Curated by Germano Celant (with input from Delhi-based gallerist Peter Nagy) ‘Everything is Inside’, Subodh Gupta’s recent retrospective actually began outside of the museum with a monumental installation pointing the way to Jaipur House, the more remarkable of the two buildings in which the exhibition was housed. A cascade of gleaming pots and pans, tiffin boxes and jugs tumbling down from a stainless-steel bucket seemingly suspended in the air, Ray (2012) is Gupta’s vernacular take on the horn of plenty.
Everything Is Inside (2004) – a sculpture inspired by the tightly wrapped parcels tied up with string that migrant Indian workers seeking their fortunes overseas traditionally send back home – gave the show its title. Cast in bronze (hardly a poor material), two such bundles are hoisted onto the roof of a black-and-yellow Mumbai taxi that’s been spliced up, as if sinking into the ground under their weight.
Most of the 50 works – which span the last two decades of Gupta’s career – have not been exhibited in India before. For a mid-career survey show, a disproportionate amount of space was dedicated to art works made in the last two or three years; those dated from the 1990s were few and far between. Starting with Untitled (1995), a set of five stools (a familiar sight in India) were painted with the artist’s signature motifs, such as a bucket and a self-portrait. The earliest works included in ‘Everything Is Inside’ amounted to more literal self-portraits alluding to Gupta’s humble origins and family life. These early pieces build up a vocabulary of common objects and materials, such as cow dung, or gobar, a purifying substance that Gupta puts to a variety of uses, from daubing on his body in Pure (1999), a performance documented on video, to constructing the circular hut in My Mother and Me (1997), made with pungent cow dung cakes that serve as fuel in rural areas, much like the ones his mother made when he was a child.
Eschewing any chronological or thematic groupings, the works were arranged according to size and used the contrasting scale of the two spaces in which they were displayed to great effect. Large pieces, such as All in the Same Boat (2012–13), a Keralan fishing boat packed full of old kitchenware and electric fans, or the skull-shaped Mind Shuts Down (2008) – a scaled-down version of the sculpture displayed outside the Palazzo Grassi in Venice – took over NGMA’s capacious, rather nondescript modern extension. Smaller sculptures and installations, as well as the diminutive, ornately framed still life paintings of emptied plates smeared with leftovers in the recent series ‘Note to Self’ (2013), based on photographs that the artist views as a diary of sorts recording his eating habits, made the most of the more intimate setting of Jaipur House – a repurposed palace, albeit a modern one. (It was built in 1936 for the Maharaja of Jaipur.)
Even as it encouraged visitors to draw their own connections, Gupta’s fondness for doubling effects, recurring motifs and paired objects played havoc with the symmetrical layout of the palace, built around a central circular room. Like a cross between a Sol LeWitt sculpture and a Donald Judd, the two-tiered tiffin carriers carved out of white marble in Twins (2010) inevitably evoked the Twin Towers in a way that felt heavy-handed, for all the work’s finish and minimalist associations. The double sinks and toilets in the 2008 series ‘There Is Always Cinema’ – which also included bronze casts of film projectors and movie reels that Gupta found in an old cinema in San Gimignano, Italy – were shown in two different spaces some distance apart, resulting in a sense of déjà-vu.
Enlivened by the odd surrealist touch such as a spliced taxi and electric fans in a boat, the show ended as it had begun, with another massive outdoor sculpture, in this case of a banyan tree, titled Dada (2010-14). The word ‘dada’ translates as ‘grandfather’ in Hindi. The steel sculpture was so heavy as to warrant special cross-beams to redistribute its weight lest it fall through into the underground parking lot beneath the museum grounds. Gupta’s shiny reinterpretation of India’s national tree mirrored the size of the show’s ambitions: bigger and more important than any of the artist’s exhibitions to date and, unusually, happening on his own turf.