SUBODH GUPTA, This is not a fountain, 2011 –13, old aluminium utensils, water, painted brass taps, PVC pipes, motor, 165.1 × 482.6 × 784.9 cm. Photo by Genevieve Hanson. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Seven Billion Light Years

Subodh Gupta

Hauser & Wirth
USA India

“Seven Billion Light Years” is a solo exhibition of impressive scale that spans the career of the noted Indian artist Subodh Gupta, shown at Hauser & Wirth’s gallery in New York. It is being held to coincide with the monumental group exhibition “After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India 1947/1997,” now on view at New York’s Queens Museum, which includes Gupta’s found-object installation What does the room encompass that is not in the city? (2014).

Gupta has gained a reputation for using “everyday objects” of India and, by doing so, touching on the relationship between tradition and globalization. Often referred to as the Damien Hirst or the Ai Weiwei of India, Gupta’s bold, large-scale works, which embody various cultural references, have allowed for the persistence of this personal image—though the comparison seems to hinge more on him being seen as a representative (male) artist of his native region, rather than due to careful analysis of conceptual overlap in the three artists’ work.

SUBODH GUPTA, Aam, 2015, painted bronze mangoes, found table, 86.4 × 66 × 66 cm. Photo by Genevieve Hanson. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

At the large Chelsea location of Hauser & Wirth, Gupta’s exhibition opens with a monumental work entitled This is not a fountain (2011–13). Visitors first encounter this piece through sound, as functioning faucets within the installation release water onto a massive pile of aluminum vessels, buckets, pots and pans. The white noise of this continuously flowing water fills the exhibition space, where the 12-feet-wide work occupies a single room by itself, which adds to its dramatic effect. The mound of aluminum vessels could be seen as a sort of dumpster, as the individual components are worn and tarnished. However, clustered together, the silver hue of each piece creates a visual phenomenon that cancels out the tarnish, so when looking at it from a slight distance viewers may mistake the site as one of vibrant, metallic abundance. Through the installation—a nod to both Duchamp’s iconic readymade and the biblical reference to the fountain of life—Gupta urges viewers to consider the societal paradoxes that exist in India as a result of its hastened economic development despite prevailing poverty and injustice.

The use of everyday, domestic objects as a vehicle to discuss the sociopolitical situation of globalization in India continues in the next area of the gallery. Several smaller sculptures are exhibited here, including Aam (2015) and Basket (2014), for which Gupta has cast mangos and potatoes in bronze, respectively. Through such material transformation, these works have become symbols for the change taking place in India, and perhaps also in the artist’s own life, where the form and structure of cultural traditions remain, but increasingly as a mere semblance.

SUBODH GUPTA, Basket, 2014, bronze, wicker basket, 25.4 × 53.3 × 53.3 cm. Photo by Genevieve Hanson. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

The exhibition then leads to another solo installation, Pure I (1999/2014), a revisiting of an earlier performance and film from 1999. For the performance segment of the original work, Gupta went around the outskirts of New Delhi collecting prized household utensils from neighbors. He then took these objects and sunk them into a field of mud and cow dung. Then, after covering himself with the same mud and cow dung, he lay down in the middle of the field in a yoga pose called shavasana, or the corpse pose. The film portion of the work depicts a naked Gupta in a shower, gradually being covered with mud and cow-dung paste. In the 2014 rendition that is on view at Hauser & Wirth, the paste has been made into a thick, elevated floor about three-feet high, which fills almost the entirety of the room it is exhibited in. Viewers are invited to put on plastic coverings over their shoes and walk on the dried, thickened floor. Once atop the installation, one can closely observe objects that are sunken into the ground layer. Pungent with the odor of mud and cow dung, the experience of walking on this transported piece of earth is unique. Having learned from the exhibition’s supplementary text that cow dung represents purity in Hindu culture, the experience feels sacred. The texture of the ground itself—muddy but not mushy, hard but not solid—also does not allow for distracted walking. This is not ground that merely serves the function of being walked on, but one that should be revered as possessing meditative powers.

SUBODH GUPTA, Seven Billion Light Years II, 2014, oil on canvas, found utensil, resin, 226.1 × 241.3 × 7.6 cm. Photo by Genevieve Hanson. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

The conceptual arc of the exhibition comes to a close with a series of new oil paintings called “Seven Billion Light Years” (2014), which circles back to the artist’s beginnings as a painter. Looking at domestic objects with a reverence that is uncommon to the capitalistic mentality that permeates today’s world—where objects are easily bought, used, discarded, and forgotten—Gupta paints hyper-enlarged versions of these items on canvas and then affixes the original object onto the painting with resin. For example, in Seven Billion Light Years II (2014), attached on the canvas is what appears to be a worn frying pan without its handle. The painting, depicting an image of the pan blown up to scale, gives meaning and intention to the scratch marks seen on the original kitchen tool, demanding viewers to observe its unspoken history.

Leaving this exhibition, it becomes clear that there are two Guptas at work. There is one who sees objects as an agent of globalization, yet skeptical of material change as a way towards true, meaningful development. This Gupta is at once in awe of change as something exhilarating and beyond control, yet is also aware that value may not be inherent in matter itself. Then, there is the other Gupta, who sees objects as spiritual entities in and of themselves—and an extension of our being—as well as a meeting point between mortal life and the cosmos. This is the Gupta behind Pure I, who sees manmade objects as capable of carrying and telling our stories and, in that sense, sharing a connection to the spiritual world. This is also the Gupta behind Seven Billion Light Years, a work which contemplates human behavior and pattern—its inexplicable and mysterious nature—and how they can bring about revelations through something seemingly trite or unexpected, such as the blemishes and marks on our everyday objects.

“Seven Billion Light Years” is on view at Hauser & Wirth, New York, until April 25, 2015.