The Fuschia Tree
Editor's Note.
When we choose to spend the day walking in the mountains or to cover a page of our best notebook with doodles, or places leaves in a flower vase to give the arrangement 'texture', colour-code our bookshelves, bake our own bread, wait long years before our rhododendron grows, perhaps we are committing a folly.
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By Varsha Reshamwala, Issue 21, Folly: A wise fool, March 2013

Her relaxed demeanour and girl-like giggle masks her many accomplishments. She has showcased her works at leading museums and galleries world over and was a runner up at the Skoda Prize 2012 Awards. This is an attempt to uncover both sides of Shilpa Gupta, the critically acclaimed artist and the person behind the artist.

In her bold, simple renditions of text, she exposes our everyday follies: how we create boundaries where really symbols and the world merge as one.

TFT: In your work you use a variety of media: bars of soap, bricks and bags, audio and video sensors, speakers and computers, text, light and scotch-tape, among several other everyday objects. Nancy Adajania has however remarked that your “real medium” is “audience perception”… 

Shilpa Gupta: I am primarily interested in how we construct, imagine and remember what we see. Therefore the actual material of the work itself is a variable. This variable can be an object or an experience from everyday life and range from a soap bar to a screen to a sound bite – all of which inherently carry visible or invisible signifiers thatbeam visual or audio messages or both to us.  

TFT: Aside from the soap bars, screens and sound bites, you’ve even worked on designing sets for an opera! Tell us about the project. How was the experience different from your everyday work?

SG: The opera was a rather enjoyable process and I found myself rather seamlessly responding to the fantastic script by Alice Goodman and the contemporary music composed by John Adams. I treated it as a response which comes from my own background as an artist where am interested in perception and meaning. I am interested in objects and the meanings they can embody when shifted around a little bit. The real/everyday object is also important to me and that becomes the starting point, and it is in the shift, that the meaning can be found.For example, in the last scene of the opera, parts of a gigantic Mao statue were pushed onto the stage and only to get assembled in front of the audience. However, once the parts came together, the statue became so big that the head went through the ceiling! This was a response to the mood and the script of the scene where the protagonists, President Nixon, his wife Pat, Chinese Premier Chou En-lai and Mao wereall reminiscing about their past and where the ambitions had taken them.

The main difference from my art practice and this was the collaboration with the director and costume designer; and as is the case with all collaborations, this meant different points of views coming together in synergy and tension!

TFT: What has been your best work moment?

SG: There is not one best moment per se – especially for a practice like mine, which is full of production oriented work, much like a film production. There are several ‘moments’ felt at different times, especially the times when the work comes together! For example, when a work materializes inside of me, at the end of an audio edit or while standing in front of a completed art work.

TFT: Your favourite title of an artwork?

Someone Else.

TFT: On the folly of form: You often use text in the form of random words, songs or prose in your work. Do you think of the text first and then the form that it will take, or is it an integrated process?

SG: There is no constant pattern in this – there are times it is integrated, then sometimes the text comes first, then sometimes the form comes first – what is important is what choice is finally made. For example, there are times when I have a piece of text I want to work with and make several drawings using the text in different ways, followed up by making samples of it in different forms. Thereafter I make a final choice. I often work with new materials and only upon making ‘a test’ can I say whether it works or not for the feeling I want.

TFT: On the folly of geography in your art: I am thinking about the work ‘There is No Border Here’(2006) which was triggered by the situation in Kashmir but received mostpassionately in Havana.Clearly experience a viewer goes through when encountering your works is free of any geographical limits. Your work is universal in the themes explored…

SG: In ‘There is no Border Here’ text that pondered over how one is to divide the sky when drawing up territorial boundaries, was inscribed on a wall in the shape of a flag. The irony of how a flag, conventionally thought of as heralding freedom, actually limits one to a particular territory, was brought forth by the work.

Yes, that’s true. We often make rather broad categories based upon geography and nationality but from my own experience this can be rather limiting. When I showed ‘There is No Border Here’ in Havana, which has a particular history and therefore a heightened awareness of what borders mean, the response was rather passionate - visitors had tears in their eyes and many even hugged me upon looking at the work. This was different from the response I received in a gallery in Mumbai, where it was good but not as passionate. So levels of responses vary in a work that has been shown in different geographies. And yes, since I am finally interested in how we look at things, this is a rather universal emotion.

TFT: A brooding sense of anxiety, fear and suspicion underscores most of your works. Are these feelings you are preoccupied with? Or are you simply reflecting aspects that shape our society? 

SG: I am interested in these feelings as they surface at junctures where definitions/categories get questioned and trespassed. Also I suppose since one has grown up in times where these feelings were particularly constructed, and somewhat exaggerated, they have entered my work.

