In the house that Gupta built

Just over a week ago, a curious sight had got thousands of visitors at Art Basel Switzerland to pause, gaze, exclaim, and, finally, pull up a chair. Strung on reams of fishing wires, worn and discarded utensils from around the world were hung from the rafters at the fair’s Art Unlimited programme, creating a porous ‘house’ inside which Subodh Gupta, one of India’s most influential contemporary multimedia artists, conducted a culinary performance that elicited audience participation.

Titled Cooking the World (2017) — and described as a cross between a restaurant and an installation — he and his team whipped up dal, khichadi, besan cheela (gram flour pancakes) and saffron yoghurt under the steel and aluminium canopy, and served them to whoever took a seat at their communal table. The idea was to talk about inclusivity — the sharing of food is often indicative of acceptance into a community. It was also why his art work was devised in such a manner that once people entered, they had to spend 45 minutes there (the time it took to serve the courses) and immerse themselves in it both physically and mentally.

In the house that Gupta built

Take a seat

“Across India, eating and cooking are the primary forms of denoting inclusivity and exclusivity, belonging and not belonging. Often, the simplest ways to explain the differences between the hundreds of communities in the subcontinent is just by explaining what they eat or don’t eat,” he says, adding, “There is a book titled Cooking the World by French scholar Charles Malamoud, which explores the Vedic rituals and practices around food preparation. This was a key influence in this work, so I took the title from it.”

While Gupta admits that the experience was stimulating, it did attract some criticism, too. Alongside comments that described the work as “lovely, positive, beautiful and pulsing with the energising spirit of community and togetherness”, there were also a few that wondered if claims about community shouldn’t be kept aside when you’re serving free meals to a well-heeled crowd. The artist disagrees. “Perhaps this was true of the first few days of the fair, but once it opened to the public, the audience got significantly more mixed in terms of social and economic backgrounds,” he says. However, Gupta shares that he would love to redo the ‘art happening’ for a greater public in India and compare the differences. “I have already started thinking about how to make that happen,” he says.

Hard work and inspiration

Cooking the World was Gupta’s big outing after his solo show, Everything is Inside, at the National Gallery of Modern Art in 2014. The mid-career retrospective, which drew from his work across decades — from installations like My Mother and Me (with cow dung and wood) to milkmen’s cycles — had looked at the evolution of his style from autobiographical to humorous and bold. But the Delhi-based artist’s meteoric rise from a struggling actor who travelled from his home in Khagul, Bihar, to India’s contemporary superstar artist can be traced quite systematically.

In the house that Gupta built

Some credit Pierre Huber for propelling him into the limelight — the Geneva art dealer had spotted Gupta’s work at a group show in Italy in the 1990s, and became the first international gallerist to sign him. However, many in the art world say he began his upward climb in 2006 when his work, Very Hungry God (a human skull constructed from glistening ever-silver tiffin boxes) was displayed outside Venice’s Palazzo Grassi as part of the exhibition, Silk Route. The art work, now a part of French billionaire François Pinault’s collection, was purchased for an undisclosed sum. Since then Gupta has been in the news for many achievements, including crossing the $1 million mark at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and even designing a limited-edition bag for Fendi.

Real steel

Currently working out of an industrial area in Gurgaon, in a studio spread over three floors, Gupta told British newspaper, The Telegraph, last year that he has created his own little world there. “The ground floor is where all the construction happens, so it’s very messy. The middle floor is where I put the work when I want to look at it in detail or when it’s complete. And the top floor is my office and a painting studio.” Late last year, the studio had contained large aluminium sheets, printed and then layered with oil paint to look like a galactic expanse, with sooty vessels standing in for planets— a part of his solo exhibition, Anhad/Unstruck, in Mumbai. And now the rooms await fresh inspiration.

The Gupta coterie
  • Once upon a time, gallerist Pierre Huber had to convince a friend to buy Gupta’s work for $12,000, just to create some momentum. Today, his works sell for millions. Among the big collectors are Anupam Poddar (who picked up his cow dung cove), Kiran Nadar (his Line of Control occupies a prime spot at the South Court Mall in Saket), Larry Warsh (who has several pieces from Everyday Divine) and François Pinault (who owns his stainless steel skull, Very Hungry God).
  • Statement makers
  • Pure: A provocative reverse video where the artist is seen bathing with cow dung.
  • Cow: A motorcycle with milk pails hanging along the side, which he describes as the city’s mechanised bovine.
  • Very Hungry God: An eight-foot skull made with discarded vessels.
  • Line of Control: A mushroom-shaped cloud, with over a 1,000 vessels, which is now on permanent display at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.
  • Dada: A large stainless steel banyan sculpture symbolising family ties.

While he has always grappled with complex issues of identity, using different material like cow dung and wood, it is in the everyday objects of his youth — stainless steel thalis, dabbas and vessels — that he roots some of his most evocative work. For Gupta, the kitchen is another altar room, and the pots and pans are like ‘stolen gods’, being smuggled out of the country. Where the installation in Basel spoke of preparing and sharing food, often the utensils he uses are shiny yet empty. “The emptiness tells of the underside of showy progress,” he says, explaining that they also become a pithy reminder of the politics of food, its production and distribution in the country.

Food first

Gupta’s romance with food and steel utensils stretches back to his childhood. “Coming from a mixed background of cooking, theatre, painting and sculpture, my work is an amalgamation of my various interests. As a boy, I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor, watching my mother cook, and I’ve always been fascinated by the ritual and ceremony of the kitchen space,” says the artist, who was once famously described in the Guardian as the ‘Damien Hirst of India’.

Another woman who has a very strong presence in his life is his wife and fellow artist, Bharti Kher. “Bharti never liked my paintings that revolved around migration and travel,” says Gupta, with his self-depreciating sense of humour. “But when the sculpture of vessels came together, we both knew something special had happened.” Interestingly, his Saat Samandar Par recently sold at Saffron Art Auction for ₹71 lakh, proving that even works that were once considered as ‘lesser objects’ by the artist are generating value on the strength of his later works.

Meanwhile, undaunted by some critics’ observations that despite his thoughtfulness, he has developed something of a ‘bad-boy’ reputation in the Indian art world (with works like a video in which he appears in the nude), Gupta wants to continue engaging viewers across the world, with serious subjects cushioned with a little humour. There are more thaalis in our future.

In the house that Gupta built

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Printable version | May 3, 2021 5:42:55 AM |

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