Once on holiday in San Gimignano, I wandered down the crowded, sweltering hot street, and caught a glimpse that made me stop, and slip into a cool, unknown space. Hundreds of silver cooking pans and tiffin pots were arranged in a beautiful, tumbling art work. On the floor were rows of low metal stools arranged as if ready to seat 45 for a traditional Indian meal in front of round silver trays full of bowls.
There were other items too, but it was those two which took my breath away.
I made a note of the name of the artist and felt entranced by the contrast between the shiny but utilitarian Indian utensils turned into art works, and the expensive designer shops in the Tuscan tourist mecca outside. It was 2008 and I didn’t think I’d ever see his works again
Since then I’ve accidentally come across an enormous nuclear explosion of his stainless steel utensils filling a huge space at the Tate in London – and now he has a solo exhibition in Coventry until March.
Subodh Gupta – the name copied down several years ago – even visited the Mead Gallery at the University of Warwick for an In Conversation with Curator of the Mead Sarah Shalgosky before the official opening.
The exhibition itself shows relatively few pieces in the large space. One of the larger pieces, which I had seen in Italy, is School, a work showing five rows of nine low stools, with a table in front set with a sparkling thali dish ready for a meal. Each brass stool is cast from that of the artist’s father, with patterns and initials clear to see on it.
This combination of homely items and mass-produced pieces is typical of Gupta’s work. In the In Conversation he ran through more of his art works from over the years that reflect that.
He showed an image of 29 Mornings, from 1996, which consisted of wooden stools with items from everyday life placed on top; they were memories of life in the village he grew up in, when he had moved away to the city. Similarly, small bundles of sticks used to brush teeth in the village, then discarded, are turned into an artwork. He said: “When it’s been cast in aluminium it becomes closer to me and further away from the people who are now not going to use it.”
There Is Always Cinema (V), which was also made specially for the show I saw at Galleria Continua in San Gamignano, consists of three ‘sack trolleys’ used to transport goods around. One is in its natural state, one cast in bronze and one nickel plated apparently suggest the idea of worn items being able to move things around to a brighter part of the city.
Another piece that is in the Mead show is Two Cows, a pair of bicycles cast in bronze and hung with chrome milk pails. As he said before the opening, in the village he would get milk from the cow, but in the city it was carried in pails on bikes, hence the name.
The attention-grabbing work is clearly Chanda Mama door ke, or Far Away Uncle Moon Calls, which is a reference to a Hindi children’s nursery rhyme in which the child is talking to the moon as though her uncle. The work consists of dozens of used cooking pots, some very used, burned and bent, hanging from the ceiling on fishing line, looking from some distance like a re-imagined moon. It’s spectacular but in a way simple too.
Gupta trained as a painter and there are three paintings in the show, close ups of used pans or plates.
One of his themes in his work he explained is the cosmic and the everyday, and “I can see the universe in my plate.”
Some of his new works include two Pressed for Space exhibits, consisting of old cooking pots crushed into rectangles, with bits of cloth mixed in with them.
He explained that in some larger pieces eyes look out at the unexpected viewer; was he trying to shock Sarah asked. No, he said, he didn’t want to do that, but he liked to mix performance and sculpture and had a strong sense of the audience looking at his works: “We live in shock, we don’t know where we are going.”
Other topics and works covered in the talk included God Hungry, a huge work in Lille featuring cooking pots seemingly cascading through three windows of the church, and This Is Not a Fountain, a mixture of pans with taps poking through, focusing on, Gupta said, the big issue of taps being left running in India parks.
He has also been a performer, and showed a clip from a video which was engrossing and also gross; he was he said “showering in cow shit”, and he’s last seen in it, naked and coated in the brown stuff walking out of a room. He said it related to the importance in India of cow dung, used wet for painting and rituals, and dried and used as fuel or for building. His work My Mother and Me from 1997 was a creation of a cow dung tiled house.
There was some discussion too about the relationship between his works and that of Duchamp, though he reiterated there was no connection, as he said Duchamp made an object into an art work, but he, Gupta, made an object into a material and in that form becomes the art work. It was an interesting discussion and one that could go on.
It felt like there could have been more at this exhibition, but I have been spoilt by seeing some of his largest, most spectacular works before. The exhibition – on until March 11 – is still definitely worth seeing and a breath of fresh air in he 2017 exhibition scene.