TFT: Your light-based work ‘’I Live Under Your Sky Too”(2011) was recently installed by the sea face in one of Mumbai’s suburbs. I understand you interacted with some of the visitors to the exhibit. Did you tell them you were the artist or did you speak to them anonymously? What were their reactions to the work?

SG: Gupta inscribed the words ‘I Live Under Your Sky Too’ in an installation that alternately lit upthe English, Urdu and Hindi versions, in an attempt to highlight the pluralism of Mumbai.

As I was curious to know reactions, there were times I hung out at the work and interacted with people. I would not say that I was the artist, as that could alter what they would say. If they did ask, then first I would say that I was just connected to the project and then in the end I’d tell them that I happened to be the artist.

About the reactions, there were several different ones. People of course read the work in terms of religion, others in terms of caste and yet others felt they connected it with the Delhi rape case. I am glad with these multiple readings! One rather memorable feedback was from a 70+ year oldwoman, who caught my hand just after I finished giving a talk in front of the work.  She said she lived in the opposite building,and liked looking at and reading the Urdu and Hindi versions every night, even when she drew her blinds. It was really special that someone of this age connected so beautifully with a work of contemporary art!

TFT: Can you tell us some of the interesting responses you received when visitors encountered your work Blame (2002-2004)?

SG: In ‘Blame’, the artist filled simulated blood in small bottles with labels that read: “Blaming you makes me feel so good!  So I blame you for what you cannot control: your religion, your nationality. I want to blame you, it makes me feel good.”

I would take a Churchgate local, get into the women’s compartment carrying a box of Blame bottles, open them and as they would sometimes leak, start to clean them. Women around me would ask me what they wereand soon the 20-30 bottles would disappear from the box as a result of beinggetpassed around. The reactions ranged from a level of discomfort to conversations, to a woman buying a bottle to take for her son, to another woman sending me a thumbs up at a distance getting off the train!

We also did this project in Perth with a bigger group of volunteers donned Blame t-shirts and distributed several bottles in different places, starting from the street outside the art gallery to thepublic square around it, in the little lanes in the city center, in shopping malls and also in a suburban Sunday market!The reactions ranged from those who would not like to meet our eye to intense conversations, to some amount of aggressive behavior, to someone returning back to take a bottle for a friend. One middle-aged person came and stood in front of me, head down and hands folded. I was rather taken aback at first and then a colleague explained to me that he had connected it to the history of Australia and the local aboriginal people and this was a way to say sorry for the past!

TFT: If you could have only one piece of art, which would it be?

SG: A still life of Apple and Oranges by Cezanne

TFT: What is a normal workday like?

SG: A normal workday would be an uneven mix of making drawings and layouts, making tests and samples, seeing works in different stages and emails!

TFT: What do you do when you’re not making art?


TFT: Interesting works you’ve come across recently?

Several! ‘The Sovereign Forest’by Amar Kanwar, the ‘Shouting for Locations’ photographic series byYazanKalilil’s, ‘Don’t Cross the bridge before you get to the River’ by Fracis Alys.

TFT: All time favourite films?

SG: An all time favorite film has been HazaronKhwahishenAisi by Sudhir Mishra.I also liked Deepankar Banerjee’s Love, Sex and Dhokha and Shanghai.

TFT: Your favourite ritual?

My morning cup of masala tea!

TFT: Book on your bedside at the moment?

‘In Custody’ by Anita Desai.

TFT: Something you wish you knew?

SG: The way our minds worked, especially how memory is created.

As told to Varsha Reshamwala, an art critic with other interests, living and working in Mumbai.

Shilpa Gupta is an artist living and working in Mumbai.

Also in this issue

  • Sounding Through The Trees: Vivek Narayanan.
    If there’s any kind of definition of an artistin terms of how society thinks of an artist today – it would be the idea that it is ok for them to be a little irrational, or a little insane. It permits that...
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  • A Space for Immortality with Archana Prasad.
    In Architectural jargon, a folly is a building constructed merely for decorative purposes, one that is extravagant in its beauty. To some, who have argued the ancient argument against art...
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  • Stomp: A Disembodied Comic.
    This comic was born out of a fractured moment. It was born in a moment which had nothing left to say. It was born in a moment that couldn’t describe itself. It was born on a day when the sun...
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Illusion: Seeing Beyond Seeing
Meaning: In Search of Significance.
Melody: A Different Tune
Rhythm: Ordering Time

Dhrupadi Ghosh is an old friend of mine. We have often had long sessions of adda late at night, discussing her dream projects since her college days at Santiniketan, where she majored in Sculpture.