Unknown Treasure (2017) is the initiatory relic in Subhod Gupta's first French solo show. Suspended above the grandiose staircase on entering the Musee de la Monnaie is a bronze pot (handi) from which droops a sad net of ancient tatty objects. It trickles down almost like a talisman or vanitas as a warning for the consequent scenario of decadence. I returned to this several times seeking propitiation from the tempting luxuries on offer in this spectacular show. Not so much on offer as on display in a decor with the ideal 'wow' factor suited to Gupta's ostentation.
The Musee de la Monnaie is a sumptuous 18th century palace that houses the Paris Mint, a vast site of workshops and chandelier showrooms that has existed for eleven centuries. Their aim, set out in the plush catalogue by the CEO, is to link the crafting of precious metals into unique pieces with the making of high art, since both, '...in a world of digitisation and the increasing rapid disappearance of material traces, represent authenticity, duration, eternity almost, and an essential benchmark, a value unlike any other. This is what forms their status as art: imbued with meaning, they transcend the inertia of the substance they are made from.'
Such rhetoric reveals the visionary executive as being an alchemist at heart. Concerning the transmutation of metals, Arab alchemists held that gold is made only by the concentration of a 'suitably ripe mystical intellect'(Shah 1973;148). From all accounts, Subodh Gupta thoroughly enjoyed his residency at La Monnaie, working alongside the artisans, learning and experimenting alongside the engravers, but did his stainless steel ever transform into gold?
Metaphorically yes, if judged by the public delight in his blatant bling, and probably economically too, since the medals he made for the museum shop cost around 500 euros (without estimating the value of his work in the current art market). Nevertheless, the stainless steel still retains the blemish-free purity of its nomination, resisting material change and since it is not only everywhere in this show but everywhere in all his shows, maybe we should just agree with his conceit that it is indeed the new gold, after all what does it matter if it's fake?
The spectacle of Gupta's mammoth pieces such as Very Hungry God (2006) or the recent pot laden banyan tree, gracefully placed in the courtyard, People Tree (2018) is a familiar one. The medium is the message only too clearly spelt out, not just formally in the work itself but reiterated in the catalogue texts: accumulation, aggregation, excess, 'potlach' consumerism beyond rhyme or reason.
The third large piece Faith Matters (2007-8) has stacks of brass and steel kitchen containers such as tiffin dabba (meal boxes) piled up like a 3D maquette of New York (or Bombay?) on a vast moving 'sushi' belt that, ironically, did not move. Twice I went and twice it was 'hors de combat' (out of action)...a sign of exhaustion that was mutual. Revitalisation did not come through Gupta's recent laborious oil paintings on aluminium: In this Vessel Lie the Seven Seas (2016). As a form of salubrious counteraction, the show is however interspersed with lighter works that brighten the gloom. For example in the small entree: Atta (2010): a bronze lump of dough on a flour-sprinkled table, Juttha (2005) three sinks stacked with dirty pots, Oil on Canvas (2010) and Only One Gold (2017) surely inspired by Penone's Patate (1977), and In this vessel lies the Philosopher's Stone (2017), with its hint of Harry Potter. These works have a slight sense of the wit needed to challenge the stereotypical images of picturesque India,(pots and mangoes, trains and bikes, dung-patties and daal(lentils)) that fulfill Gupta's project: '... to use daily life in India as a repertoire for developing an allegory of the present', as depicted by the critic Nicolas Bourriaud.
This smacks of a neo-orientalist approach whereby, to recycle James Clifford's term, a 'salvage paradigm' is set up to re-present aspects of traditional culture under threat from global modernisation, echoing the former threat from imperialist domination. The use of irony by Gupta in his critique of Indian middle-class aspirations transpires through his emphasis on excess. His choice of materials and their amassment, his juxtapositions between site and object, all function initially through the sheer force of their visual and tactile effect. To transpose this formal approach towards a more complex social critique, as mooted by the texts in the catalogue, is thwarted by the work itself, mainly on account of its tautological approach. A twice- told story attracts through the myth of the 'eternal return'. The cultural links between convivial and spiritual rituals unravel through the emphasis on feasting, Gupta actually performed as guest chef at the opening and produced the gold- plated medal of spices: Garam Masala, the site is even related to the invention of the restaurant in Paris, just before the French Revolution and we are reminded that Very Hungry God was first installed in the Church of St Bernard in Paris in 2006 during a 'migrant crisis'.
As Bataille noted from his ethnographic studies, ritual excesses fulfill a vital role in society particularly through the economy of the sacred. Orgies of one kind or another break down barriers, deconstruct and reconstruct, as in Holi, the Indian feast when anything may happen. To repeat a primeval chaotic action can lead to regeneration. Is this Gupta's message of hope, camouflaged in irony?
In many ways the popular appeal of Gupta's work harks back to the 'cult of the craftsman' by way of his apparent nostalgia for the pre-industrial symbolism of village life and communal rituals. The decline of the Indian craftsman was seen as the consequence of imperialist colonial manufacture and its modernising technology by such art critics as Coomaraswamy who believed that the artisan should play a major role in the burgeoning nationalist idealism. This was later rejected by KG Subramanyan's advocacy for the modern artist to be part of India's 'living tradition' interacting tradition with new technologies. In the postcolonial era however the preservation paradigm still haunts many global exhibitions of Indian art, often recycling neo-colonial attitudes through theatrical staging that carefully neglects references to forceful indigenous critique.
With almost four decades of economic liberalisation in an India immersed in multinational globalisation, rampant consumerism runs the marketing of cultural heritage, especially through museums. The fact that the Musee de la Monnaie is a temple of finance is the ideal space for Gupta's playing on the cusp between material and immaterial, between substance and the insubstantial, betweenfaith and disbelief, trust and mistrust, between real and fake.
Above all money is the system invented to regularise everyday exchanges and services, but ironically the coin is disappearing ...money is dematerialising, becoming as conceptualised as art objects. Museum or gallery spaces are becoming almost as important as the object, the art object has a value calculated by the market and its surrounding networks of discourse and investment. In 2000 Nancy Kwon pointed out: "...as artists have adopted managerial functions of art institutions (curator, educational, archival) ...managers of art (curators etc) who often take their cues from these artists now function as authorial figures in their own right." If Gupta's critical theme is consumer practice, he artily-craftily plays the market with Warholian or Koonsian strategies, using motifs as recognisable brands that attract collectors, from the ultra-rich to the tourist in the museum shop (now a crucial source of income). As Mary Douglas observed long ago, the value of money is decided by faith in a wholly invented system. In essence this is much like the value of art. They both depend on a ritual of belief created through managerial discourse and psychological commodification. The mundane reality is that traditional dowry gifts of stainless steel kitchen equipment depend on accumulating not only objects but above all debt: the principal tool of capitalism.
Gupta's world of Mammon could well be described by Marcel Mauss: "Society always pays itself in the counterfeit coin of its dream"