United colours of Subodh Gupta

At the third edition of the Serendipity Arts Festival, the artist turns curator and looks into questions of race, identity and what is ‘mine’ and ‘yours’

Subodh Gupta is a hands-on, meticulous sculptor, and as he takes up the mantle of curator at the upcoming Serendipity Arts Festival (for a section in the Visual Arts component), this attention to detail has translated into a very ‘present’ maker. On site, at the 19th century Old Goa Medical College in Panaji, he can be spotted at all hours of the day looking over the artists’ works, thinking about the scenography of the false walls, the lighting, the hanging mechanism. “He is completely invested in the making of the exhibition,” says Latika Gupta, his curatorial advisor.

This is not the Bihar-born artist’s first attempt at curation (he did a much smaller show, titled East Village, at Project 88 in Mumbai, in 2011), but he is pushing his boundaries with this one. Subodh has chosen to provocatively name it My Colour in Your Plate. Featuring 11 artists from all over the world, like Sophie Calle (France), Paul McCarthy (US), Phyllida Barlow (UK), Anita Dube (curator of the upcoming Kochi Muziris Biennale), Zuleikha Chaudhari and Hemali Bhuta, it is billed as one of the star attractions at this year’s edition.

“The title of the show is close to me because I am a painter and an artist, and I wanted to use the metaphor of colour to indicate something subtly political,” he says.

United colours of Subodh Gupta

“Like the black American living in a white dominated land, I pose the question of whose colour is on whose plate?” he adds. While the exhibition formally looks at the idea of a “map” or “territory” as a metaphor, rather than a literal image (by concentrating on the individual rather than the group, and exploring the internal compass that guides our impulses), he brings his own twist. “In India today, we face similar issues. So I wanted to keep it open-ended, which is why I have not spelled things out, but kept it generic — through the artists’ experiences and their voices through material and form,” he says.

United colours of Subodh Gupta

Fluid response

Best known for his larger-than-life sculptural installations, made of stainless steel vessels, Subodh’s work bills top dollar in the international art market. He shot to fame when French collector, François Pinault, bought his iconic skull, titled Very Hungry God (2006), for an undisclosed sum. Other signature works include Two Cows (2003) — the famed bicycle with milk pails that sold in 2010 for $542,500 — Pink Cow Rani, which was bought by collectors Anupam and Lekha Poddar, and his giant mushroom cloud, that is now part of the permanent collection at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi.

United colours of Subodh Gupta

“As a practising artist, he is so invested in working with different materials. Watching him respond to the artists who work materially, and seeing him put his faith in them, it has been a learning experience for me. Too often, we tend to be so theoretical that we forget the magic of the art practice,” says Latika, who has been working on the project with Subodh for the last eight months.

United colours of Subodh Gupta

Goa calling
  • The vibe in Panaji is one of frenetic activity — with structures going up, artwork being hung, and curators and artists rushing around to the echo of hammers and saws. “The fortnight before the Serendipity Arts Festival (SAF) opens is always vibrant with activity and expectation, also because the Goa Arts and Literary Festival takes place at this time. So December is a marvellous time for contemporary culture in the state,” says Ranjit Hoskote, who is curating The Sacred Everyday exhibition. Last year, it attracted over three lakh footfalls.
  • Just two editions old, SAF — founded by Sunil Kant Munjal, Chairman of Hero Enterprise — is young, but has already made an impact in India’s art scene. “The biggest difference is that we are multi-disciplinary; we work with two curators per discipline [from theatre director Atul Kumar to art historian Annapurna Garimella], to bring diverse voices together. We call ourselves a cultural experiment because we experiment with our curators and artists, to see what works,” says Smriti Rajgarhia, festival director. Spread across 13 venues in Panaji, the overarching attempt this year has been to make it accessible. So there is no one theme. “We feel a theme is very excluding in nature because you only look at a specific set of works. It’s only as the curators bring in their projects that we see specific strains coming up. Like, there are a lot of artists working with technology this time; it’s also very experimental. For example, music director Sneha Khanwalkar is doing Sounds In My Head — which is not only about sound and how you experience it, but questions why museums have to be only about art.” There is also a lot of focus on the margins. “With section 377 and how that has changed a lot of the voices, you will see a lot of projects that address this,” she says.
  • With over 90-plus projects — ranging from music and dance to theatre, photography, craft, and the culinary arts — you can also look forward to workshops, talks and performances. Highlights include the Flute House by Pooja Shetty — “she is inspired by how wind comes through gaps, sounding almost like flutes, so she is constructing a house within a building” — Aneesh Pradhan’s Revolutions Per Minute, which explores Goan musical traditions through a design installation, and Hoskote’s transhistorical and trans-genre exhibition, which is spread across two venues — the Adil Shah Palace and the Church of Santa Monica — “to create a new intersection of audiences”. “The works — from Gomira masks and Company School gouache paintings to pioneering Indian Christian artists like Angelo da Fonseca and Antonio da Cruz — cut across conventional boundaries,” says Hoskote.
  • The Serendipity Arts Festival is from December 15-22

The exhibition is not just paintings or sculpture; it encompasses sound, video, photography, text, and even two performances, including one on the legal issues around ecology. The curatorial process, she explains, was very fluid. “To begin with, there were conversations about what the exhibition would be. As we started contacting artists whose practice we were excited by, or identified specific works that we wanted — for instance, we’ve got films by Harun Farocki, a German artist and filmmaker who passed away in 2014 — more names came up. The exhibition started coming together organically, [taking shape and building upon] each work as it came together,” says Latika.

Subodh underlines that the curation was not a casual affair. “I approached the artists in a professional way, even though they are all my friends. I respect and appreciate their work, which is why I selected them. I also felt their work fitted into the theme I had in mind.”

Making of the metaphor

‘The artist as curator’ appears to be a growing trend, what with Bose Krishnamachari, Jitish Kallat, Sudarshan Shetty and Anita Dube all curating at the KMB. Is it different when an artist approaches curation? “I don’t think of myself as a curator. Yes, I did a show before at Project 88, but I am primarily an artist,” he clarifies. “I was approached by Serendipity to put this show together, and since I had heard lots of good things about it, I thought why not? This is a one-off experience I am enjoying because I am working with people who I respect and whose work I respond to.”

The reference to the ‘plate’ leads me to think that perhaps the show is about his second favourite topic (after vessels), food. Especially, given that his last mega installation at the 2017 Venice Biennale (with Hauser & Wirth, Galleria Continua, and Subodh Gupta Studio) consisted of a dining table, curtained off by vessels suspended by fishing lines, where food was served. But he tells me I am far off the mark. “[The metaphor of the plate] entails many things and it intends to go beyond the obvious parameters. It throws up questions of what we acknowledge as “my” and regard as “yours” in an art space, but also in a political sense. In talking about ‘colour’, the exhibition invokes the notion of a plural, the multicultural,” he states. It also points towards a political or collective understanding of identity and the difference beyond the purely individual and the intimate.

Goa, with its history of the Portuguese and its current multicultural standing, is the perfect place to raise these questions. “I’ve been here as a tourist, but this is the first time I’m visiting it for work and that is a totally different feeling. You are always concerned that the artists’ works should arrive safely, that the display is good, that the show is well received. Like anything else, one has pre-show nerves [laughs]. Working with the Serendipity team has been great, but as a curator one has to see that everything comes together, right?” he concludes.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 7:34:04 PM |

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