Binaries that bind

Artist Shilpa Gupta exhibits alongside her iconic Italian counterpart, Marisa Merz, in Rome, to show how differences across time and space can unify
Bea by Marisa Merz
Bea by Marisa Merz

When asked to identify themselves, individuals, following their name, are most likely to state their nationality. Artist Shilpa Gupta takes this behavioural instinct and gives it a satirical spin in Stars on Flags of the World. The flag-sized fabric-based work features the stars that appear on the flags of all the recognised and unrecognised countries embroidered over one another. “The oldest country is only a few hundred years old, but civilisations have been around for far longer. So how does a construct so young become the most dominant definition of identity today?” asks Gupta. The idea germinated from her reading of Benedict Anderson’s 1983 seminal book, Imagined Communities, which looks at nationalism as a human construct to unify themselves. The repeated overlap of the stars that do not abide by the present-day geographical borders also celebrates the fluidity of identities.

The 2011 work is in dialogue with Bea, an installation by late Italian artist Marisa Merz. Created in 1968, it is titled after the artist’s then-eight-year-old daughter. She spells out the three letters of the name separately using knit nylon threads, and places them adjacent to each other on the wall. She then pierces them with bent knitting needles. Bea brings to the fore the domestic chores women—working or otherwise—have to do without recognition.

A collection of over 50 works by the two artists is currently exhibited as a duo solo, visibleinvisible, at the contemporary art museum MAXXI L’Aquila, housed within Rome’s historic Palazzo Ardinghelli. One of the most striking aspects about the show is its discernible dichotomy, which ironically holds it together. Gupta and Merz are separated by nationalities, time zones and cultures, yet their practices seem to resonate in intent. “The differences are plenty.  There’s geography, age, even form—Marisa’s work is more figurative, mine is not—but it is the sensibility in the making of art that brings us together. It’s the slowness. I am a person who tiptoes. And, I can imagine her possibly doing the same,” says Gupta.

By putting the two artists together, curators Bartolomeo Pietromarchi and Fanny Borel have created a multiverse of sorts, where two consecutive timelines—the 1960s, when Merz practised; and nearly half-a-century later, when Gupta started finding ground as an artist—appear to run parallel. Merz is best known as a member of the 20th-century avant-garde Arte Povera movement in Italy, which sought to challenge the notion of ‘fine art’ and make it more accessible by the use of everyday material and relatable messaging. The idea was to reduce the distance between the art and its viewer. So, she used the easily available aluminium, wool or nylon among other things to create works that spoke about women’s rights. The essence of Gupta’s practice is not too different. Often laden with messages, sometimes in as many words—like in We Change Each Other or I Live Under Your Sky Too—her work encourages viewers to engage with it, almost instinctively. 

For instance, in visible invisible, the neon light installation, Light is Being, welcomes the viewers at the entrance of MAXXI L’Aquila. It features a halo made out of lit-up words that say: ‘Truth is being is light is seeing is light is being is light is’. The circular shape lends it a spiritual aura, but what may evade the eye is how Gupta has repeated all the words barring ‘truth’. She says, “The question of truth is hinged on several factors, especially in today’s environment where there are many groups gunning for what the truth is in history. Which is why, the word appears like that—it’s about the act of seeing and being, and that truth is subjective and contested.” 

One of the ‘truths’, as far as the Indian art world goes, is that while its towering walls have come down over the last few decades, there is still a long way to go. Can India getting its own 21st-century Arte Povera movement be the way forward? “Each artist is driven by their own need of what they would like to achieve, and what they want to do with their practice. 

I can only do it in my small world and in my distinct way,” Gupta says, adding, “But yes, in South Asia, we desperately need more institutions and non-profit spaces to have such encounters because art is about so much more, and going to a gallery can be daunting. Those barriers need to come down eventually.” 

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