Friday, 31 May 2013

Subodh Gupta: What does the vessel contain, that the river does not

Cast ashore Savile Row’s Hauser & Wirth, Subodh Gupta’s What does the vessel contain, that the river does not is driftwood…Keralan found, London abounding.

From India’s muddied docks, Gupta’s seventy-foot boat has drifted upstream to this post-industrial, fluorescent-lit gallery space, where the detritus of its migration is pellucid. That is, the artist’s weathered vessel is the receptacle of a tired soul in transit. Caught between belonging and displacement, arriving and departing, it is the embodiment of intermediate existence. Liminality is Gupta’s poetry.

Resembling something of a stuffed (quite literally) whale, the artist's body of work seemingly toys with the notion of stasis. Only a whiff of sea-salt, or is it sawdust? Rather varnish? Yes, varnished wood drying in the sun...loiters. This is no taxidermy, but the preservation of a living, respiring, perspiring mamma. Hauser & Wirth is a marine terrarium, where Gupta's vessel is under our scientific observation. Yet that smell, that unaccountable smell, finds you at once dissecting your own memory; who, what, where, when is that small? The artist's construction of ready-made objects thus deconstructs our very human stories. Where Gupta's vessel of gagris, rice sacks and rusted kadai's is sewn together from bow to stern with hessian string, his viewer is incited to consider his/her own life tapestry, from its birth to its death. The greater paradigm of human survival, if not mortality, is thus here staged.

I am at once reminded of my time in Kerala, where I was awoken each morning in my hotel room by the toiling mantra of the local fishermen outside as they hauled in their nets. Yet there was nothing remotely romantic about the trifling proportions of their catch, which threw into sharp relief the dissonant relationship between tradition and modernisation as the sub-continent developed, and continues to develop, economically. For the native’s empty nets mapped the gulf between then and now; sadly Indian agrarian livelihoods are increasingly dislocated by tourism. Yet whatever the means to survive – for tourism is a mode of survival after all – to remain is, conclusively, an impulse.

Gupta’s work certainly has a pulse. A heart beat. Where cooking utensils spill from the bow of the artist’s boat, promising to satisfy all those who go hungry, perhaps then Gupta’s What does the vessel contain, that the river does not has five thousand heart beats. For the work is indubitably biblical. Yet into Gupta’s Ark it is the inanimate not the animate that “went in two by two…to get out of the rain”. Bicycles have replaced bumble-bees. Gupta's trunks, not elephant snouts, are rather vessels themselves.

Yet Gupta’s objects are personified precisely because they function as repositories. They are living since it is in the artist’s dusty trunks, jars, and wheelbarrow that humanity deposits its memories. They are what they carry. Where the title What does the vessel contain, that the river does not is somewhat self-explanatory, Gupta’s microcosm is apparently a response to the ancient Sufi philosophy rooted in the thirteenth-century mystics, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
’s poetry: 

“What does the vat contain that is not in the river?
What does the room encompass that is not in the city?
This world is the vat, and the heart the running stream,
This world the room, and the heart the city of wonders.”
(Excerpt from ‘The Sufi Path of Love’)

Where an empty wicker chair is placed about the beam of the boat, Gupta seemingly invites his viewers to climb aboard his swollen vessel and to take a seat amongst it all. The heart of his work certainly pulsates with centripetal force; Hauser & Wirth’s gallery is at once the globe.

Where Subodh Gupta’s work is progressively featured worldwide, the centre is the artist’s destination. 

Liza Weber

Subodh Gupta
Hauser & Wirth, London W1
18 May - 27 July 2013

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