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“Worshipping the Common Man” (art review of Subodh Gupta) by Kavita Ramdya

It was great to interesting to see how Subodh Gupta integrates humor into his art work. In his sculptures, Gupta pokes fun at the western art world’s description of his work in relation to Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst as if there is no way to understand eastern artists without a reference towards western art.

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Worshipping the Common Man“, an art review of Subodh Gupta’s show “The Common Man” at Hauser & Wirth.

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“News India Time” 30 October 2009

“Worshipping the Common Man” by Kavita Ramdya (review of Subodh Gupta’s art show at Hauser & Wirth)

Subodh Gupta, known as the “Damien Hirst of Delhi” and “India’s Jeff Koons”, worships the “common man” as opposed to, respectively, hyper-commoditized morbidity and the mass consumption of name-brand art. Hauser & Wirth’s Old Bond Street and Piccadilly galleries are currently showing Gupta’s work in a show entitled “Common Man” which pays homage to India’s labourers rather than the Hindu gods and goddesses typically displayed in museums and galleries exhibiting art from the Indian subcontinent.

“Common Man” integrates everyday objects, from mangoes and chappals (slippers) to tiffins (steel lunch boxes) and thalis (pans used during worship), to create thought-provoking yet aesthetically-profound sculptures. His attention to detail combined with his commentary on India’s labor population confirm why Gupta is currently India’s most celebrated living artist.

There are a number of untitled works, including a seven-foot wide stainless steel thali pan filled with kitchen utensils, tiffins, and pails, a work meant to pay respect to the way labourers eat: employing re-usable eating utensils and tiffins brought from home to the work site. In another untitled yet striking piece, Gupta’s team took a mould of a tree growing out of a window from the artist’s hometown of Bihar as a way of highlighting how nature forms around and in spite of man-made objects.

What differentiates Gupta from his contemporaries is not only his worship of the common man but also the humor in his work. In another untitled work, the viewer recalls Damien Hirst: a large fibreglass skull is ringed with stainless steel eating utensils. Here, the artist makes fun of the western media’s description of him as “the Damien Hirst of Delhi”, as if contemporary Indian art can only be understood in reference to western artists.

Likewise, in an attempt to recognize the western media’s description of Gupta as “the Jeff Koons of India”, the artist took two years to create fifty aluminium boxes bearing the Jeff Koons “Puppy” branding in a work titled “Jeff the Koons”. In a marketing ploy, Koons had created an “unlimited” rather than “limited” edition of his art work as a way to turn the economic model of supply and demand on its head which Gupta subsequently pokes fun at for Koons’s obvious effort to position his art for widespread, mass consumption.

Perhaps the most poignant and devastatingly hard-hitting piece is “I Believe You”, another large thali pan, this time covered with battered shoes worn by day labourers. While visiting an Indian village, Gupta traded the labourers’ old shoes for new ones. The shoes are served on a thali pan normally used to carry coconuts and candles as well as other assorted fruit, rice and spices as offerings when worshipping Hindu gods and goddesses. In a clockwise motion, worshippers will move the thali pan in front of a Hindu idol or photograph as a way of doing arthi, or making an offering. In Gupta’s sculpture, he places worn shoes on the thali pan as a way to worship and pay tribute to “the common man”.

Likewise, “Aam Aadmi” (Hindi for “man people”) is a collection of mangoes surrounded by hay sitting in a wooden crate. It was only after reading that the mangoes were painted bronze that, upon looking more closely, I could see the reflection of the overhead lights in the mangoes; the reflection was the only clue that betrayed the mangoes were not made of their original organic materials, a true testament to Gupta’s craftmanship. I remembered eating mangoes every summer, mangoes my parents brought home from the Indian grocery stores in Jackson Heights. When visiting my in-laws in Trinidad & Tobago, I remember rejoicing in the juicy mangoes which grew from the trees in their yard, quickly wiping the sweet juice escaping from my mouth after each succulent bite. Gupta talks about how he chose to highlight mangoes for their accessibility to the wealthy and poor alike in India, but he forgets the fruit’s universality in South-Asian communities globally.

The only piece which is romantic in nature is “Spooning”, a play on the western term. Two nine-foot long stainless steel spoons nestle, or spoon, on the gallery floor. “Et tu, Duchamp?” is yet another comedic poke at western culture. Gupta, also known as the “Subcontinental Marcel Duchamp”, upon seeing Duchamp’s “Mona Lisa with Mustache and Beard” (1919), sculpted a bronze rendering of the painting in an effort to “have a dialogue with [Duchamp].”

“A Penny for Belief II” is one of the few pieces global in scope rather than a commentary on India’s “common man”. The work is an oversized thali pan which gallery employees and Gupta threw coins into, coins from all over the world including British sterling, American quarters and Euros, before pouring olive oil into the pan. When I bent closer to the pool of coins, I smelt a strong odor of olive oil which is more popularly used in European and American cooking rather than Indian. Maria de Lamerens, the Press coordinator at Hauser & Wirth, explained how throwing a penny for good luck is a universal practice which Gupta wanted to capture in the work. Clearly the practice has benefited Gupta whose name and work are counted among the best contemporary, living artists in the world.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html

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