The self-reflexive urge which underpins autobiographical discourse is centrally concerned with the impact of the outer realm of history on the inner space of personal `being'. Thus, such discourses, whether, literary or artistic can be locative as ‘sociographies' and function as a site where such narratives have public and political implications. Autobiography also entails ideas of subjectivity, identity and dialogic/ideological frames of reference with our lived world. Such dialogic frames are not just social but also spatial, a tapestry of human traces and existence. As the German cultural theorist, Siegfried Kracauer opines, “Socio-spatial images are the dreams of society, wherever the hieroglyphics of any spatial image is deciphered, there the basis of social reality presents itself”. A megalopolis, such as Bombay, which in itself presupposes to be a locus of modernity and mobility in the public imagination, is an unfulfilled dream, filled with stories of ambiguity, estrangement and existential impotence. The modern city is both physically and ideologically repressive because, on the ground, it is capable of controlling the movement of people yet, at the same time; ‘urban’ living becomes desirable and a marker of social achievement due to the connections between the city and potential wealth.
A metropolis, as a site for autobiographical narratives, of fractured identities mediating the global and the local, modernization and tradition, openness to cultural hybridism and the preservation of historical differences and diversity, offers itself to be read as a text of contradictory significations. It is also a site of disintegrating experiences, where new configurations of everyday technologies both transforms the modes in which we experience the modern metropolis, and creates new sets of entities and imprints in the urban landscape. Hema Upadhyay, via her autobiographical narratives, creates visual sociographies, which function as subversions on the agencies that shape the biography of the city. She locates her gaze onto the city of Bombay and its hieroglyphics of space, which is both her ‘home’ and her frame of ideological import. Her conceptual trajectories have been defined via her experiences of migration and displacement, and her struggles for acceptance, both as a woman and an artist. The dialectical relationships of the feminine body, the city and the self, emerge as personal, political and urbanite allegories, the artist navigating the realms of memory and history in a post-modernist amalgamation of painting, photography, collaborative and site-specific installations.
Born in Baroda (1972), Upadhyay trained in painting and print-making at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S.University of Baroda, experimenting with varied materials and languages, often personal in nature, from art school itself. Soon after completion of her art education (1991-1997), Upadhyay made a conscious decision to shift to Bombay (1998), centrally locating her tumultuous experience as an anonymous migrant, both in historical (her family originally belonged to Pakistan) and real time, in the exigencies of urban living. Globalization also accentuates a ‘new urban archipelago’ where massive consumerism amid deprived populations only serves to create divisiveness of economies, infrastructure and fair access to civil rights. Upadhyay interrogates the notions of a ‘global’ city that Bombay aspires to be, often based on the models of Shanghai or Dubai. The vertical (skyscrapers) and the horizontal (slums) layout of the city, the economics of space and real estate, the production of surplus labour and global capital via migrants, who often live in urban poverty and displacement, raises existential dilemmas for the artist of what the ‘home’ means in such explosive demographic shifts. Such a production of space has profound implications: to whom does the city belong? Via the realist/surrealist language, self-portraiture and domestic narratives, Upadhyay investigates the ‘within’ and ‘without’ of living in such precarious socio-spatial systems and how do we understand our ‘place’ in the inclusions/exclusions that mark our fragmented times and its commoditized structures.
It would be also worthwhile to explore Upadhyay’s deployment of the body and self-portraiture, within the realm of feminist art practice. The engagement with the body and its representation in her art has been a gradual process. Upadhyay has maintained a critical distance from overt representations of the feminine self, and in her earlier work, the body emerged as a present absence, via symbolic objects, that marked human traces and stories of habitation. Self-portraiture and feminine subjectivity is a challenging art historical genre, framed by the male gaze and objectified according to the norms of a patriarchal ideal of beauty. Upadhyay crafts out a very atypical approach towards the body, resisting stereotypes of femininity and transgressing gendered constructions of the female body. Stepping out of narcissistic portrayals, she adopts an almost banal representation, engaged in everyday gestures, locative in the larger socio-cultural terrain. She does not paint self-portraits, but photographs herself, portraying not as the central protagonist of her compositions, but in multiple miniscule, metaphorical and performative acts. The self confronts certain personal phobias and shortcomings; while engaging with other realities of identities and spaces, both public and private that are hierarchically structured within the divisions of class, caste, religion and gender.
In her multi-layered paintings, she subverts the gaze of the spectator/viewer in the miniaturization of the scale of the human figure vis-à-vis the urban landscape. Space as discontinuous, time as transitory, scale as indeterminate; claustrophobia and anxiety that are markers of a neurotic urban life, enter via multiple layering in Upadhyay’s work. Challenging commercial norms of feminine beauty, as endorsed in the visual culture of bill-boards, her choice of such a portrayal is an act of reclamation; a representation of the ‘Real/Everyday’ body with its frowns, pimples, fat, lethargy and signs of deterioration, in its circumstantial identity. The images may sometimes narrate poignant aspects of domestic entrapment, but she moves beyond rigid and rational analysis of feminist theory, in a quest of new equations and significations of feminist subjectivity. The use of multiples is also a reference from the Mewar miniatures where there is a continuous narrative; the artist employs these visual clues in a contemporary context, imploding the narratives of self-hood.
