Shilpa Gupta works across such a diverse range of media that it’s hard to pin-point her oeuvre in terms of language. Still, despite such an heterogeneous production, the Mumbai-based artist’s soft approach to international politics and personal boundaries has a distinctive mark to it. Formally, you have photo pieces (for example those in which the kids portrayed are covering each other’s ears and eyes), multimedia works (like the Don’t See, Don’t Speak, Don’t Hear robot), and more sculptural installations (her Singing Cloud, made with microphones and hanging from the ceiling). In terms of themes, though, it seems the embodiment of top-down power relationships such as borders (inner and outer, geographical and interpersonal) is the main recurring element throughout Gupta’s work.
Despite the limited space dedicated to the exhibition, the current solo show at Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem provides a good overview of the artist’s diverse poetic tools, with a strong focus on themes like migration and the conflict between subjective and imposed geography. Displayed across two rooms only, the show welcomes the visitor with a series of photographic pieces, one of which placed outside the entrance. The images portray the subjects as they cover their faces in self-defense, the arms blurred in the movement. The same subject is photographed in two or more poses, superimposed on a white background to dramatize their frantic suspension.
Compared to the pictures, most of the installations on show have a more composed and understated appeal. A set of rugged doors, bound to each other and forming a revolving yet still monument to perpetual movement, sit not far from another recursive allegory, a cage within a cage within a cage, which hangs from the ceiling. Other pieces are more explicit in their reference to international mobility issues: There is No Explosive in This showcases a series of objects on a table, each confiscated at the Montreal Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport and now wrapped in a neutral white fabric, while Threat is a short wall made with soap bricks. If these visions are all part of a rather bleak scenario, Gupta’s A Map of My Country feels far more optimistic. The artist asked a hundred Montrealers from different ethnic backgrounds to draw a map of their country, each projected in sequence on the wall. The crowd-sourced nature of the work gives a much better idea of contemporary soft-borders and psychogeography than the other pieces, which render more top-down allegories. A rather positive view is also arguably suggested by another untitled installation on show, consisting in a closed book with a long, single blank sheet cascading down to the floor. According to the caption the object is supposed to represent an invitation to fill in an unwritten future, but rather the paper piling up on the floor gives a feeling of disregard. Also on the floor of the room is Half Widows, a video projection of a little girl from Kashmir (Gupta has been researching the condition of Kashmiri women first hand) jumping on one foot and singing a litany about the abandonment of her husband, who might be dead or not.
Like the other works of Gupta’s that are grounded in actual experience (There is No Explosive in This and A Map of My Country), Half Widows works much better than the photos or the other installations exhibited at MMKA. While aesthetically beautiful and visually striking, the metaphorical pieces feel much less authentic and more – so to speak – expected, freezing the artist’s statement in a less extroverted format. Overall, though, the exhibition comes across as soft-spoken and consistent, a poetic yet firm statement on a world that might not be as borderless as it claims to be.