Shilpa Gupta is a Bombay based artist who uses facets of everyday life to create artworks that ask questions about methods of control and the ideas behind boundaries and borders that dictate our perception of world order. While these works are deeply rooted in the Indian context where the artist lives and works, they grapple with universal issues such as freedom and security, and Gupta’s work is enjoyed and exhibited all over the world, from the Younger Than Jesus Triennale at New Museum, New York in ‘09, the Lyon Biennale ‘09 curated by Hou Hanru, the Gwangju Biennale ‘08 directed by Okwui Enwezor and curated by Ranjit Hoskote, the Yokohama Triennale ‘08 curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, as well as the biennales at Auckland, Seoul, Havana, Sydney,Shanghai, and Sharjah. Her works are also part of prestigious institutional collections including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, and the Devi Art Foundation in Delhi.
Soap, microphones, sign hoardings, books – these are some of the familiar materials that the artist uses to engage audiences with wider and deeper issues. The artist also has a background in graphic design, and she has a remarkable ability to transform mundane imagery into something profound. In her 2009 work Threat, Gupta created a sculpture with 2,400 bars of soap, engraved with the word ‘Threat.’ The audience is invited to take a bar of soap away and use it if they wish, washing away any trace of any imagined threat by the end of the exhibition. Fear is a tool often used to manipulate groups of people in power struggles, and Gupta’s works, often harnessing participation and interactivity, shake up our ideas about why we are asked to act the way we do.
Powerful politicians often control the media and what information gets disseminated to the public. What if the microphones that pundits speak into were able to speak truth and drone out lies? Gupta cleverly created a body of work of ‘singing microphones,’ which use Gupta’s voice to amplify issues that are often silenced. In 5 Singing Microphones from 2009, Gupta attempts to count the countless number of individuals who disappeared during times of political unrest such as Partition, creating a sense of urgency to remember those who transformed from people into mere numbers. In the same year, she also created a series of works using chalkboards, conventional tools to teach children about counting, and these chalkboards show the sign of countless markings, complete with accumulated chalk dust from writing and erasing, demonstrating the Sisyphean task of trying to count the people that governments want you to forget about. The phrase “Will we ever be able to mark enough?” leaves lingering questions in the minds of her audience. Stimulating memories, on both an individual and a collective basis, is an important part of Gupta’s practice.
In her 2008-2009 work 100 Hand Drawn Maps of India, Gupta asked a different person each day to draw a map of their country, and none of the drawings matched. Gupta’s works shed light on the problem of imposing borders on groups of people whose history on the land is much older than that of new nation-states. In her 2011-2012 work 1:14.9 which is part of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum collection in New York, Gupta wound the idea of the 1188.5 meter long border between India and Pakistan by manipulating polyester thread into an elegant ball at a 14.9 to 1 ratio, elegantly caging this 1947 imposed border which symbol of violence and religious prejudice.
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