Cosmic Battles Waged in Aesthetic Orbits: Latest Exhibition of Subodh Gupta
by Johny ML
Down here among the mortals a fierce war is being fought. The world has not yet decided which side to take; that of Russia or of Ukraine. But everyone knows they have to ultimately take a side; and yes, they have more or less zeroed in on the side of their choice - that of humanity. Forget the geopolitics, they say. Whatever be the case, we want human beings, and that too the vulnerable of the lot, to be safe and beyond the brutal pain that the wars are notorious for inflicting upon the fleeing. From the safety of warfare elsewhere, unlike in the yesteryears, war is no longer exciting like the pyrotechnics that used to light up the huge flat-screen television sets. The title ‘Cosmic Battle’ of Subodh Gupta’s latest solo exhibition at Nature Morte, New Delhi, sounds like an eerie coincidence though the artist has been at it for the last one decade or so. I mean, bringing the pain of battles and displacements in his enormous and impressive installations.
‘Cosmic Battle', the installation that provides the catchy title to the show, is an apt reification for the saying ‘suspended animation’. The phrase suggests the contrary meaning though it has the ability to show something in suspension and also in animation at once, even if the intention is to underline the frozenness of the situation. The stalemate of a confrontation may be a distant possibility when it comes to cosmic affairs, unlike the universal / global affairs like war. The suspension from the ‘dark nowhere’ is how the cosmos is described, sometimes in the form of a golden egg / Hiranyagarbha or in the form of a ghata / pot. Noted art historian BN Goswami writes in his essay titled ‘Engaging with Vastness’, “Hiranyagarbha is spoken of as being ‘present at the beginning’, ‘upholding this earth and heaven’, ‘whose commands all beings, even the gods, obey’, ‘whose shadow is immortality, whose (shadow also) is death’.” May be, for the ones who have keen eyes could see in Gupta’s ‘Cosmic Battle’ the definitional specificities given by Prof. Goswami.
The kinetic slowness imparted to the work through a mechanism that emulates the impalpable rotation of the earth itself adds a certain amount of conceptual magnanimity to the moderate size of the sculptural body (in comparison with the sheer size of the earlier indoor works of Gupta) and also invites the viewers for a virtual circumambulation around the object while being stationed at one place of viewing (depending on the entrance to the space where the work is hung). The unheard music (anhad garje, as said by the saint poet Kabir) reminds the visitors of the cosmic music generated by the celestial spheres along their elliptical paths. While the religious philosophy of the land is affirmative about the conception of cosmos as an Earthen Pot or as a Golden Egg, the battle that takes place could be attributive, reflecting the contemporary global conflicts that cause the residual humans as refugees and homeless.
Size does matter when artist superstars are back in the gallery circuit. The obvious hugeness of Gupta’s works in many ways resembles the same enormity brought to being in the works of Anish Kapoor. It does not mean that Gupta imitates Kapoor or vice versa. On the contrary they share a common world view at least in the creation of aesthetics, that the object-hood of the works is important, the reflection on their smooth surfaces is an imperative, and invariably the reflections should not correspond to the actual thoughts that the art should evoke in the minds of the viewers. There is a physical play between the surface truth of their works and the positioning of the viewers in front of them. Distortions and displacements caused by the imperfect reflections goad the viewers to find meanings beyond the object-nature of the works. As Althusser puts it, it is not the artist who keeps certain relationship with the objects that he creates but the objects that make a relationship with the artist. Going by this view, the (art) objects remain in the realm of artist’s biography and history so far, establishing constant connections even if artist wants to detach himself from them and leave them as independent objects for aesthetic contemplation.
Self Portrait (Detail)
These inextricable knots that the works of art generate in relation with the artist more or less open up the entry points in Gupta’s two other works exhibited in the same premises. The objects as a whole do not create a coherent continuity with the familiar aesthetics of Gupta. Though the hallmark vessels do establish a Gupta touch in them, the disparity lies in their organization in this work. A note that accompanies the show says that this works in fact look like a crashing down of Gupta’s works in the middle of the gallery and refused to be scavenged out. It could be one of the cruelest of qualifications that any work of art can get from a gallery introduction. Notwithstanding the cruelty of the statement there is a methodical madness in the disembowelment of the virtual pregnancy of Gupta’s vision. The heap thus generated however does not evoke revulsion but demand a mental engagement with the components as if it really were a Gupta jigsaw puzzle. In that mental engagement the continuity is established and the deliberate and accidental quirkiness of Gupta’s sarcastic and ironic takes on the Indian community practices unravel itself. The ‘sleepers’, the wooden planks that held the rails in place, come as a visual suggestion or a quotation from the autobiography of the artist, a further claim of authenticity and continuity, perhaps an assertion that Gupta needs any more but too close to his heart to resist.
A myth maker as he is Gupta often tells a story around his works, harking back to the real and imaginary incidents that had colored his childhood. A keen follower of Gupta’s speeches in various exhibition venues all over the world available in YouTube could see how he twists and turns the same incident into stories suitable to explain his work in question. The articulation is deliberately patchy, moving beyond the logic of imperfect English, a language that allows any linguistic community a tricky access to his works and through that he helps his works stand erect like the one you see in his ‘Torso’, a third work in the exhibition. Torso brings art historical torsos, Gomateswara of Sravanabelagola, the mutilated torsos of rampant communal violence and wars near and far, in mind. Also it is a torso in the making or in the process of abandonment. It is emblematic to the ambitions of a maker, someone who aspires eternity but fails to deliver. Could it be a surreptitious commentary on the present Indian political leadership that revels in making statues that are finished physically but never achieved their conceptual completion in the intellectual sphere? One cannot be sure. Like Kapoor, Gupta cannot hide his cultural roots in the magnificent nature of sculptures; he has to give a hint of his socio-cultural belongingness. Or is Gupta a prisoner of his own image repertoire?
Johny ML is a writer, translator, art historian, art critic, art curator, poet and a prolific blogger. His writings related to the arts, culture and politics have been published in several print magazines, newspapers and weeklies in English and Malayalam. He has also founded and edited many popular online art journals. One of the pioneering curators in India, he has curated high-profile group shows and camps throughout India. His blog is a platform for his continuous response to various issues he addresses within the art world, literature and a variety of other realms. Johny ML lives and works between Trivandrum and Delhi.
(Reproduced from www.johnyml.blogspot.com with permission of Johny ML.)