Materiality, communication and the collapse of global and local spheres are combined in Subodh Gupta’s large-scale exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, New York. Making reference to the earth’s current population and its cosmic inverse, the title of the show, ‘Seven Billion Light Years’, suggests a ‘speck-of-dust’ relation of humans to the universe and our attempts to make meaning in such a situation.
The works range from vast piles of old pans with protruding taps of running water, to a plane of compacted mud and dung, which can be walked on by the viewer. A cosmic landscape is created from the everyday. The objects’ materiality and their transmutation into metals, such as bronze and copper, resonate throughout. Base elements and metals sit side by side to alchemical effect as mangoes and potatoes are cast from bronze but painted realistically, and in ‘Imperial Metal’, 2014, twenty four carot gold-plated rods sit atop a burnt wood table.
The title piece of the show consists of four large ‘planet’ paintings. On closer inspection, the works are enlarged depictions of rusted aluminium pans placed against a black background. The rusted parts of the pans become craters and their tinny glows auroras in the surrounding black oil paint. In some cases the original pan that Gupta has painted is included in the work, stuck to the surface so that a textured projection is built into an otherwise flat painting. Like the pans piled up at the start of the exhibition in ‘This is not a fountain’, 2011–13, which form a waste plane of cooking utensils, utilitarian objects are transmuted into artworks by repetition and changes in perspective.
In the next room, three formally similar large works, ‘Untitled’, ‘Hamid Ka Chimta’ and ‘Orange Thing’, (2014), line the walls. Made from copper, steel and brass, so that their individual colours differ, their splays of steel tongs and plastic are simultaneously engulfing and ridiculous; resembling oversized tinsel baubles emerging from the walls like cheerleader’s pom-poms. They suggest movement but remain static. There is also a comic dimension to ‘Pearl’ (2011), a giant necklace hanging from the wall made from pans threaded onto a rope. A once delicate ornament is made oversized and clumsy.
Locating the works in Gupta’s hometown of New Delhi, a video ‘I go home every single day’ (2004), depicts train and street scenes filmed on a hand-held camera. The video feels D.I.Y, as viewpoints switch from inside to outside a railway carriage and people are blurred and obscured as the camera moves around erratically. Individual details of place are zoomed in on - a protruding tap from a wall or a group of people sleeping on the train with their shoes removed. The atmosphere and filming create both chaos and calm in a hazy mass of long shots, pans and close-ups. Filters, stillness and changing temporalities take the viewer to a dream-weaving narrative with nothing cohesive other than the physical place of filming.
The insistence of place - Gupta’s hometown - is important. Cooking and eating are also important as they further ground the works to everyday practices. Gupta’s exhibition uses location to think about the specific meanings we identify with place and objects. They happen to be his place and his objects but this doesn’t limit their applicability to more universal questions.