The work of Shilpa Gupta has a singular ability
to touch its viewers. It conveys complex issues in terms that can be readily
understood and entered into, and does so with emotional force. This ability
to make human connections across life experiences, across distance and
across cultures in order to engage a dialogue about the landscapes of
our lives is more than feature of the artist’s work; it is profoundly
at its heart.
Gupta’s work raises questions: What are these
dangers that beset us? What are we (being made) afraid of? In the global
rhetoric about, and management of, “terror”, we are made anxious
about threats that are unlikely to reach us, or against which we can do
little to prepare or which may be (as her works often suggest) illusory,
manufactured. We fear and internalize external danger. We are made afraid
of difference. We are made afraid of a generalized potential of terror
or danger whose reach is unknown and perhaps without limit – or
perhaps imagined, a figment of our fearful projections.
Threat conjures such a wall. It is made of hundreds
of soap bricks, stacked two deep, each imprinted with the word THREAT.
Inscribed across the surface of each cast brick, the cadence of “threat”
is reiterated throughout the length and depth of the wall.
Walled landscapes are not restricted to borders
between nation-states; they are found as well in urban geography, in gated
communities and other barriers (both symbolic and material) within the
built environment that define zones of separation, often along axes of
economic difference. Walls concretize and enforce division, and mark into
the landscape that which is included and that which is excluded. The exposed
bricks of Threat, easily grasped, can also evoke the action of street
protest or riots, when bricks are loosened and used as weapons. The wall
is “built” of threat, but torn down by other actions. In this
installation, however, the wall is low – a barrier, yet traversable.
Is the low wall, with its exposed upper edge, in the process of being
built, or torn down?
Gupta resists programs of fear. Her work puts them at issue, destabilizing their grasp. This is not a naïve denial of politics, of its harsh or contested realities. Rather, through her work, she interrogates ready assumptions, be they of power, of a single point of view, or the unquestioning implementation of rote repressive routines. Her approach is not confrontational; rather, it articulates of another point of view that shifts the axes of perception.
Consider air travel today, with its securitizing
processes that, in effect, place all passengers under suspicion, and compel
(discipline!) their passive submission to scrutiny extending from their
personal effects to their bodies. In There is No Explosive in This—Objects
Confiscated at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, Montreal
2011, Gupta approaches this matter obliquely.
The objects have been re-mediated by the artist to introduce a third level of interpretation that again dramatically alters their connotations. Each object has been wrapped in a loose-woven, unbleached cloth that adheres to and reveals the object’s form, and sewn shut with small hand stitches. The wrapped objects are placed on a white table covered with an unfinished unbleached cotton cloth. The shape of the muslin packages reveals the outline of many of the wrapped items, and the light weave of the fabric discloses some details of the objects within. Yet overall, their identity is erased and replaced by their formal and aesthetic values: made innocent again, but in a new and different way. We may know what they were, but we no longer know what they are. In particular, the visible stitching, disclosing the meticulous labours of a hand, a body, a human presence, lends the objects a sense of vulnerability and tenderness, and may even recall shrouds. Indeed, the anonymous white objects, spot lit on the white table in a dimly lit room, have the kind of ethereal presence commonly associated with religious or ceremonial altars. Their original function set aside, mute and still, they have become ambiguous, mysterious, unsettling objects of interpretation.
Another mute object in the exhibition is less ambiguous, its brute presence at a considerable remove from the poetic transformations of the confiscated objects. Untitled (Cage) consists of three nested metal cages of graduated sizes. The cages are rusty, suggesting a timeworn, even archaic, device; suspended from the ceiling, they cast shadows on the floor that reiterate the patterns of enclosure and threaten to ensnare the beholder. The cages suggest an infinite regress of entrapments and barriers, each portal leading to an ever narrower entrapment, or in the other direction, to a more spacious yet still claustrophobic confinement. The menacing work manifestly and powerfully addresses issues of injustice, and indeed another edition of the piece was shown in an exhibition on precisely that theme.1 The cages also raise issues of power and surveillance. Gupta’s approach to these issues is a layered one, and the captivity and entrapment she alludes to may be mental, emotional, metaphorical. Each cage has a door with a simple latch that can be opened or closed: thus, though not obvious since it is also made of metal bars that blend into the overall pattern of the structure, each cage has an exit, or at least the possibility of one. On entering the installation in Montreal, I found that an unobserved member of the public had illustrated this possibility by opening all the doors. Many of Gupta’s works are interactive; although this one is not evidently so, in this instance the potential she proposed proved irresistible.
