Shilpa Gupta (b.1976) lives and works in Mumbai, India where she has studied sculpture at the Sir J. J. School of Fine Arts from 1992 to 1997.
“Gupta creates artwork using interactive video, websites, objects, photographs, sound and public performances to probe and examine subversively such themes as desire, religion, notions of security on the street and on the imagined border.
In February 2010, she will have her first museum solo at Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati. Later in the year, she will have solo show at Castle Blandy in France and a mid career retrospective at the OK Center for Contemporary Art in Linz.
Her project ‘While I Sleep’, where she worked alongside psychologist Mahazarin Banaji (Harvard professor) on the reception of images exploring fear and prejudice and interviewed Noam Chomsky, opened at Le Laboratoire in Paris in mid 2009, after which it travelled to theLouisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark and will be shown next at the Auckland Triennale 2010.
In 2009, she had solo shows at Gallerie Yvon Lambert in Paris, Galleria Continua, San Gimignano and at the public gallery ‘Lalit Kala Akademi’ in New Delhi hosted by Vadehra Gallery.
Previously she has shown at ‘The Generational: Younger Than Jesus’, the first Triennale of the New Museum, New York; ‘Everyday Miracles – Lyon Biennale 2009′ curated by Hou Hanru; ‘Gwangju Biennale 08’, directed by Okwui Enwezor and curated by Ranjit Hoskote; ‘Yokohama Triennale 08’ curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist; ‘3rd Seville Biennial’ curated by Peter Weibel and Wonil Rhee; ‘Zones of Contact – Biennale of Sydney 06’ curated by Charles Merewether and ‘Liverpool Biennale 06’ curated by Gerardo Mosquera and has participated in Asian Art Triennales in Manchester and Fukuoka and Biennales in Linz, Seoul, Havana and Shanghai.
Her work has been shown in leading international institutions and museums such as the Tate Modern and Serpentine Gallery in London, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Torino, Daimler Chrysler Contemporary in Berlin, Mori Museum in Tokyo, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New Museum and Queens Museum in New York, Chicago Cultural Center, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk and Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon amongst others.
She has initiated the Aar Paar – a public art exchange project between India and Pakistan and the Video Art Road Show, screenings of video art on streets in Mumbai and Delhi. In 2005, she is co-facilitated Crossovers & Rewrites: Borders over Asia for the ‘World Social Forum’ in Porto Alegre, Brazil and in 2008 initiated ‘Making Art Public’ in which prints by artists, graphic novelists and photographers were distributed in Timeout Mumbai.
Gupta has received the Transmediale 2004 Award, Berlin and Sanskriti Prathisthan Award, New Delhi. Her work is the collections of Asia Society, Daimler Chrysler, Mori Museum, Fukuoka Museum, Hauser & Wirth, Kramlich Collection, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Caixa Foundation, Museum of Contemporary Art – Val De Marne, Astrup Fearnley Museum, Devi Foundation besides other public and private collections in India and abroad.”
In 2010, a 248 page monograph will be released by Prestel Publishers and Vadehra Bookstore, with texts by Nancy Adajania, Peter Weibel, Shanay Jhaveri and Quddus Mirza.
God, Prayer and Politics: The Work of Shilpa Gupta
Heidi Reitmaier, November 2003
“The artist Shilpa Gupta has created a number of on-line art works. Like many of her generation she views the web as an extension of her daily reality. For her, the net is a habitual part of a conceptual world as television was for an earlier generation. So to speak of politics, the nature of intimacy, cultural differences, love, tradition, gender politics, ideology, global capitalism and the impact these have on the individual is a natural extension of the artist’s world. Her most recent work, blessed-bandwidth.net, does this and more. In this work, Gupta explores religion, globalisation and the complex cultural and political dynamics of the internet. Few artists have taken their engagement with technology, and their compassion for individual belief in the direction of trying to understand the politics of global capitalism. Fewer still have been able to keep the frisson of new technology alive whilst raising political and cultural awareness. Shilpa Gupta, a young 26-year artist working in Mumbai, India manages to do this.
Many of Gupta’s early works, from her untitled video pieces in the late 1990s to her more recent websites such as, Sentiment Express, 2001 and xeno-bio-lab.com, 2003 demonstrate her commitment to interactivity, her interest in cultural and political divides and a comprehensive understanding of international cultural politics and commerce, and how these politics and economies are shaped. These quite haunting pieces expose both the complicated nature of an international ‘community’ and the sometimes overlooked primitive realities of the net. Her current work develops these interests by exposing religion as the key component of many current global anxieties. With this quite simple narrative device, Gupta manages to develop her interests and again, create a piece that is utterly complex and riveting.
The work is in part about the similarities, rather than differences, that exist between different religions. Gupta lists many religions including Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu. She is herself Hindu, or at least was born a Hindu. Users of the site are encouraged to log-on to a particular religious sect, “be it the one you were born into, have adopted or are simply curious about.” On the verification page, the user can choose and tour a shrine and pray. Available are Mausoleum of Saint Hajiali or Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Guruji or Christian Saint Michael’s Church amongst others. The artist has visited these venues, photographing and videoing some of the most important places of worship sacred to particular faiths in Mumbai. She has captured images of worshipers, sacred artifacts and icons, as well as the heightened security now commonplace around the world. In each shrine, she asked for the cable connecting the server to be ‘blessed’ thus guaranteeing a ‘real’ attainment for the viewer.
To attain a mystical experience the user must follow these instructions. ‘1. Sit down. Don’t lean. 2. Bend slowly forward. Concentrate. 3. Now touch your forehead to the computer screen on the spot x.’ At this point, a pop-up window appears, asking ‘would you like to certify this blessing?’ Here, the user can print out a certificate of blessing, even selecting the decorative border. But this blessing is not necessarily ‘real’ – the artist never deems that the blessing should be literally accepted. Gupta also doesn’t define the act of blessing as metaphorical. So what is it? She suggests that the ‘real’ nature of the blessing is dependent on the belief and investment of the user. In this sense the ‘truth’, the individual and personal commitment, is in part unavailable for public scrutiny.
