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Art review: Subodh Gupta, What does the vessel contain, that the river does not, Hauser & Wirth, London

  • @ZoePilger

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.