Subodh Gupta, Untitled, 2011, oil on canvas. All images courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
Opening tonight at Hauser & Wirth New York is an ascetic new exhibition by Indian artist Subodh Gupta. The artist, who is often referred to as “The Damien Hirst of Delhi,” earned his nickname from a dazzling sculpture of a skull entitled Very Hungry God (2006). He is the leader of a group of Indian artists whom mega-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist frequently heralds as art world game-changers, and his works regularly fetch auction prices over 1 million USD.
In contrast to this glitzy reputation, “A glass of water” is shockingly subdued. The exhibition takes its name from a work in which a metal drinking cup rests atop a table, filled to the brim with fresh water. Its origin and constant replenishment remain a mystery. The tension created– that the cup may overflow at any moment, from a visitor’s step or breath– “serves up a rich metaphor for the almost unbearable tension between luxury and depletion, accumulation and deprivation, acquisition and exhaustion that are the daily diet of exploding international culture,” explains the exhibition statement.
Atta, 2010. Painted bronze, flour, table.
Gupta was born in 1964 in Khagual, Nihar, India. After studying at the College of Arts & Crafts in Patna, the artist established his studio in New Delhi, where he still works.
In his 2010 exhibition “Faith Matters” at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, Ukraine, Gupta stacked his nation’s ubiquitous metal tiffins and thali pans high on a table. Their multitude and assault of metallic color, coupled with the fantasy of what delicacies hide inside, lend an atmosphere of feast. In an interview with The Guardian, Gupta shares that these objects “were part of the way I grew up. They are used in the rituals and ceremonies that were party of my childhood. Indians either remember them from their youth, or they want to remember them. […] I am the idol thief. I steal from the drama of Hindu life. And from the kitchen – these pots, they are like stolen gods, smuggled out of the country. Hindu kitchens are as important as prayer rooms.”
In contrast to the feast, “A glass of water” reads as an act of chastity: a rejection of abundance, most clearly seen in Atta (2010). The sculpture is a painstakingly painted simulacrum of a loaf of bread abandoned before baking. Visitors are denied the experience of eating this bread, just as they are denied a glass of water, or reasons behind the desertion. This temptation and denial can also be seen in Gupta’s 2009 exhibition “Common Man” at Hauser & Wirth London, in which mangoes are placed in a crate on a desk, right within the viewer’s reach, but as objets d’art, unabashedly ungrabbable.
Some have written that in transforming every objects — in multiplying, stacking, enlarging, or altering — the artist is commenting on superficial societal notions of beauty. Although Gupta uses the vocabulary of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Urs Fischer, he does not speak the same language. His referents are older: Duchamp (whose L.H.O.O.Q. he built on for his large scale outdoor sculpture “Et tu, Duchamp?“) and perhaps Oldenburg. As such, they read more genuinely than the work of his contemporaries.
Although he is recognized for his sculpture, Gupta originally trained as a painter. He made the shift to sculpture shortly after meeting his wife, fellow Indian artist Bharti Kher, who pushed Gupta to expand the boundaries of his practice. His paintings, though, are lovely: in “A glass of water” he displays several luminous canvases depicting the remains of consumed meals: forks, knives, and dirty plates. Food, the great evoker of memory, is relatable to all, and cultural boundaries are transcended as plates are scraped, tea is boiled, and bread is baked (or not). According to the exhibition’s press release, these objects act “as metaphors in a chimerical visual poem about global appetite.”
Untitled, 2011, oil on canvas.
Untitled, 2011, oil on canvas.
Not all the works are about food. Gupta also treats visitors to a wander amongst oversized buttons, sieves, and a tailor’s measuring tape. In their enlarged size, these objects subvert viewers’ expectations of value. They highlight the details of the object, reducing them to their formal properties and rendering them useless. This is an old trick, but Gupta uses it well. Visitors may leave the exhibition hungry for more of his work– and perhaps a rumble in their stomachs.
Hauser & Wirth is located at 32 East 69th Street. The exhibition runs until June 18, 2011.
Untitled, 2011, chrome steel, copper.
Detail from above.
- J. Lindblad
Exhibition Site [Hauser & Wirth]
The Art of Subodh Gupta [Whitewall]
Indian Spring Season [Flash Art]
Subodh Gupta [ArtInfo]
The Damien Hirst of Delhi [The Guardian]
Hans Ulrich Obrist on India’s Rising Art Scene [ArtInfo]