Installation view of “In This Vessel Lies the Philosopher’s Stone” at Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, 2017. Photo by Ela Bialkowska. Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua.

In this Vessel Lies the Philosopher’s Stone

Subodh Gupta

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

A new body of work by Indian artist Subodh Gupta was gathered in a meditative show presented by Galleria Continua in San Gimignano, entitled “In This Vessel Lies the Philosopher’s Stone.” The exhibition included 11 works of sculpture, installation and watercolors displayed in the Leon Bianco Hotel, in a space annexed by Galleria Continua that is located on the top floor of an 11th-century building with terra-cotta floors and beamed ceilings. The exhibiting venue generated much of the show’s allure, boosting an immersive encounter with work that reflected on humanity’s place in the universe.

Gupta is best known for his awe-inspiring, monumental installations of clustered utensils, pots and pans. The 53-year-old artist uses household instruments related to sustenance to recall his childhood in Bihar, one of India’s poorest rural regions, and subsequently draws attention to the contradictions of his homeland’s socioeconomic reality, where a flourishing economy coexists with extreme wealth disparity and many still lack adequate access to food and potable water.

In recent years, the domestic objects used by Gupta in his art have become a vehicle to explore mystical and universal themes. The artist’s upbringing in a Hindu household instilled a belief that all things are imbued with deeper spiritual significance, and that one can find a connection with the ineffable even in banal objects. This idea was the conceptual scaffolding for Gupta’s exhibition; its title was inspired by a 15th-century poem attributed to the Indian mystic Kabir, who deploys imagery of a single vessel holding the entire universe.

In the presentation at Galleria Continua, everyday objects were rearranged and given new contexts to draw lyrical affinities between the cosmos and quotidian life. Such a connection is suggested in Navagraha (Nine Planets) (2017), which consists of nine frying pans, each with its handle removed, mounted on a wall in a single row in a passageway. The pans’ dark patinas, rusted and burnt in places, and generally worn by constant use, strangely resemble planetary crusts with craters and dried seas, but also recall the privacy of everyday domestic rituals, merging metaphors of daily life and the universe simply and effectively.

In This Vessel Lies the Philosopher’s Stone (2017), the show’s centerpiece, consisted of a polished brass lota—a traditional Indian water jug— suspended at eye level. A steel cable connected the receptacle to the ceiling, and extended into the vessel, attaching itself to a small rock that dangles within the brass cavity, giving off the impression that the stone is suspended in dark space like an asteroid—or perhaps it is the philosopher’s stone. Much of the charm of this piece, which visualized

Kabir’s verses with concise humor, derived from the wordplay in which the “vessel” not only holds water but blasts off to explore the cosmos.

Other grandiose connections surfaced poetically in From the Earth but Not of It I, V and VII (all 2016), each a four-foot terra-cotta granary jar encrusted with organic, protruding shapes of white polished plaster that resemble clouds or fungal forms. The contrast between porous terra-cotta surfaces and smooth protuberances generates incredible tactile allure. With an engaging restyling of the containers, Gupta turned them into sculptures as uncanny as newly discovered life forms.

Obliquely related to the show’s main theme, but nonetheless one of its highlights, were nine enticing framed watercolors, each of a wilting rose, collectively titled What’s in a Name? (2017). While visiting a rose garden in New Delhi, the artist was drawn in by the fading flowers’ downcast beauty, and with delicate brushstrokes re-created the beautiful pink, creamy and ocher shades of the withering petals, capturing the melancholia of life’s impermanence.

Though “In This Vessel Lies the Philosopher’s Stone” lacked the spectacle normally expected from Gupta’s landmark installations, the show’s venue offered an engaging environment that housed subtler artworks—ones that were meditative and lyrical. The artist condensed weighty cogitations to an intimate scale, but still served up humor before steering his viewer toward loftier thoughts suffused with mysticism.

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