Being familiar with Subodh Gupta’s large-scale sculptural installations, it was surprising to hear him speak at The Courtauld on 21 May– for his particularly modest, humble manner of approaching his own artworks and practice was somewhat unexpected in light of his ambitious pieces. One thing the artist and his work clearly have in common, however, is that they are immensely powerful. His latest installation at Hauser & Wirth Savile Row, What does the vessel contain, that the river does not (2012) is a huge Keralan fishing ship, hand-sewn in the traditional way and filled with the everyday Indian domestic objects that Gupta is perhaps best recognised for, steel kitchenware, amongst other pieces of furniture, broken or whole. This miscellany collected within a symbol of travel and trade seems a fitting culmination of the fourteen years of work that Gupta discussed at the seminar, for his oeuvre is inherently tied up in his personal experiences.
It was interesting to hear the anecdotes that accompany some of his most well-known pieces, as they are linked to his life – whether they were events that had taken place, conversations he had had, or simply his own thought processes – as Gupta told us, “My journey is my art.” The importance of his discovery of Duchamp was particularly touching, and one that makes so much sense when considering his sculpture – the way he elevates the quotidian to something aesthetically beautiful is quintessentially Duchampian. For example, speaking about his works Across Seven Seas and Everything is Inside (both 2004) he spoke about how he used to travel to Europe via the Gulf, and on his return journey would see Indians who were working in the Middle East with large, tightly and carefully wrapped bundles. He asked people what they had packed in there, expecting them to contain fragile and precious items; however, they usually only held gifts for the workers’ families back home. He found these bundles, as commonplace as they turned out to be, so beautiful that he created the two sculptures based on them. Aam Aadmi (2009), a collection of incredibly realistic painted bronze mangoes in a wooden crate, is similar treatment of the everyday – and as “aam aadmi” (literally translating from Hindi as “mango people”) is a colloquial term used by politicians to refer to the “common people”, it becomes a celebration not only of everyday objects but of the general masses.
Gupta then went on to talk about his early years, the beginning of his artistic career in art school in Patna, how he initially wanted to become an actor, as well as his experience of working in the Khoj workshop in 1997 – a liberating environment where the artists could work free from gallery influence for the first time. Needless to say, it was fascinating to hear the experiences that preceded such an incredible body of work.