<div class="chapeau">THE SCULPTURE <i>VERY HUNGRY GOD</i> (2006), BY SUBODH GUPTA, PRESENTS A PEAK ACHIEVEMENT IN THE ARTIST’S CAREER; NOT ONLY IS IT EMBLEMATIC OF GUPTA’S WORK
AS A WHOLE, IT HAS BECOME A STAND-IN FOR THE ARTIST HIMSELF. THIS FALL, IT WILL BE PRESENTED AT THE MONNAIE DE PARIS, WELCOMING VISITORS TO GUPTA’S FIRST
MONOGRAPHIC EXHIBITION IN PARIS.</div>
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<span class="title">SUBODH <br /> GUPTA</span><br>
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Curator and art critic
<span class="alinea"></span> It took Gupta some time to conceive and refine this work and this technique—removing from their original context certain prosaic emblems of Indian
culture and replacing them in an artistic context—that he would redeploy again multiple times over the years. This exploration isn’t an appropriation: instead, Gupta
aims to endow an ordinary object with a symbolic dimension. Placed in a new context, represented on a new scale, any sign can make the viewer vacillate, both
optically and psychically.<sup>1</sup>
<span class="alinea"></span> Born in 1964, Gupta for a time worked in two dimensions. During his years studying painting at the College of Arts
and Crafts in Patna, he provided illustrations to newspapers, becoming a skilled draftsman and a keen observer of the changes taking place in Indian society.
This academic training is the foundation of the artist’s work, full of respect for ancient trades and traditions, as he explained in a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist:
“I was trained as a painter. I’ve painted for fifteen years. I know how to paint. I can still draw figures. I could draw
your portrait right now... Now, of course, my practice has totally changed. I have assistants who paint for me. The ideas start basically in my iPhone. That is like a drawing for me.”<sup>2</sup>
<span class="alinea"></span> From an early age, Gupta knew that his native country would serve as the indelible foundation of his work, the primitive, organic matter to which he would return time
and time again, analyzing changes, pinpointing connotations, and examining the instability of myths. As evidence: his seminal <i>My Mother and Me</i> (1997), a totemic
hut made of cowpats—combustible, and purifying—and a layer of ashes. Gupta continued this social, even ethnographic, archeology with a self-portrait <i>(Bihari,</i>
1999), also of cowpats but combined in this instance with acrylic paint and a neon; it betrays his driving syncretism, a compulsion to combine materials borrowed from his
native country with symbols of Western culture.
<span class="alinea"></span> Gupta brings together various archetypal symbols of contemporary Indian society—dozens of bamboo sticks, piles of shoes or potatoes—on occasion reproducing
them from more ’noble’ materials. Take, for instance, the three bicycles made of bronze (<i>Three Cows,</i> 2003). “For me, <i>what is art</i> is not very important, <i>how to make art</i> is
important”<sup>3</sup>: for Gupta, the final result is less important than the process, the creation less important than the transformation.
<span class="alinea"></span> Pursuing his conversation with Obrist, the artist found an eloquent culinary metaphor: “I enjoy seeing somebody with flour who begins kneading to make
bread—in Hindi we call this ’gundna’—before the bread is ready to bake. For me, art is very much like this kneading process. With both hands you are working the
dough to reach somewhere.”<sup>4</sup> Naturally, Gupta became interested in stainless steel—a material that would make him a critical and popular sensation. He first used kitchenware
in a work in 1996,<sup>5</sup> and in the early two thousand made important works using metal pots and pans, including in photo-realistic oil paintings.
<span class="alinea"></span> In 2006, Gupta made the sculpture <i>Very Hungry God,</i> continuing to explore the use of kitchenware in his work, but moving from two to three dimensions, to a large scale.
This gigantic vanitas, evocative of a hardware store, is the culmination of this trajectory, combining critical distance with a sacred dimension. After presenting the work in 2009, Gupta has continued
to explore the consequences of globalization and consumerism, comparing use-value with the intrinsic qualities of materials in a cascade of gleaming pots and
pans (<i>Ray,</i> 2014), a boat filled with found objects <i>(What does the vessel contain that the river does not,</i> 2012), or a cooking pot transformed into a gong <i>(Touch, Trace, Taste, Truth</i>, 2015).
<span class="alinea"></span> The artist, in his youth, was a talented comedian. He participated in performances and discovered how to perform in front of an audience, in a space. Recently,
the Théâtre du Soleil presented <i>Une chambre en Inde (A Room in India,</i> 2016), directed by Ariane Mnouchkine in collaboration with Hélène Cixous. With humor and melancholy, they presented onstage an ancestral,
almost archaic, image of India, teeming with distant myths, modern angst, and political machinations—the effect their play produces on the audience, a somber smile, is akin to the stunned expression
you might find on the faces of viewers’ of Gupta’s work.
1 — Interestingly, the first investigations of semantics took place around Sanskrit, during the first millennium BC, on the Indian subcontinent.<br>
2 — Interview with the artist by Hans Ulrich Obrist, in <i>Subodh Gupta, Common Man</i> (London: Hauser & Wirth, JRP|Ringier, 2010), p. 10.
3 — <i>Ibid,</i> p. 11.<br>
4 — <i>Ibid,</i> p. 11.<br>
5 — “It was in 1996, when I started changing my work. I was looking for what material to use, something that is very close to me. The kitchen is very important
to me, since I love food and cook a lot myself. One day, while I was standing in the kitchen, I was looking at this rack, with stainless steel utensils — plates and cups.
I kept looking at it and I was thinking, what am I going to do with this material. I looked at it . . . and looked at it, and suddenly, I saw it in front of me, and that
was it. That was the very first piece. The first time I exhibited it was in 1999 in Bombay at Chemould Gallery. The piece was called <i>The Way Home I</i>. But I was playing with this material
even before that.”<i> Ibid.,</i> p. 11.