The sense of obstruction, of action thwarted, suggested in the successive metal pens in Untitled (Cage) is reiterated in another untitled work, whose structure of impassable doors likewise speaks to conditions of futility and entrapment. Here, seven vintage wooden doors from domestic interiors typical of older Montreal homes are hinged together, fanning out around a central core. Thus anchored, each door is both bound to and barred by the next; each transits to nowhere. The aged and weathered condition of the doors further suggests an implacable state. The door—metaphor for passage, portal to another scene—here conveys a state of fixity that evokes the all-too-familiar (though variously political) scenario of cascading inflexibility that sends the would-be petitioner pointlessly from door to door, bureau to bureau, authority to authority, in an endless loop of frustrated aims.
All of these work address structures of power and
authority, while challenging conformity and passivity. This critical position
is given a spoken voice in another work, in the refrain of the narrator
of Half Widows deriding obedience and blind allegiance:
Of the causes of conflict and division between people
and nations, borders and territorial politics are among the most trenchant.
Several of Gupta’s works have examined the shifting nexus of nation-state,
borders and identity—perhaps none more poignantly than Half Widows,
which addresses the emotional and social ruptures of war and its impasses.
In this installation, a video projection onto the floor of the gallery shows a solitary female figure, seen from above, moving across a white floor. Her actions replicate a game played by children in India, of stones tossed, then followed in ordered steps; but here the grown woman seems caught in a game of chance, hop-scotching back and forth across cracks that mark and divide the ground, tossing stones in the air and following where they land. In this random game that is not a game, where volition is subjected to chance, what path can she take?
A woman’s voice is heard on the tape: the voice of the woman left behind, expressing bereavement, bewilderment, dissent.
He runs away
The militant and the woman share a land (I know you are seeing the sun I see) but no longer share a life. The relationship shapes her existence, yet he is no longer a part of it (Why does your smell not leave with you?). She changes tense as she speaks, shifting from past (he said he loved me) to present (he loves me) to future (he will come). She imagines him alive, and speaks to him; she imagines him dead, and wonders, Do dead people love? The incursion of conflict and war into their lives and the diverging paths it imposes wrenches their intimate bonds. I didn’t marry the land, she says, I am jealous of the land he loved more than me. The divisions between nations have correlates of divided families, divided lovers. The inches, the feet, the kilometres: such are the measures of land gained, claimed and lost, she protests, the measures of distance and division, measures that are ultimately inexhaustible.
The markings that we have made on this land
The work tells the story of hearts ravaged by war.
This work follows from two previous versions that likewise assembled 100 hand-drawn maps of country, the first consisting of freeform drawings of the contours of India, the second in the more unsure territory of Israeli/ Palestinian contestation. Thus all three mapping projects have taken place in countries where national borders are at issue. In the earlier map works, these definitions are matters of abiding armed conflict along contentious borders (Pakistan/Kashmir and Israel/ Palestine respectively), while in Canada, the peaceable means of political debate and referendum have been the instruments of Quebec’s nationalist aspirations. Yet in each rendition, the bounded idea nation is conceptu-ally displaced by the diverse and personalized delineations through which individual citizens construe it.
In the Canadian scenario, it is not the delineation
of the Quebec/Canada border that is in question, but rather the division
of one country into two.3 The drawn maps of Quebec as “my country”
bespeak the abiding nationalist aspirations and identifications that have
kept the separatist issue active in the province for some 40 years. At
the same time, the maps of the homelands of immigrants of other countries,
now resident in Montreal, reflect the expansion of the country’s
multicultural character. The varied response to the request displays another
angle of the discordant identifications of nation within Canada: division
Each map gives a cartographic impression that is quickly displaced by the next, a mutating flow. The freehand depictions of geographical features are wildly at odds with one another, and with the cartographic coordinates of the countries they represent. In the maps of Canada, for example, coastlines vary wildly, the vast waterway of northern Hudson’s Bay changes contours, entire provinces appear and disappear, the Arctic and its islands assume various configurations, and the outlying island of Newfoundland periodically slips into the sea. The work reveals that the lived experience of a nation and its geography is not necessarily accurate or objective – the seemingly shared reality – but unique to each person. Our sense of place is shaped by memory, personal history, imagination, projection. The work calls into question any fixed and unitary idea of Canada, or of any nation.
Just as the ideas and questions raised in Gupta’s
work do not follow settled themes, the works do not adhere to any fixed
material or medium. Her works take form according to the conceptual foundation
and concerns of each piece, and the meanings they evoke arise from the
effects of these formal and material means. The aesthetic power of her
work is undeniable, and detail revelatory: the tenderness of the hand-stitched
wrappings of the confiscated objects; the malignity of the rusted metal
cages; the heavy scent of Threat; the cracked and broken ground of Half
Widows; and the emergence of a blank page from inside a closed book.
This elegant work might be seen as a coda to an exhibition in which many other works foreground aspects of strife. The long white sheet seems to offer an open, expansive space, alive with potential, the inscription yet unset, the narrative yet unwritten.