What could be closer to the bone than to know and work about yourself? Is one able to find a ‘place’ in the conundrum of symbols and materials that Subodh employs? There are areas of facts and fallacy, people politics, memory and discernible warning - anchored down by type of obvious realism. There is in fact something for everyone.
There does seem to be a genre of artists that try to find authenticity in the ordinary reality of their own lives and backgrounds. And yet, with this precedence lies an unsustainable identity - that the self is multiple and representation never corresponds to a given formula. The artist begins a hunt for a chimera.
If we were to see materials as symbolic in Subodh’s work, carrying with them the power of multiple narratives - his and our own - the transient, lucid, latent experiences manifested into a moment of time; it is by restructuring these materials that he is able to change the course of memory or rearrange existing meaning.
“The Way Home” relies on this power of retracing and renewing. A sea of still, shimmering shapes lay calmly on the floor. Stainless steel utensils are found in probably every home across India - they cut across all classes and taste. The ‘kuttas’ (country-made revolvers) almost camouflaged at first glance, extend and intensify disguised composure in the work. If we were to see reality more in terms of entropy and chaos, rather than an ordered schemata, the calm of the work could precipitate a storm and that is why the materials take on an ambiguity and tension all of their own. You sense the possibility of change. There is a saturation point where soak becomes spill. It’s just a millisecond or a flutter of an eyelid that deflects the narrative course and one set of references is negated as a new one takes its place.
The type of gun is commonly found in homes across Eastern India. They are not used by ‘professionals’ or city elite where gun culture takes on a different socio-political agenda. People say you can but one for about Rs. 2,000 in eastern UP or Bihar. They are kept for protection, aggression and ironically to maintain a state of neutrality. This growing trend only fuels the widespread violence and racial intolerance that has become synonymous with Bihar. It has also become an international phenomenon.
All this centres around a red lotus - a beautiful flower of the nation.
The guns are both seductive and repellent. So obviously fake - the barrel is solid, all the way through. It is weighty and has an awkward top heaviness. It is beautifully contradictory; you want to hold it and point it with morbid fascination. The work becomes an enquiry into the nature of appearances and addresses questions of authenticity, artificiality and representation that are at the forefront of contemporary art discourse.
Subodh understands that art has the capacity to compress a lifetime’s experience, intellectual discourse, even aesthetic exploration and abstract it into a single object or set of objects. He effortlessly subverts his materials into potent personal and public symbols. This understanding partly stems from a strong ritual tradition in his family. The abstractions that Indian beliefs create have cerebral and intrinsic importance to the Indian psyche.
Subodh showed me the ‘Devta Ghar’ (the God room) in his home, in Bihar. It is a corner of a room (just big enough for a cat to sit) where more than five generations of prayer and oil and orange sindoor have accumulated and embalmed the stone. It is sticky, has grown wise with time and it has a distinct smell. It has heard the dreams, wishes, confessions of nay who cared to believe. He says, “My mother used to tell me when I was seven or eight years old, to go and collect cow dung, as well as a few mango leaves and some particular grass called ‘dudhiya grass’ meaning milky grass. I knew why she asked for it because it was part of our life. She would then roll two fat strips of ‘gober’ (cow dung). One was called ‘Gober’, the other she called “Ganesh”. These became iconic forms of belief and faith.” This is not to say that Subodh privileges the spiritual over the secular in his work. Beyond the specific registers that his work points to, are messages and codes veiled in allegory.
It is here that I want to comment upon the importance of ‘artistic intention’ to make a work and take it out of context of those events, happenings and rituals that influence and inform the very works themselves. With these traditions and the tradition of the so-called Indian ‘avant garde’ comes the tired argument of ‘relevance’. In terms of India’s contemporary art scene, this has become a reverberating echo that leads nowhere. There are more positions issues that explore areas of ‘location’ and ‘political address’ and as elastic borders become tighter with time, artists are responding with works that seek to place and yet highlight the frictions of public/private and the ambiguities that communicate the spirit of universality. This is not simply a polemic with the ‘West’ or a desire to ‘globalize’; it is an exchange of codes and language, a display of creativity and gesture. We should not become a nation that points with pride at our achievements and then views with alarm its manifestations. Assemblage/installation has become a way for many artists to deal with subject matter.
“Bihari” has a self-conscious appropriation, developing the use of language, slang and ironic gesture. Bihar is notorious and “Bihari” is as overtly political as you want it to be. It carries with it a feeling of disquiet and paradox. Hindi letters flash in red sequence bulbs Bi-ha-ri. These bulbs are used to decorate contemporary plastic effigies of gods. The self-portrait on a cow-dung background makes public Subodh Gupta. The paradox of the cow dung is apparent: subversive on one level, descriptive at another - sacred, pure and utilitarian all in one. The fact that he writes in Hindi, the language that has become so unfashionable in Indian art circles, reinstates an autobiographical nature of the work and the fact he is from a part of the country where Hindi is still the first language. And although he projects his self image within a set of conventions which convey his age, nationality, class and gender, you are left wondering what exactly it is that he wishes to address? Politics, regionalism, nationalism, jingoism, racism…….? Where is he placed as artist, man, husband, father, Baniya, Bihari, Hindu, Indian….? Subodh points the finger at himself and enters a labyrinth he can never escape and he takes you with him. “Bihari” works because he is able to be extrinsic and intrinsic, offbeat and moderate, and good art is about being able to communicate with your materials in whatever form they may take. This work has very long arms.
Cow dung has become a material he often uses in his work. What is seen as animal waste anywhere else, has both spiritualandpracticalusehere. The object is made sacred empty simply through spiritual realisation. It is no longer inanimate.
Yes, there are thousands of cow dung structures all over India. But who has actually been inside one, felt a soft powdery ash thud under their feet and looked up to see only the sky? The scent of the dung (because it is really not pungent) is of the earth (you feel like you do when smell fresh cut grass). The cakes piled up high, 12ft. create a sound proof chamber, like a womb, full of hope. (“My Mother & Me”).
“Art is about life, so I make my work about myself and what I know - art is valuable because it is about experiences which have nothing in common with art.”
It is the ordinary gesture, both in the making and the made; the desire to create something magical, a salient impulse to use the narrative alternatively that makes him paint 3 ordinary street cows (“How to Spell Cow in Hindi”).
Imagine a scene: 3 cows; a brown one, a brown and white one and a toffee-cream one, look at “The Way Home”. Toffee-Cream (symbolising mother, goddess, nation and nurturer) remarks:
“No Hindu would use one of those guns on me”.
“One of the advantages of being a cow”, replies Brown.
These paintings contradict the narrative epics so peculiar to Indian tradition with their seeming banality and yet, there is a strange edge to them. He has condensed all the cows of India, past and present, into 3 works. By addressing the obvious, Subodh produces a body of work both satiric and disturbing and he allows insights into the complexities of everyday life at the end of the 20th century in India. In his work you can find motifs of an eon, the ephemeral mirage of a deja-vu, the kaleidoscopic digressions of human experience - if that’s what you want to look for.
To change is to be born again, but, if you decide to ride the gravy train and chug along, singing your favourite song, that is fine too. Soak doesn’t have to become spill.
Published in the catalogue "Subodh Gupta The Way Home", by Gallery Chemould, Mumbai (23 August -10 September, 1999).