For nearly two decades Shilpa Gupta has been unravelling dysfunctional hierarchies which we operate within where semantic naming has been wielded to charm and draw limits on mobility and expression.
As early as 1995, the artist anonymously mailed ink drawings to a random 300 people whose names she’d collected from her city’s public art gallery. She stamped each drawing and sequentially numbered it – with not one but three numbers, one of the drawing itself and one before and one after it.
This pursuit of an expanded notion of time and being, found echo in her self-published bilingual zine Untiled, One, Two, Three… Six (1996-1997) with art writing in English and challenging translations in Marathi, to her outdoor public light work I live under your sky too (2004–ongoing), where multiple languages are placed in conversation with the public, and each other.
Her interest in the use of language as a tool of power resonates her recent sound-based installation For in Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit: 100 Jailed Poets (2017-18), shown at the last Venice Biennale. One of many elements in this large-scale immersive installation was the complex process of weaving together poems in eight languages. Says the artist, “The viewer listens to a multitude of sounds and encounters multiple scripts, of which s/he can, most likely not read all. Not knowing is as important as knowing.”
“Having grown up in South Asia, which is a space marked with many lines, be it gender, caste, religion and entering art school at a time, when new claims were being staked on a post liberalising, post riots city, it is impossible to not think about agency and projection”, elaborates Gupta, on how names become sites of self-authentication, generating new histories. In 1997, she exhibited a performative installation in which she invited viewers to purchase a memory from a vitrine with fictitious objects stripped of any identity and hence ‘claimable’. So also, Gupta’s Blessed series, where she visits different religious places seeking blessings upon blank canvases to internet bandwidth, and Blame which packages simulated blood for sale, suspend notions of naming and of the thing-other it conjures.
The nucleus of Gupta’s pre-occupations lingers on the diving into liminal spaces while defying limitations and arbitrary definitions. In 100 Hand drawn maps of India (2008), the fan turns pages of a book in which no single map matches another and Untiled (Mobile Gate, 2008-09), a gate swings on a wall breaking it. Perhaps her most powerful treatises on abandoning what has been uttered upon every call for attention, are her two scaled-up projects, Altered Inheritances: 100 Last Name Stories and Someone Else: A library 100 books written anonymously or under pseudonyms, both detailing 100 instances in which inherited surnames were modified or authors wrote under fake names to seek social mobility or protect themselves from political persecution. This act of bypassing dominant structures requires assuming a cloak of invisibility recurs in Gupta’s Bengal Borderlands series. Drawings made using banned marijuana along with objects made of material which have journeyed illicitly explore the insubstantiation of security infrastructure revealing the fragmentations of human authority. For Gupta, the impossibility of containing the natural force of anything introduces urgent questions in how we might talk about the collective. She proposes a linguistic relativity that recognizes the manipulations of meaning and understanding that cause a power struggle between central and peripheral ideas.