Shilpa Gupta at Arnolfini. Review by Rowan Lear
Indian artist Shilpa Gupta has a multi-disciplinary practice, in which she explores identity, power and conflict on a transnational scale. This exhibition brings together five distinct works that subvert technologies and codes of language in order to expose control and censorship of the individual. The space given to each work is mental as well as physical, and stimulates both an intellectual and emotional response.
‘Someone Else’ (2011-12), the exhibition’s title piece, is an installation of one hundred books that were originally published under a pseudonym. Shilpa Gupta has recreated each book’s cover in metal, etching the title and the author’s pseudonym in the typeface of the original, while the motive for writing anonymously has been impressed, like a library stamp. The reasons range from fear of persecution or disapproval, to desire to be taken seriously in a man’s (or woman’s) genre. While highlighting the oppression of writers, Gupta portrays the pseudonym as subversive and empowering. It is a mechanism that counters political and cultural codes of the time, and enables texts - surely the crucial part - to be published, read and disseminated. This explains why the other half of this installation resides at Bristol Central Library, where the books themselves are available to be borrowed and read by visitors. The pseudonym, as a device, allows writers to speak, whenever and wherever speech is not free.
Meanwhile, ‘Singing Cloud’ (2008-09) is experienced rather than read. An amorphous mass of microphones is suspended literally like a cloud, a metre from the ground. The conventional function of the technology is reversed: instead of recording, the microphones emit noise. There are grunts, piano pieces, humming, a singing voice, the muttered words ‘Jesus’ and ‘Allah’, and the fluttering of birds. It seems like someone is talking to themselves, and the sound moves through the cloud and around the exhibition, imparting an uncanny sense of encroachment into the private domain.
‘Untitled’ (2008-09) investigates the potential of writing with an airport-style flap-board. The text emulates a surreal stream of consciousness, punctuated by rhythmic ‘flapping’ of the board as letters change. Words are misspelt, then re-spelt, and chaotic arrangements of letters abruptly switch to insight. Here, religion meets politics meets ethics in thought-provoking disorder.
Gupta poses in camouflage clothing in a series of four photographs in ‘Untitled’ (2006). An extra pair of arms has been inserted into each image, and with these, the figure covers her eyes, ears and mouth while making gun-pointing gestures at the viewer. Military aggression combined with symbolic sensory impairment calls into question the free agency of the soldier. It makes for uneasy viewing, in light of deployments of armed forces in the name of democracy.
‘There is No Border Here’ (2005-06) is the quietest and arguably most evocative piece in the exhibition. It consists of writing formed from cut yellow tape, applied to the gallery wall in the shape of a flag. Beginning and ending with ‘I tried very hard to cut the sky in half’ the text is a moving parable, in which a gesture of pacifism rapidly deteriorates into desperate measures to divide territory. This cyclical story is poignantly familiar to world politics.
Gupta challenges transnational cultural codes and boundaries, while retaining an emotional resonance and intensity in her work. This exhibition highlights the presence of political and societal control through fear and ordinance, but every room is permeated by melancholic, cathartic and affective singing.
Rowan Lear, 2012
This text was commissioned in collaboration with Axis Web