Well known for his sculptural work, Subodh Gupta’s designs feature everyday objects like metal plates, bowls, tiffin boxes, milk buckets and other kitchen utensils. Nicknamed the ‘Damien Hirst of Delhi’, the leading contemporary artist often explores the concept of dislocation through his creations. With his works exhibited across the world at various exhibitions and fairs, the artist explores a myriad of mediums – sculpture, video and even painting.
Together with his wife Bharti Kher, he has now devoted his practice to various Covid-19 relief operations across the country. The artists created “nine iconic works that extend their long-standing artistic explorations of found objects and daily rituals, while addressing the world of the moment.”
“The artists hope to raise Rs 1 crore towards long-term sustainable aid and will donate 100% of the proceeds from the sale to the Hemkunt Foundation and Goonj to support their relief efforts,” an official statement read.
In an exclusive conversation with indianexpress.com, Subodh Gupta talks about his journey, how art has helped him cope with the pandemic, his latest initiative and much more.
The pandemic has dramatically affected everyone’s life. How did you experience it?
Last year, the family were in different parts of the world, either in transit or in quarantine. I worked quietly and steadily in the studio, and to be honest I did some really ambitious works and lots of paintings. Making art is a coping mechanism and I always look to the studio. The cruel nature of this virus is that when family and friends are sick, you cannot see them. Bharti and I have had Covid at different times and we are lucky to be fine now, and I feel blessed to be back to work and healthy. I have my doctor to thank.
What led to your Covid-19 fundraising initiative?
I was sick when half of Delhi was sick. All the systems we relied on seemed to collapse. I was pretty sick and in bed most of the time, but Bharti told me that it was so difficult to find medicine, that the hospitals were on their knees, that it was impossible to get a test. People like us, who are privileged, are lucky. We know friends in the medical profession and we have access to resources. Imagine what is happening to the rest of India, to small towns, villages and the poor. How and who was going to help them? When we saw the incredible initiatives launched by dedicated NGOs and civilians, we knew we had to help. We couldn’t physically but we could financially and we wanted to work again, to find positivity in the sea of damn news feeds.
Can you show us your works? A bouquet of flowers and My Village 1 and 2 – explain relevance and inspiration?
The new paintings that I have made are a continuation of a series of works that I started last year. A departure in a way from the more formal style of painting of past works. The still life has been simplified and I make marks like a rough drawing. Titled My village, they’re both festive and melancholy, reminding me of the smells of my mom’s cooking at home. Still life is something I come back to over and over again. The importance of food, sharing, nourishment and community is an integral part of my language. I like to cook for people, like my mother. At home, the kitchen is still alive!
The sculptures are truly one of my signature stainless steel works. A Bouquet of flowers is a gift of empathy and a peace offering to Covid and Langar – The Tiffin Box, with utensils overturned, is a tribute to the spirit of nourishment and well-being that the Sikh community in India has pursued as part of their faith in inclusiveness and humanitarian aid. They continue to be exemplary.
You have often explored the effects of cultural translation and dislocation through your works – something that happened in the midst of the pandemic. How did you highlight these aspects through your last works?
This pandemic has shown us on the one hand that we are one world, and we have all been affected. Yet there is a huge disparity in how we access the fight and we have seen how different countries have handled the crisis. Dislocation is a kind of break with the house, which is forced. It is about migration and the city. That’s how we also came from a small town to the city and never really went back. I have done works on my village because when we are in crisis, we remember the house and the people that we were. To come home is to find safety when there is danger. How many people have walked thousands of kilometers to their villages last year by bike and on foot! It is our collective shame as a nation.
How and in what ways has the pandemic affected your work, and you as an artist?
Artists are used to being alone. It’s our way of thinking, creating and changing. The pandemic was also very sad, and I see that the fight is still not over. We are all deeply impacted but as adults we can do it. I worry more about kids who haven’t been to school for a year or who haven’t met their peers, played and been kids. They had to protect their parents from Covid and the long-term effects will not be seen until later.
The art world has been deeply affected by the pandemic, with many exhibitions and fairs going virtual. What is your vision of virtual shows when the idea behind art is to engage with it and experience it up close?
Nothing like the experience of art. People can say whatever they want about virtual connectivity and access. But the physicality of art is everything. The experience of walking around a work (is unmatched).
What are you waiting for as a new standard in the art world?
Fewer fairs, more local artistic interactions, less money for small spaces and independent actors. I don’t really know, to be honest. None of us do.
An artist needs ideas and inspiration to work. Have lockdowns proven to be successful for you as an artist?
Most ideas generate new ideas, and work inspires work. Containment has been both good and bad. I have done a lot of work but I miss my kids, friends and family too. What better way to end a day than with whiskey and a dinner with friends.
Art can play a huge role in changing society. Do you agree?
I wish that in India we would have more space for culture. We have a 5000 year old civilization full of arts and excellence. To move on to the next phase, we need to share access to museums, training, art schools, history. Public spaces should be owned by the public so that they can feel proud of their city and enjoy the beauty that is there. Design, architecture, art can all transform cities, but someone has to want to implement it. But even when there is no language, there is art.
The sale is visible on http://www.pledgebybhatiandsubodh.com