In a deliberate shift, Gupta has created a less flamboyant grouping for “A glass of water” at Hauser & Wirth, his first solo New York exhibition in three years. The show features photorealistic paintings as well as sculptures and installations based on modest items like a cup of water, a tailor’s measuring tape, a shirt button and a broken oil lamp.
“This is new for me, this is the first time that I have enlarged an object into a sculpture,” Gupta told A.i.A. just prior to the opening. The artist regularly harvests discarded items from a scrap-yard outside of New Delhi, the city where he makes his home with fellow artist and wife Bharti Kher and their two children. Working with a foundry in Shanghai, Gupta rehabilitated a group of unexceptional castoffs, like a bent and rusted sieve, into large-scale heroic sculptures made of bronze, copper and stainless steel.
While massive scale and a gallery context transform the objects into contemporary works of art, a poetic impulse motivates the artist. “I kept the broken lamp in my studio for three years, observing it every day, before I decided to make it into a sculpture. The original objects have a history and have lived a life, arriving at a place where they have no value except for their weight and maybe the material. Bringing them back to life is what’s interesting for me,” said Gupta.
Cooking is one of the artist’s favorite pastimes, and food features prominently in this show. Resting on a simple wooden table, Atta (2011) portrays a mound of chipati dough, enough to feed over 25 people according to the artist. Made of bronze and dusted with real flour, the “dough” evokes an everyday cooking ritual that Gupta says he experienced as a child “For Indian families,” he adds, “the kitchen is almost a sacred place.” Gupta has often said that his representation of kitchen utensils, along with his incorporation of food-related imagery, points both to the daily rituals of making and consuming food and to the reality that many do not have enough to eat in a place where excess and poverty live hand in hand.
Although Gupta’s latest works are more austere than his previous output, his theatrical side continues on. In Atta (2011), kneaded dough has been abandoned in the midst of preparation, and the deserted, lifelike domestic scene appears very much like props on a stage set. Gupta attributes his flare for the dramatic to his time as an as an actor, when as a youth he participated in small theater groups in his hometown, Khagaul. “The way I display my work, the way I place things, I do feel like sometimes, yes, it’s like a stage. I feel very close to the work as if it’s a part of me,” he said. Theatricality, according to Subodh, can even be found in the way an untitled piece from 2011, an enlarged brass button, inhabits its stagelike plinth.
With intimate references to Indian customs, both religious and secular, is it possible that global audiences may miss their meaning? While work like I Believe You of 2009 in which Gupta loaded a large thali pan used for making offerings to Hindu gods with the worn-out shoes of day laborers as an homage to the “common man,” may not be fully translatable, Gupta maintains that cultural specificity bows somehow to art: “Artists are going to reflect their own culture, their own society, but the language of art is the same all over the world.”
“Subodh Gupta: A glass of water” at Hauser & Wirth New York, May 5–June 18