Review of Subodh Gupta: Seven Billion Light Years, Hauser & Wirth, New York

Subodh Gupta’s solo exhibition, Seven Billion Light Years, at Hauser & Wirth, New York, hardly lives up to the triumph of his mid-career retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, in 2014. In the earlier show, Gupta’s imaginative use of the Duchampian readymade resulted in monumental sculptures devised from hundreds of shiny stainless steel kitchen utensils. The power of those works stemmed not only from Gupta’s innovative assemblages, but also from his choice of indigenous materials such as plates, boxes and implements that gave potency to ordinary commodities bought by every middle class Indian household.

In Seven Billion Light Years Gupta’s middle class everyman is replaced by references to the underprivileged in Indian society. In This is not a fountain (2011) a pile of used and dented utensils often found in the possession of poor migrant workers and villagers occupy a large space. Fitted with taps and running water that pop up randomly throughout the sculpture, the work recalls the condition of slum dwellers in India and their chronic water shortage problems. Yet neither poetic, nor in the realm of Nari Ward’s activist driven art that Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker describes as “Ward puts art in service to something that is declaratively more important than art,” Gupta’s work appears to be dangerously gratuitous. By interjecting humor through his title that references the Surrealist Rene Magritte’s iconic painting This is Not a Pipe, Gupta’s intentions seem superfluous.

Pure 1 (2014) is equally disengaging. Comprising of a large patch of rock hard dirt originally conceived near a village by mixing cow dung with earth that is commonly used for Indian hutments, Gupta places old shoes, eyeglasses, agricultural equipment and other useful objects given to him by the villagers in excavated pits in the installation. A series of black of white photographs on an adjoining wall represent the donors of these objects. Here too, Gupta’s gesture is more grandiose than celebratory or empathetic towards the villagers and draws attention from the effects of creating a spectacle.

Perhaps the most convincing exploration of used utensils is Gupta’s series of paintings titled Seven Billion Light Years. Referring to the seven billion inhabitants of our planet, Gupta magnifies marks left from the daily usage of kitchen utensils into large amorphous shapes and figures that resemble satellite images of the earth from afar. By attaching the actual vessel to the canvas, Gupta’s creations of the macro from the micro are engaging mappings of the world. In Seven Billion Light Years 1, 2014, white patches on the pan from constant scraping become masses of clouds in the stratosphere, while the darker portions on the painting represent the earth and the relatively unscathed parts of the utensil.

Gupta’s philosophical take on “the possibility of having a piece of infinity” by representing individuals through their utensils in his paintings is far more cogent than his unsuccessful portrayal of the disadvantaged – regardless of whether it is through his autobiographical video I go home every single day (2004-2014) or basic hand painted bronze potatoes. Lacking in heft and resonance, these works fail to vibrate with the same sturdiness of his previous ubiquitous metal sculptures that were unimpeded by nostalgia or the weightiness of larger socio-political implications.

Subodh Gupta: Seven Billion Light Years, until 25 April, Hauser & Wirth, 511 West 18th Street, New York NY 10011.

Bansie Vasvani

All images courtesy of Subodh Gupta and Hauser & Wirth.
1. Known Stranger 2014 Mixed media 383.5 x 165.1 x 180.3 cm / 151 x 65 x 71 in ca. 350 x 213 x 213 cm / 137 3/4 x 83 7/8 x 83 7/8 in Photo: Genevieve Hanson
2. My Family Portrait, 2013, Mixed media, Dimensions variable, Approximate dimensions of each part: 61 x 59 x 28 cm / 24 x 23 1/2 x 11 in 62 x 60 x 24 cm / 24 1/2 x 24 x 9 1/2 in 59 x 55 x 22 cm / 23 1/2 x 22 x 9 in Photo: Genevieve Hanson.
3. Imperial Metal (detail) 2014 24k gold plated TMT rods, burnt wood, steel 96.5 x 50.8 x 487.7 cm / 38 x 20 x 192 in.