For over two decades now, Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta has been visiting the borderland between India and Bangladesh to record clandestine movement and activities in the region. While she presented her findings at the 2015 Venice Biennale, this year she is travelling across the globe with “Drawing in the Dark”, another set of work based on her ongoing research. After travelling to Belgium and Germany, the exhibition will open at the La Synagogue de Delme contemporary art center in Delme, France, in October. Invited to speak at the Edinburgh Art Festival in July, her work WheredoIendandyoubegin also lends its title to the ongoing Goteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art in Sweden. The JJ School of Art alumnus talks about border politics, illicit trade and revisiting the Indo-Bangladesh border.
In the last couple of years you have returned to the Indo-Bangladesh border on several occasions in your work. What takes you back?
There is no one reason per se. Every time I am planning another journey, another excuse to venture back into the borderlands, it is because I felt something was left incomplete. I return to pick up strands, as if, from a previous meeting or a conversation, which did not quite end. In 2011, I wound 79.5 miles of white thread into a ball for the work 1:14.9, to arrive to an absurd ratio of the 1188.5 miles of fence being built on the India-Pakistan border in the West. This led to travels to the enclaves in the India-Bangladesh borderlands, where straddling border posts and identities lead to, not one, but several crossings in the span of a day. The resulting body of work included a set of drawings made in Phensedyl, a codine-based cough syrup that is illegal in Bangladesh and legal in India. These became the start of another engagement which looks at notions of fixity and motion and of para-legality in the face of what is the world’s longest fence in construction. I have always been interested in symbols, static or those which are waved in the sky, perpetuated by large structures, and which may not echo what is being spoken in the interiors and in the corners of a place.
There is another series of drawings made using marijuana, can you tell us a bit about that?
These are a set of drawings made using marijuana plants, banned as such, and which I found growing in fact in the vicinity of border check posts. Using pigments from those plants, elements of the security apparatus have been painted, be it the binoculars, walkie talkies, the fence, search lights, which are part of the detailed and elaborate infrastructure, that is permeable. There exists a contradiction in what the state would like for itself and what its representatives would desire for themselves. “Drawing in the Dark” also consists of other objects which carry narratives of their unlisted journeys, an audacious will and desperation to move, across what is both a frontier and the periphery. There are photographs of the border sky upon which are pasted fragmented spare motor parts and a shredded Dhakai Jamdani sari in a vitrine with notations of the border fence.
A lot of your previous works also revolve around border issues. For instance, the 2005 flag work There is No Border Here or Tree Drawings from 2013.
The oldest nation is barely a few hundred years old and borders run through societies that are similar, where people even today, have families on its two sides, who speak the same language and share several old links. There is No Border Here (2006) is a set of printed tapes which are otherwise used to cordon and measure. The bottles of simulated blood in Blame (2001) or Tree Drawings (2013), look at the tension between man-made demarcations and nature. The act of naming and memory play has been part of my early works from the ’90s. I have always been interested in the ambitious exercises and the surety with which we are constantly inclined to classify ourselves and the absurdities and dangers that follow.
Tell us a bit about your participation in the project “ideasforawall” at the University of Alberta in Canada.
This references the new extensions and reinforcement of existing border fence between Mexico and the US, against the background of which, the curator, Lorenzo Fusi, invited artists to make a proposal for an imaginary ‘non-wall’. I went back to images and curious stories of my time in the Bengal borderlands, of various systems that have emerged to subvert the looming fence between India and Bangladesh. The ‘patta’ system where bamboo pattas make their way through gaps of the wire fence upon which cattle are slide across, or the ‘jula’ or ‘javeline throw’ systems, where objects are swivelled on a pivot or flung across the fence. For the exhibition, I made a proposal of a wall that rests on hinges, which swivel and open up, under which you can walk. Elsewhere, you could climb up from both sides via steps or conduct jumping exercises through the wall.
Could talk about your work I Keep Falling at You that is showing at the Karlskirche church in Kassel?
This is a set of existing works selected by curator Susanne Klien for the site, which is a church in the centre of Kassel. It is part of a larger set of three exhibitions commemorating 500 years of Martin Luther, one in a church in Berlin and another in Wittenberg prison with 60 artists. In Kassel, I am showing four works in the church. As you walk in, a large hive-shaped object comprising thousands of microphones is suspended in the middle of the darkened space, which emit voices of many who have not been heard. Microphones which are meant to be spoken into, as if in a state of hysteria begin to speak instead. The other work, 24:00:01, a flapboard, does not show destinations and talks about dreams and anxieties enroute these, and in Nothing Will Go on Record, drawings, figures who have stood in front of microphones, disappear from paper. A book is placed on a sacramental pedestal. The show is about entering a state in-between, overhearing whispers, which become songs of longing and desires.
Your work WheredoIendandyoubegin is also the title of the Gotemberg Biennale that just opened.
Like the text, the meaning is not meant to be conclusive and it works at different levels about continuity between time and groups of peoples. It celebrates continuities between two individuals, be it a mother and child and the child who becomes the mother and roles reverse or that between lovers or neighbours across a wall but below the same sky. It looks at the interconnected-ness between thoughts and or how even old manifestos trigger new ones.