Imagery from popular culture and mass production are culled in her works, Upadhyay conceptualizes her work similarly in the language of an advertising product. Such deployments allude toPop Art in the fusion of object, image, and commercial product, with the focus on a singular image, blowing it up beyond human scale, in a subversive critique of the urban consumerist phenomenon. She creates a story-board of her ideas, scripting the urban landscape in colour and form, then photographs herself and superimposes miniscule cloned cutouts on the painted image, in variable photographic angles; She merges and emerges in the pictorial space, obscuring real and imagined mappings of the city. Upadhyay articulates an observer-participant dialectic, taking viewers away from predictable trajectories and jolting them into a new awareness of urban landscapes. We find her precariously leaning on the edges of terraces on skyscrapers, ready to leap into a encompassing blue abyss, scrambling up the facades of lofty terrifying buildings (In Between B413/414 and A2-403, 2001), airborne above the congested city-scapes, seeking organic breathing space, cleansing the ‘black’ accumulated foam on human teeth in a replicated image of a ‘white’ toothpaste advertisement (Sweet Memories 2001), or enacting the laboured lives of urban working women who travel on Bombay’s frothing local trains juxtaposed against imagery of cramped apartments (Urban Landscape, 2004 ).There is an unremitting engagement, to borrow from Walter Benjamin, with both the “physiognomy of the city, (as a space to be read) and its phenomenology (as mythology, history, politics and text)”.
Apart from collaged works, Upadhyay has explored the medium of installations, ephemeral (The Space between You and Me 2002), singular (Loco-Foto-Moto 2003; Dream a Wish, Wish a Dream 2004) and collaborative (Made in China 2003-2004), while exploring a variety of materials from found objects to photographs, transparent materials to wood, and also sound. In an exploration of the temporality of the Self/Body, Upadhyay in an ephemeral public art project, The Space between You and Me, explores the trajectories of memory and history, via la letter inscribed on the earth with local crop (ragi) seeds. She writes a letter to her parents, articulating thoughts that she might have never shared with her family members. The seeds give birth to words/intimate feelings of the artist, left to growth, change and death under natural conditions. Via the use of 'time' as an artistic medium, Upadhyay subverts issues of form and anti-form and the possibilities of erasures of histories, semantics of language and the ephemerality of the Body/Life itself. It is in its very poetic eloquence that this work becomes conceptually and materially operative.
Loco-Foto-Moto is another important sculptural installation, where the artist creates a chandelier made of match-sticks. A chandelier is a class symbol, while matchsticks are available to the general populace for everyday use; matchsticks which are chemically treated to produce flame, have both constructive and destructive functions; Via a aesthetically built chandelier made of inflammable material, Upadhyay brings in various issues of class conflicts and the inflammable and often fragile psychological terrains of an urbanite struggling to ‘live and provide’ in the city; Hope, despair and survival, life and death, the subjectivities of the fraught urban populace dreaming of chandeliers in their individual homes, the potency of violence in our every-day lives are embedded in this powerful work. Like a time-bomb, this piece remains suspended, waiting to burst into flames at any point of time.
In Dream a Wish, Wish a Dream, the sudden change of ambience in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres is explored, where she re-constructs a undulating microcosm of Dharavi, (which is both Bombay’s and Asia’s largest slum), out of aluminum foils, scrap metal plastic and hardware material, keying in the double-edged dimensions of industrialization, modernity, migration and existential quandary. A metropolis also witnesses and contains within itself, the major economic, political and social problems of our times, its many subcultures and conflicts of class, displacements, identity crisis, urban poverty and chaos. Aspects of civilizational debris and lost homes, of cities and societies under siege, of dreams transforming into nightmares, the experience of the living body, constrained space and scale are evoked in this meticulous realistic piece. One could also read this to be an empathetic articulation of a migrant’s life in a slum, who is often victimized by the various repressive forces of the State, despite contributing to the surplus labour units of the city.
In her suite of collaged paintings, (Underneath 2004) the realms of the split self, discontinuity, repression, sex, violence and survival are both overtly and covertly expressed; seductively layered in ornate design of a bed-sheet, the realms of the private and the public being in a continual state of flux. In a population of alienated automatons, even love becomes mere demonstration, riots and state-sponsored pogroms become easily forgotten histories. Dystopias of nationalism, ethnic identity, violence, the politics of power and location, narratives of the self and the nation, emerge in multiple registers (Bleeding Hearts, 2004).
In her recent presentation (Glass-House 2007), Upadhyay continues to explore urban subjectivities of migration, isolation and displacement, via the personal self. The binaries of nature and culture, industrialization and technology, virtual and real spaces are explored via the metaphor of glass-house, which is a modern architectural material, seductive and transparent but fragile/breakable and dangerous/threatening at the same time. The modern individual functions in ‘cells’, separated by transparent walls, disconnected from the community; the artist articulates such metaphors of loneliness and seclusion, equating the contemporary human condition to fragile illusions. One has to excavate like an archeologist to discover the many secrets that her works withhold from the viewer. In her visual sociographies, Upadhyay scripts a human predicament that is now constituted by an interconnected series of religious, political, economic, and social dilemmas. To 'live' the city is to engage in some symbiotic relationship with it, to listen to it and speak to it, but above all to wander through it and experience its spaces. Upadhyay both inhabits the city and formulates aesthetic trajectories of escape, resisting clichés of representation. Her experiential dialogues where pasts and presents converge; encompass the epic, the intimate and the cosmic, that become operative as ‘auto-conversations’, interweaving into the urban configurations.
From the exhibition catalogue published by 1 X 1 Gallery (2008).