Art review: Subodh Gupta, What does the vessel contain, that the river does not, Hauser & Wirth, London
Zoe Pilger is an art critic for The Independent and winner of the 2011 Frieze International Writers Prize. Her first novel, Eat My Heart Out, will be published by Serpent's Tail in February 2014. She is also researching a PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London, on the subject of romantic love and sadomasochism in the work of contemporary female artists. She has appeared on BBC's The Review Show and Sky News
Monday 20 May 2013
I recently returned from the Keralan coast, South India, where the storms and power-cuts at night made the sea and sky appear as black as each other, and the lights of the fishing boats floated on the horizon like a distant city. The monsoon months are coming.
Indian artist Subodh Gupta has taken one of those Keralan fishing boats and transformed it into a ready-made object in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp. This huge and magnificent vessel, which is seventy foot long and ten foot wide, crafted out of dark wood and coconut rope, sealed with red wax the colour of dried blood, has been transported to London and suspended from the gallery ceiling.
The sculpture is awe-inspiring, philosophical, political, aesthetically interesting, and, moreover, beautiful – in fact, it is everything that contemporary art should be.
The boat appears to be borne up on a great wave, falling through the air of the gallery as though it were water. It is tipped downwards at a vertiginous angle, but its contents – pots, pans, bedding, furniture, a chair, a bicycle, a TV, a radio, in short, the stuff of ordinary life – are miraculously contained within. The effect is startling.
On closer inspection, the kettles towards the front of the boat are tied together with bits of wire; the handles of the pans are bound with twisted coat-hangers. These gleaming, dented, used metal objects are Gupta’s signature, his “language.” Born in Bihar in 1964, the son of a railway guard, he has risen over the past two decades to become arguably India’s most celebrated contemporary artist. He lives in New Delhi.
Borrowing its title from the 13 century Rumi poem, The Sufi Path of Love, the sculpture was first displayed at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale last year. This is its first trip outside India, and it is more than worth going to see. What makes it so mesmerising is the detail: the broken mirror of an antique-looking cabinet door, the fascinating texture of the underbelly of the boat itself, which is marked and corroded by salt, roughed up in the most delicate way. The impression is one of use to the point of collapse, of barely achieved survival.
This extends to the viewer. If you walk underneath, there is the slightly terrifying sense that the whole thing could fall on your head. It is this terror – and humour – that underlies the poetry of Gupta’s work.
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
- 2 McKamey Manor: This 'extreme' haunted house is the stuff of nightmares
- 3 Russell Brand says he will 'probably' give up acting to focus on his revolution
- 4 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 5 David Beckham's Haig Club whisky is exactly what’s wrong with the Highlands
This is what a film sex scene actually looks like on set (mostly awkward)
Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
After Sam Smith’s Mobo success, is the help of a pushy parent the surest route to stardom?
Pottermore: JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story featuring 'greying' 33-year-old wizard
JK Rowling to publish new Harry Potter story online for Halloween
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Tony Blair 'says Ed Miliband will lose 2015 general election'
Putin: The US is to blame for almost all the world's major conflicts