Upon seeing Subodh Gupta’s Silk Route(2007) last spring at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, in Gateshead, England, visitors may well have thought they had wandered into a vast Indian kitchen in perpetual, dizzying motion. Towers of tiffin pots—the stackable stainless steel containers Indians use to store food—zigzagged around the gallery on the sort of waist-high conveyor belt you might find in a sushi restaurant. The installation, typical of Gupta’s deceptively simple works made of everyday objects, manages to refer to stereotypes of Indian life, rapidly changing routines in a global economy, and key historical cross-cultural exchanges.
“Like 80 percent of the population in India, I grew up carrying my lunch in these tiffin pots,” says the 43-year-old artist, a stern-looking but soft-spoken man who grew up in the countryside and now resides in Delhi. “In modern India sushi restaurants are opening up all over, but the history of the Silk Route, a route of trade across India and Asia, goes back centuries. The objects I pick already have their own significance. I put them together to create new meanings.”
Another of Gupta’s tiffin-pot sculptures, a giant skull titled Very Hungry God (2006), gained new meaning and iconic status last summer in Venice, standing guard on a platform in the Grand Canal outside the Palazzo Grassi. “The work speaks to the cultural context through the skull imagery, which is an omnipresent motif in Venetian art and architecture,” says Alison Gingeras, chief curator at the palace, which shows works from Fran§ois Pinault’s collection. “The overlap between the very precise cultural meaning relating to Gupta’s home country and the particular iconography of the city of Venice has made this work not only a huge popular success, but also has given rise to a rich cross-cultural and art-historical dialogue.”
Gupta has always grappled with complex issues of identity, nostalgia, and stereotyping. Despite his thoughtfulness, he developed something of a bad-boy reputation in the Indian art world with works such as a video in which he appears nude. Yet today he is as likely to temper these serious subjects with gentle humor as to draw attention through provocation.
Cow (2005), a cast-bronze bicycle hung with shiny aluminum buckets, embodies the idea that “the bicycle is like a mechanized cow in the city,” explains Gupta. “In the country if I wanted milk, I would go to the cows to get it; in the city it is delivered to you by bicycle.” The polished finish of the work is appropriate for an object of veneration, which both cows and art are in different cultural contexts. Gupta has also worked with cow dung to explore the contrasts between city and country, old and new. In his video Pure (2000), the artist, thickly covered in manure, is slowly hosed off until he is naked. “Where I grew up, cow dung was used for spiritual cleansing,” he says, “something no longer believed in the city.”
Born in 1964, Gupta was brought up in a Bihar railway town called Khagaul. “Probably 99 percent of people working worked for the railway, including my father and brother,” he says. “The railway company paid for nice things, like two swimming pools and a club, and a movie played every morning. But at the same time, it was like a Wild West frontier town; almost every day someone was murdered.” Gupta studied art even though the school had no teacher. “We would all just meet and read books, talk, and make art. We learned from each other.”
Gupta moved to the city more than 20 years ago and is married to another of India’s best-known artists, Bharti Kher, with whom he has two children. He keeps a studio to make paintings, videos, and installations, but as with many artists of his stature much of his sculpture is fabricated off-site. Gupta readily acknowledges the blending of practices and influences. “My work is about where I come from,” he says. “But at the same time the expansion of the art world means that to a certain extent, everything is shrinking together, and you have to be aware of international discourses in your work.”
Certainly Gupta deals with Indian themes in a way that appeals to the Western eye. Since exhibiting at such venues as the Venice Biennale and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005, he has become one of the most prominent figures of the Indian art boom. Outside of Delhi, where he shows at Nature Morte, he is represented by Art & Public in Geneva and Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, where he will have a solo exhibition next February.
The Pinault-owned skull, a vanitas par excellence, reminds visitors of the transitory quality of earthly pleasures. But as with Gupta’s other sculptures, the tiffin pots and stainless steel buckets that make up the work carry specific, personal meanings in this world. “Buckets are very resonant to me,” says Gupta. “Where I grew up, big families lived together, and taking the bucket meant you were going to bathe. It’s all creating a juxtaposition between the personal and something bigger.”