Transforming the everyday reality of India – its bicycles, foodstuffs, cooking utensils, bundled-up possessions and even cowpats – into art has made Subodh Gupta famous, inside and outside the country. Now the Bihar-born artist, aged 50, is having the biggest ever solo show of his work, in New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), curated by Germano Celant. Gupta’s gallery, Hauser & Wirth, was closely involved in creating and sponsoring the show.
Gupta is best known for sculpture and paintings of stainless steel food containers or tiffins, and the tone is set immediately at the entrance to the ornate Jaipur House, which holds the first half of the exhibition. A 24ft-tall sculpture of tiffins, spilling out of a giant bucket, stands outside the building, a former residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur. But inside, the exhibition starts with a very different piece: “My mother and me”, a cow-dung hut made in 1999. “Shit is shit, but belief changes it into something else, it becomes something holy in this part of the world,” says Gupta, who as a child was sent out to gather such pats for ceremonies. And, “Dung can be used for cleaning as well as for cooking,” he says. The piece evokes his rural childhood and indeed, inside, it has a warm smell something like biscuits, and a womb-like feeling. Later in the show, the same material is used in the video “Pure”, showing the artist rinsing off cow dung in the shower during a performance at Khoj, a Delhi-based artist collective, in 2000.
The pots reappear immediately in this show, however, with a more recent work, “Faith Matters” (2007) – an installation of shiny tiffins trundling around on a table like a sushi belt, which Gupta explains represents not only food, but also its ceaseless travel, through the silk and spice routes. But the theme of displacement is far more poignantly expressed by his famous “Everything is Inside” (2004), the piece that gave its name to the whole show. The sliced-off black and yellow taxi roof is seemingly sunk into the marble floor under the weight of its rope-tied bundles. “Flights back from Europe or Dubai are full of Indians with these packets, so tightly tied that even the Customs can’t get into them,” says Gupta. “I was thinking, ‘What are they carrying? What are the dreams they bear, as well as the possessions?’”
Departures and possessions are also the subject of a number of installations of airport trolleys, some loaded with more bundles. Gupta admits he had to steal a trolley to serve as a mould, having failed to get Air India to give him one – a comment on the country’s stifling bureaucracy. And propped in the corner of the same room “Three Cows” (2003) (bicycles loaded with food containers) return to the themes of displacement, nourishment – and emptiness.
The very first pail Gupta made stands in a corridor. “Untitled” (1995) is a series of wall-mounted stools, as used by villagers all over the country, but encrusted with themes – bread, nuts, a face . . . and a metal pail. It has a naive “outsider art” feel about it, underlined by its small scale and modest placement.
Gupta is primarily a sculptor, and he explores his themes through different materials: marble, earthenware and bronze, sometimes almost playfully subverting the subject. One is a lump of dough, waiting to be kneaded on a table – in bronze. Another is a sculpture of a stretched white canvas hanging on a wall – also cast in bronze. “Twins” (2010) are his familiar containers – but carved in marble. His paintings, generally of food pots, or of half-finished food itself, are dotted around the exhibition, and include the self-portrait “Bihari” (1999). This, he explains, was an attempt to face the generally pejorative perception of people from his part of the country: a flashing neon light reading “Bihari” affirms this identity.
The second part of the show is housed in a modern wing of the NGMA and here Gupta has placed monumental, recent works. Disappointingly, these mainly reiterate some of his trademark themes, and the display looks worryingly like a large showroom. A giant skull lying on a red velvet cushion evokes “A Very Hungry God”, the shiny tiffin-and-pail sculpture that was installed outside Palazzo Grassi in 2006 and belongs to François Pinault. A rickshaw is loaded with tiffins. A giant frozen waterfall of shiny cooking pots cascades down the staircase. A huge pile of utensils bristles with dripping taps, and a boat, loaded with discarded pots, studded with whirring fans, is partly suspended from the ceiling. Similar and more successful versions of this boat were shown at the Kochi Biennale and Hauser & Wirth in London last year.
Gupta was famously once described in The Guardian as the “Damien Hirst of India”, a description he apparently doesn’t dislike, although in a recent interview in India.com he said he didn’t think much of the nouveau riche collector class with whom his work is so popular. But by endlessly repeating his trademark themes, he is taking the same route. And bigger is not necessarily better: the smaller-scale works in the first half of the show are infinitely more interesting and thought-provoking.
Until March 16, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, ngmaindia.gov.in