WheredoIendandyoubegin - Shilpa Gupta

Issue no2
April - May 2022
countryside & biennale guide

In the exhibition Where do I begin at Museum Voorlinden Shilpa Gupta explores the conceptual use of the border as well as the sociopolitical dimension of the fence separating India and Bangladesh.

Museum Voorlinden's current exhibition Where do I begin is an overview of Mumbai based artist Shilpa Gupta’s practice. Her work deals with larger socio-political topics connected to the border as a concept as well as to its relation with migration, identity and nation formation. She, however, describes her work as “everyday art” as it is a direct response to observing her surroundings. The exhibition has a total of eight of her works on display, ranging from monumental; a performance that was first presented in the My East is Your West exhibition during the 2015 Venice Biennale, to smaller, more intimate works such as the A0 - A5 (2014) series which consists of simple lines with ratios on handwoven cloth, an overview of the range of mediums Gupta works in.

“WheredoIendandyoubegin” reads a light sculpture situated on the bank of a small canal running parallel to the museum. Just out of reach, and sometimes out of sight with the sun shining in the background, it is the first work you are greeted with upon entering the exhibition. The poetic text formulates a question that resonates on multiple levels. It asks to question the extent of a relationship, asks to define, to make distinctions, to find and mark borders. It can be seen as highly personal and intimate, relating to a relationship between mother and child, or between lovers, or to a more political relationship between individuals belonging to a group, to an institution or larger yet, to a nation. It questions boundaries and whether they can be recognized, whether they can be defined.

It also sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition, creating a dialogue with(in) the viewer. Wandering along the glass walls into the next space, a monumental installation of two piles of handwoven cloth dominates the room. In between the two piles a performer sits at a desk drawing lines onto the cloth. The lines resemble natural boundaries on a map such as rivers and mountain ranges. The performer seems to be working on a never-ending task; an endless cycle or looping of the same action.

On the wall hangs a frame with the title of the work which offers clues into the work: 998.9 / 3360 KMS OF FENCED BORDER, EAST / SUNDERBANS TO TEEN MATH / DATA UPDATE: MARCH 31, 2014 / 3364 meters cloth hand woven in Phulia, an Indo Bangladesh border town (2012-2018). The location (East border, India Bangladesh border) and time (last updated in 2014) give insight into the topical political issues that the work stems from. I had the privilege of having a guided tour with Gupta herself in which she explained the significance behind each work. The data she uses, come from the government’s data on fencing, specifically the fence that surrounds Bangladesh the longest fence in the world. The work focuses on migration and freedom of movement, or the supposed lack of freedom of movement caused by the fence. And despite the effort of the government to define this border, people carry on as they always have, moving back and forth between the border but now only with a slight obstacle. Gupta emphasizes that even though free movement has supposedly been taken away, the nomadic nature of the people cannot be taken.

Ratio is a recurring theme within her work. Her obsession with ratios and how she incorporates them into her work, shows the almost absurd relationship we have with numbers, with defining and the need to document everything in an attempt to make everything comprehensive. As in the work itself: the drawing of the lines is a continuous process of documentation. It is through this obsession with ratio and defining borders that the gravity, the almost incomprehensible magnitude of the situation and its absurdity becomes clear.

This monumental work of Gupta has found an equally monumental space within Museum Voorlinden. The organic and geometric component of ratio and material choice echo that of the architecture of the museum and the nature surrounding it. It is not the only work that mirrors its surroundings. Opposite the light installation “wheredoIendandyoubegin” is a wall drawing with adhesive tapes, a poem in the shape of a flag: Untitled (There Is No Border Here) (2005-2006). The poem is an echo of “where do I end and you begin”, trying to find “I”, the struggle of trying to make the distinction. The two works form a dialogue and play on each other: answering and questioning one another. The text of the poem mirrors its surroundings. The first line reads “I tried very hard to cut the sky in half”, as the work is opposite the glass walls looking out onto the field and the sunrise. It ends with “I dug a trench [...]”, a literal trench lies between the two works as a stream runs parallel to the glass building.

These two works deal with more intimate borders: the relationship between two individuals. Two other works on show deal with borders on a larger scale: between individual and nation. Speaking Wall (2009-2010) is an interactive sound installation. A poetic text that deals with the physical, mental and emotional messiness that comes with political and geographical borders. The second is a motion flap board 24:00:01 (2010, 2012): a poetic weaving of complex political issues with personal narrative, centered around borders and traveling which plays with time and location.

These five works of various sizes are exhibited each in their own space, creating a space for a dialogue to take place with(in) the viewer, their surrounding and with one another. Before entering the space to view 24:00:01, you need to move through a space where three works are displayed together. On one side of the wall hangs A0-A2 (2014) which is comprised of six differently sized frames of handwoven cloth with a faint simple line and ratio noted at the bottom. On a pedestal next to it, sits a ball of unraveled Jamedi saree; 1:2138 (2017). All the while in the far end of the adjacent room the flip board flips loudly drawing your attention to it.

During the tour Gupta explains the significance of these two works. Like the performance piece, they are inspired by the fence that surrounds Bangladesh and how little to no effect it has on the people that live in the border towns. 1:2138 (2017) is an unraveled Jamdani saree, a highly sought, prized fabric that is handwoven in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She flippantly mentions that these fabrics are smuggled over the border, carried by one man. Without Gupta to explain the rich narratives the works are based on these smaller more minimalistic works are drowned out by the loud and persisting flipping of the flip board and looked over, much like the fence is overlooked. However, by isolating these seemingly normal everyday practices and placing them within another context, the absurdity and highly political nature of the acts becomes clear. Through fixed slightly off ratios and the rawness of the material, simple gestures become monumental. The seemingly nonchalance of the stories her works are based on only goes further to emphasize this.

On the opposite wall a grand metallic library is displayed on metal shelves. Someone Else - A library of 100 books written anonymously or under pseudonyms (2011), as the name states, is a collection of books written under a pseudonym. It is comprised of metal book covers of the original books and engraved on each cover is a short text stating the reason for adopting a pseudonym. Reading over the covers it quickly becomes apparent that the authors needed to take on a pseudonym to be able to break through the borders of their genre, race, gender, etcetera.

Gupta’s work is situated at the frontiers, at the very edge of where the borders interweave, where they flow and interact with one another and where the clear, rigid distinction we might like to think borders make, becomes blurred. On viewing Gupta’s work, the interaction between binaries; you/me, us/them, there/here, shows that things are not as clear-cut and distinguishable as we would like to define them.

The interweaving of personal and political is infused within all Gupta’s work, it helps to break the barrier of her very politically loaded topics into something relatable. Through this combination she is able to, with very little means, create and recreate a tension that goes hand in hand with the concept and reality of borders, presented in their most fundamental form.

Shilpa Gupta - Where do I begin, Museum Voorlinden, t/m 21.05.2018

Nicole Sciarone
is intern at Metropolis M

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2022