Venue: The Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53, Defence Colony, New Delhi and
Dates: On till 22nd February 2016
Review by Kaushal Sapre
Shilpa Gupta’s show at Vadehra Art Gallery is worth watching for one reason – it opens up a crucial discussion about the role of the medium in contemporary society. The show consists of various installations that revolve around the narrative of ‘…the sense of ambiguity, perpetual statelessness, and the entrapment…’ faced by those living in the India-Bangladesh enclaves. (An enclave is defined as any portion of a state that is surrounded from all sides by another single state). In pursuit of this project, Shilpa Gupta lived and travelled extensively in the Indo-Bangladeshi border areas, interviewing the residents of the enclaves, collecting their stories and experiences. The first iteration of this project was commissioned for the 2014 Dhaka Art Summit by the Samdani Art Foundation. At Vadehra, Gupta utilizes various media, from found and collected objects to sound and video projection juxtaposed with text.
Historically, the residents of enclaves seem to have been dealt an odd hand. According to local legends, the enclaves came into existence as stakes in card or chess games between the respective kings of the two neighboring kingdoms of Cooch Bihar and Rangpur, as early as 1713. After the partition of India in 1947, the district of Rangpur was merged to East Pakistan and in 1949, Cooch Bihar became a part of India. Recent population estimates state the existence of 111 Indian enclaves with around 37,000 residents in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves with around 14,000 residents in Indian territory. For decades, the residents of the enclaves lived in perpetual statelessness, with no citizenship, no identity and in many cases, no basic human rights. The past year has brought a ray of hope for the enclave dwellers. In May 2015, the revised Land Boundary Agreement, initially proposed in 1974 between India and Bangladesh was ratified and as a result, residents of enclaves on both sides of the border were awarded citizenships of their choice. The rehabilitation procedure for the enclave dwellers is currently being carried out.
An interesting way of approaching this show is through its archival quality. This engagement with the archive seems to be on two folds: firstly, through an effort to find alternative modes of representation of factual or archival data, and the second by attempting to document the lived experience in the particular space and time, in the particular social situation. Gupta borrows from official records, unofficial interviews, found objects, video footage, stories, etc. to narrativize her concern, while employing a range of media at her disposal. For example, in an untitled installation, Gupta marks the location of every security flood light that the Indian government has installed on the 277 km long West Bengal-Bangladesh border, with pinholes on a piece of paper washed in blue . She then installs the paper in front of a light source, so that it acquires a translucent blue tint, while the light leaks out of the clusters of thousands of pinholes arranged in a seemingly random manner. The allusion is not to a map, but a satellite image. Maps have borders, satellite images don’t. But at the same time, satellite imagery is a technology that is majorly under the control of the state. Looked at in that sense, the trail of pinholes on the paper starts looking like a border. Gupta has always been interested in the idea of scale, units and measurement. In her 2010 work, 1:14.9, she wound a 79.55 mile long ball of thread. On multiplying the number 79.55 by 14.9, you get the length of the fenced border between India and Pakistan. Scaling can be looked at as a special kind spatial transformation that can enlarge or contract. But the process of scaling also implies the existence of a governing law – a constant ratio – a unitary conversion. In that sense, scaling has the ability to directly affect perception. Contracting a space has the possibility to allow the viewer to lean in, to examine, like a scientist with a microscope. But there is more to it.
In another untitled work, she creates a dense fog inside a glass box. The viewer can walk around it, look at it from all sides, but not inside it, or through it. The milky, dense fog obstructs the view. Along with this box is a note with text that deals with issues pertaining to crossing the India-Bangladesh border in the dead of the night with fog as thick as the one enclosed in the glass case surrounding you. There is no doubt that it is an intelligently executed work, and that there is an effort to explore the relationship between the text and the object, which is evident most of her other work in the show. But at the same time, I cannot help but imagine miniature humans walking inside the box, blinded by the fog, while the viewer tries to catch their glimpse from the outside. It is the same feeling as with the faux satellite image. The works are designed in a way that the viewer becomes a spectator – either looking down from high up above the clouds, or looking in through a glass case.
Hiding is another trope that Gupta uses in her work. She takes photographs of the no-man’s land between India and Bangladesh and cuts out parts of it, leaving blank spaces surrounded by land, like the enclaves – pockets of land that nobody claims. Another video projection shows a kabaddi match being played between the residents of an enclave and the border police, but the shot is framed in such a way that it only shows the player’s feet as they move on the chalk-lined ground.
Perhaps, the most interesting work in the show is the interactive installation ‘Speaking Wall’. Here, one approaches a pair of headphones attached to a wall while on a narrow row of bricks. On wearing the headphones, the artist’s voice directs the actions of the listener with instructions like “Step a bit closer.” or “Go back.”, while discussing the nature of identity, borders and freedom. This work is placed on the top floor of the gallery, and after traversing through works that highlight the passivity of the viewer, one reaches an installation that not just allows, but directs action from the viewer. The overall strategy for the work makes you feel like someone is observing you, that you are a miniature figure in a glass box.
One question that seems to resonate about this show is, what exactly is being archived? Is it the sense of ambiguity, perpetual entrapment and statelessness of the Indo-Bangladesh border residents? Rather, it seems to be an archive of the lived experience of the artist herself. Then the next question is why this particular subject? What motivates the artist to intervene in a trapped community living on the sidelines of two states? While the artistic concerns here revolve around the ideas like borders and demarcation among others, they also seem to be more conceptual than social in nature – in the sense of an abstract idea of a border. In a recent interview after the show, Gupta stated that “I’m interested in perception and how definitions get stretched or trespassed”. If that is so, then the subject seems apt – a land with poorly defined boundaries and a socially suspended existence. But then, one cannot deny the fact that the show places itself comfortably within an accepted understanding of contemporary art. One also cannot deny the role of the gallery itself as a contemporary medium of knowledge production and legitimation. In that sense, it is difficult to see where and which definitions are getting stretched or trespassed through this show, when it comes to art.