On blessed-bandwidth.net it is information that is readily available. In the Library there is an extensive listing of gods posted by the artist and other users. Each user can research key features of their chosen deity, or post their own views. Users are asked to respond to the question ‘what do you think God does to you?’ And many answer: “God is great, I think God Buddha makes the whole world happy and peaceful. God also gives me peace.” “god Brings me life” “god makes me feel good”. It is this level of intense interactivity that generates the experience and creates the work. Ultimately this is a 21st site of worship.
Yet, the work is also always humorous. It suggests the user dress up their favourite god or priest, it asks the visitor to list rules they like to respect and ones they break. The site repeats images of women in full robes patterned with camouflage with rifles held high. (The pictures, it turns out, are of the artist herself.) The site even calls on the user to “Feed me, Thrill me, Love me. I am your god.” All of this would add to a sense of flippancy and disregard were it not for the more profound questions raised about the present status of ancient faiths. Religion here is both the demonstration of and metaphor for the rapidly expanding global world. A world where, according to the artist, “religion, belief systems, ethnicity have been instrumental in the ever growing global friction and conflict that we see daily”.
Over 20 years ago, Douglas Davies, a New York based artist, created what has been deemed the first ‘interactive’ net art project. The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, 1973 is as described: an interactive work that invites users to add their thoughts to a never-ending sentence. Davies created a programme that made it impossible to add any punctuation. So, in fact, full stops, commas and hyphens were ‘illegal’. Thus in The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, there was no individual author no single, unique, or identifiable train of thought. The result is a multi-layered and complex text that exposes diverse types of writing, attitudes towards expression and senses of avant-gardism. Further, and perhaps more particularly, it explores other kinds of relationships to memory, autobiography, poetics, politics and reason. The piece created a community both in virtual space but perhaps more interestingly in real space as well. In 1973, this was an initial introduction to wh at interactivity could achieve.
Over time technical strategies were discovered for adding full stops, commas, colons – for breaking the ‘rules’. Yet, the hackers of Davies’ text who forced their individuality into it, perhaps seeing it as a gauntlet thrown down, a technical conundrum to be overcome, found themselves in a dilemma. What they had set out to participate in, they managed to destroy. And this is interesting in relation to blessed-bandwidth.net. For those participating in this work, not only are questions about expression and the impact of individual interaction paramount, but acts that trivialise religion will reveal a lack of contemplation and disregard for the subject. Within a context where such importance is placed on individual participation, there is a hope that the rights and beliefs of individuals will be respected, and criticism unless considered and intelligent will be ignored. Individual belief is sacred and respected, so users will follow the rules. For Gupta, users have to think hard about expression and the impact of their interaction.
Blessed-bandwith.net, whilst inviting a similar type of interactivity as Douglas Davies piece (subjective, highly personal, incoherent, and accumulative), asks the user to reflect upon the nature of one’s interest in what is being exposed: the complications of global religions. For the viewer going through any sequence of steps in blessed-bandwidth.net, perhaps moving from being blessed to confessing, there is no room for jadedness, passivity or idle spectatorship. In this piece, room is made for self-questioning, self-doubt and self-reflexivity.
In its early days, the World Wide Web, or www, or the net (as it has come to be known) was believed by many to be unregulated and an unregulatable place. It was certainly this idea that dominated much artistic practice in the early years. Many cyberpunk hopes for anarchistic online utopias were realised for a time in the early 1990s. Equally, and perhaps ironically, so were ways of exploiting the different commercial possibilities of the web. Many arose from the potential for online anonymity. And more arose through the apparent suspension of copyright protocols, arguments about common ownership of cultural product and the complete disavowal of the ‘original’. Gupta plays with this history.
Her version of a holy place where you can even post your own god is an exact micro-replication of what the early net professed to offer – a place where nothing is excluded, everything is possible and things needn’t be thought freakish or bizarre. But like the net, this holy place has been categorised by something else. Territories are now being staked out and the virtual world, as a new kind of community, is being moulded by capital investors and wealthy conglomerates. In the first instance, blessed-bandwidth.net professes to invite users into a spiritual place to pray. Yet it also manages to display the encroaching and current harsh realities – pictures of armed women in camouflage gear, iconic graphic images that reference the symbols of active and politically contentious religious groups. On the surface god and prayer are prioritised, but in reality Gupta understands that the world is shaped with different priorities.
On opening the home page of blessed-bandwidth.net, there are various narrative options. And as it should be, the moment of encounter makes the work truly interesting. For the viewer, without ever being asked ‘do you believe in god?’, is prompted to participate in a dialogue about faith and is led through a myriad of possible narrative structures. Gupta’s work is nuanced. She proposes a series of spiritual options, but none are the absolute or definitive solution. Through each stage of encounter the users can change their mind, shift their opinion and ultimately end up illustrating to themselves and possibly to other users their complicated relationship with god, spiritualism and organised religion. The piece offers only one way to move forward and that is to continue with a self-examining dialogue. The level of interactivity, spontaneity, complication, juxtaposition and beauty offered by the site suggests to the viewer many options and no answers. Utterly unprescriptive, as a politically engaged piece of art, blessed-bandwidth.net is something that facilitates a process of questioning. For those concerned with the ever-changing landscape of globalisation, it provokes a new form of critical awakening”.
Heidi Reitmaier is Curator of Adult Programmes at Tate Britain.
NOTE: The site Blessed Bandwidth has been archived and is no longer available for viewing.