When Subodh Gupta was growing up in Bihar, India, in the 1960s, he often spent long afternoons in the kitchen with his sisters and his mother. Gupta dreamt of becoming a chef, and, although he’s now become perhaps India’s best-known Contemporary artist, the kitchen remains at the center of his work — the mundanity and quotidian nature of the pantry, the seemingly insignificant instruments that, together, hold the potential to create a singular masterpiece.
After studying painting at the College of Arts and Crafts in Patna, India, Gupta spent decades using his artworks to survey and analyze the evolving culture and economy of India, looking specifically at the ways in which globalism and consumerism were slowly eclipsing tradition as the central shaper of the country’s future. In perhaps his most famous experimental work, “Pure,” he covered himself in the excrement of a cow (a sacred animals to Hindus) and stood motionless beneath a shower until it washed off, a vulgar subversion of tradition.
His take on the tradition-versus-consumerism question became more focused when he turned toward using an object that’s at once of daily use in India and particularly modern: stainless steel. He first used it by putting stainless steel utensils on simple conveyor belts then turned them into bizarre shapes — from mushroom clouds to oversized heads. He’s since been called the “King of Screaming Metal.” (He’s also sometimes referred to as, both complimentarily and derogatorily, the “Damien Hirst of Delhi.”)
And yet, Gupta claims he is “not deeply political,” telling The Indian Express, “there is no point in making political works. In some instances, it is being done because I think making political works has become fashionable.” But between his subversion of Indian traditionalism, his tracking of India’s cultural consumerism, and, perhaps most importantly, his recent watercolor series about Syrian refugees’ displacement, his work not only seems political but exceptionally so.
Until August 26, his most comprehensive retrospective in Europe is currently on show at the Monnaie de Paris, with 30 of his works and sculptures stretching throughout the museum and its courtyard.
Curated by Camille Morineau, the director of exhibitions and collections at the Monnaie de Paris — who visited India three separate times in order to discuss the show with Gupta as well as the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Piramal Foundation, who are sponsors of the exhibition — and Mathilde de Croix, the museum’s exhibition curator, the show is split into six sections: “The language of the ordinary, “Insatiable god,” “There is always cinema,” “The gods are in the kitchen,” “Travel and exile,” and “Celestial bodies.”
Beneath the chandelier in the Salon Dupre lies the central piece of the show. “Very Hungry God” is a 13-foot-high sculpture of a skull made of stainless-steel utensils and tiffin boxes — a combination of shiny modernity with the traditional lunch boxes that Indian children take to school. As one walks around it, the sculpture reflects one’s image so that one is implicated in both India’s past and present. Gupta again employs stainless-steel utensils in “People Tree,” a 33-foot-tall banyan tree made of steel that uses cutlery as leaves.
Sometimes, Gupta gets lost in his own symbolist complexities, as with “Atta,” a seemingly innocuous piece of floured bread dough placed on a simple wooden table. What appears to be bread dough, however, is actually bronze-painted steel — one of a few trompe l’oeils throughout the exhibition that, after reminding us that the present and past are not always what we think, do little else. (Another is “Oil on Canvas,” a piece of bronze-painted steel made to look like a canvas.)
Where Gupta most succeeds, though, is when he doubles down on his political opinions, like in “Faith Matters,” which has brass, aluminum, and stainless-steel utensils along with open, empty tiffin lunch boxes that together move along a motorized conveyor belt. The piece evokes the Silk Road, food transport, and, through his chosen materials, the clash of tradition and modernity. (Less revolutionarily, but similarly and more famously, “Two Cows,” has a pair of bicycles in bronze paint and chrome-plated bronze placed against a wall next to pails of milk, as if the milk is perpetually ready to be taken on its journey of daily distribution.)
Using the Monnaie de Paris’ open space and variety of spots for hanging objects (used expertly by Maurizio Cattelan in his exhibition two years ago), Gupta creates a feeling of epic drama with his hanging of a wooden canoe with pots strung from ropes. But his subtler contribution to the history of the Monnaie de Paris is his devising of his own coin. Since 864 C.E., the Monnaie has been minting coins. Gupta was asked to create his own, which he calls “Garam Massala.” But, in making it, he chose not copper nor silver nor even stainless-steel, but rather humble bronze, perhaps providing his final say on where he believes the current socio-political state of India lies.
Subodh Gupta “Adda/Rendez-vous” is on view at the Monnaie de Paris through August 26. More information: https://www.monnaiedeparis.fr/en