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An Interview with Subodh Gupta


An Interview with Subodh Gupta
"Cooking the World" by Subodh Guptah is a commissioned work for the Singapore Biennale 2016 (Image courtesy of Channel News Asia)

One of India’s leading contemporary artists, Subodh Gupta is well-known for his massive sculptures and installations assembled from common everyday objects he has become fond of since his childhood. Stainless steel tiffin carriers, brass water utensils, and bicycles are collected en masse and transformed into minimalistic, universalist reflections of society. Gupta translates the peculiar contradictions and complex discontents of the local into a global message on socio-economic inequality and mass industrialisation.


On the occasion of the Singapore Biennale 2016 and the artist’s first time exhibiting here, I sat down for a chat with him on the stories of objects, the readymade and its history, and on a relatively lighter note, his penchant for cooking.


CC: I would like to begin this interview by reflecting on your work through the lines of two different poems. Recently, I have been re-reading John Ashbery’s 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror'. It was an unintended coincidence that I was flipping through it just before the opening of the Singapore Biennale, for which the theme we know is “An Atlas of Mirrors”. Two of the lines in the first poem of his anthology read poignantly,


            And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,

            The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons…


The other lines of poetry I would like to present to you are from a wall text accompanying the work of another Indian artist in the Biennale, Nilima Shiekh. She references Agha Shahid Ali’s I See Kashmir From New Delhi At Midnight, and this time I cannot help but sigh too,


            ‘Don’t tell my father I have died,’ he says,

            and I follow him through blood on the road

            and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners

            left behind, as they ran from the funeral,

            victims of the firing. From windows we hear

            grieving mothers and snow begins to fall

            on us, like ash…


Subodh Gupta (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Image courtesy of Subodh Gupta Studio

Often critics fall back on the category of the readymade to describe your work since your first major show in the UK that reworked Duchamp. But I feel that the objects you use are much more heavy than the aesthetic term can adequately signify, not just in their overt scale, but also in the same way these poets are feeling the emotional weight and resonance of things. These things are heavy because of what goes on in the lives of their previous owners.You once said that every surface in your work is 'a palm reading'. Whose and what stories are you representing through these objects in "Cooking the World"? 

SG: On the one hand, these utensils tell their individual stories and the stories of the lives of their owners. Each of the dents, scratches, and burns correspond to one of the hundreds of times they were used. I, as an artist, don’t have any control over these individual stories and I do my best to not interfere with them by presenting them in the exact condition in which I received them.

On the other hand, I am using these hundreds of utensils to form this new singular form, in this case a globe, and that is more of the narrative that I have control over. It is not a story of an individual as much as a cosmic, collective tale. It’s fascinating to me how a small, beat up aluminum pan from a poor woman’s kitchen seems so trivial compared to a planetary mass, yet when you really think about it, that’s what our society, our planet, comes down to; thousands of these dishes. It’s a really simple story, but I find it so moving.  


There’s also the feeling that many of these things have been left behind, discarded by their owners - like this woman. They’re old, well-worn and grubby. How have these objects been passed onto you, for the making of "Cooking the World"?

Yes, these utensils have been discarded but they aren’t really passive and lonely. I buy them from scrap-collectors who have collected and bought these old utensils from houses and dumps all over the city. The scrap collectors themselves divide and melt down these utensils into aluminum bricks, to be sold and recycled again. So it’s interesting to think that even if I hadn’t “rescued” these particular utensils and used them in this artwork, they would have in someway been transformed into something else in any case. So utensils aren’t sad and rejected when I receive them as much as they are ready for rebirth.

"Specimen no. 108" (2015) by Subodh Gupta, Stainless steel, stainless steel utensils
Image courtesy of Subodh Gupta Studio

Do you feel a burden of ownership, perhaps more so than others of your works that incorporate brand new objects?

To me these utensils are in any case on the brink of transformation when I get them from scrapyards, so there’s no pressure to represent them in any particular way, they are ready to tell a new story. Furthermore, these used utensils feel very familiar to me. I know them, I know the people who owned them, even if I don’t know the individuals, I grew up in a house with so many utensils like these, so these are home to me. With the brand new, shiny, stainless steel utensils there’s always a bit of tension and deception, they are attractive and sparkling yet cold and empty; while these used utensils are warm, humble, and full of character. So it’s not a burden at all, it’s like meeting an old friend.

"Touch, Trace, Taste, Truth" (2015) by Subodh Gupta, brass, steel, barbed wire, enamel paint, 120 x 120 x 64 in
Image courtesy of Subodh Gupta Studio

How are you challenging the aesthetic tradition of the readymade, our perceptions and expectations of it?

I work with readymade objects in almost all of my work but I don’t see it as fitting into the purely readymade tradition as I am always focused on transforming these objects into something totally new, something that can almost make you forget what the original form and function of the readymade was. As I mentioned before, the  objects are my material, they are like my clay or canvas, they are never the work itself.

"Pressed for Space VI" (2015) by Subodh Gupta, Aluminum, fabric, resin, 65 x 110 x 9 cm
Image courtesy of Subodh Gupta Studio

The last time I encountered your work, it was on a much smaller scale for your solo presentation at Arario Gallery in Seoul (2014). That exhibition was incomparable to the experience of your all-encompassing installation "Cooking the World". How do you decide on the scale and weight of a piece? And how do you anticipate or shape an emotional, psychological or poetic response to its physicality?

While a lot of my work has been quite large, I only use scale when I feel the work demands it. I do come from a theatre background as I was very involved in street theatre in my college days, so one could say I have the flair for the dramatic, but as most actors and playwrights know, sometimes silence can have an equally, if not more, jarring effect on an audience as screaming and shouting. In the same way, if done right, the physicality of even a tiny sculpture can overwhelm a viewer and even the largest sculptures can have something soft and poetic about them. It just depends on what the work needs.


I know that you’ve exhibited very widely all throughout Asia, but I believe this is your first time showing a work in Singapore. What is your impression so far?

The little bit of Singapore I have seen this time has been great. Very good food, which is always a priority for me, and with events like this Biennale, I see the art scene has a lot of potential too!

"Very Hungry God" (2006) by Subodh Gupta, Stainless steel structure, stainless steel utensils, 360 x 280 x 330 cm
Image courtesy of Subodh Gupta Studio

You know, we love our food in Singapore. Speaking of food, you frequently use cooking utensils from tiffin carriers to milk pails and thalis (stainless steel plates) in your work. Plus your recipe for goan prawn curry in Swiss artists Admir Jahic and Comenius Roethlisberger’s 'Artist’s Recipes' looks amazing. You must be a really good cook! What social and cultural ideas about cooking are you interested in? How does this transformative process that brings nature into culture feed back into your work, perhaps along the lines of Michael Pollan?

Cooking has always been a hobby and passion of mine but recently it has been creeping in and becoming something I’m exploring more actively in my work. Michael Pollan explores industrialization, science, and food but my interest really lies in the socio-political aspects of cooking and eating. Across India, for example, eating and cooking are the primary form of denoting inclusivity and exclusivity, belonging and not-belonging, Cooking is central to most rituals and celebrations and the kitchen is the center of most households, including the home I grew up in. Often the simplest ways to explain the differences between the hundreds of communities in the Indian subcontinent is just by explaining what they eat or don't eat. There is both a pride and sensitivity amongst Indians regarding their particular cooking and eating rituals and the subtle emotional and historical layers around these food preparation practices are absolutely fascinating to me.



Read more about the Singapore Biennale 2016 here.

Any views or opinions in the interview are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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