Art News & Views

Subodh Gupta: The Market as the Benchmark

Market Monitor

by Art Bug

From modest beginnings to the height of fame that can in short describe the rise of Subodh Gupta, one of those few Indian cutting-edge artists who has continuously dictated the international market in recent years.

Gupta was described by
The Guardian as the Damien Hirst of India. Since then, this expression has been part of any article on Gupta, even in the Indian media. However, there is a very poignant point that this comparison raises.

Livemint, the economic publication of The Hindusthan Times wrote in an August 11, 2011 article on Gupta, "In many ways, Subodh Gupta, now 47, epitomizes the best and the worst that economic liberalization brought about for Indian art. In 2008, he was the first to break the $1 million (around Rs. 4.4 crore now) barrier for contemporary Indian art. Though far apart in scale, his sales records pegged him the sub- continental Damien Hirst, the British artist whose diamond-studded skull had been valued at $100 million, and taken the discourse from art to mart."

Interestingly, Gupta's Very Hungry God, was also a skull though made of modest means. He used steel utensils for it. Trained as a painter in the College of Art in Patna, he went on to experiment with a variety of media. His work encompasses sculpture, installation, painting, photography, performance and video. And that is how Gupta broke free of the straight-jacket instructions that he received at art school. As the article states “Gupta is quick to confess that he didn't learn anything in art school. His only other training in the arts had been during his adolescent years, when he travelled with Hindi language theatre groups, both as actor and set designer. “In five years (in College of Arts & Crafts, Patna), they taught us what they teach in art preparatory schools in Europe,” he says. But awareness of this handicap affected the way the young Subodh would navigate the world of contemporary art. “When people spoke of art history, I had no idea what was going on,” he admits.”

Gupta came to Delhi penniless in 1990 to seek admission in a Master's programme at Delhi's College of Art. He tells Anindita Ghose of Livemint, “Being in art school would mean that I had a place to work.” He was denied admission in the Delhi College of Art but he stayed on. His sustenance – a Rs. 1,000 research scholarship from the Lalit Kala Akademi?. Being the youngest in a family with six children from Khagaul in Bihar, he was expected to support himself, but was under no compulsion to support the family.

Seven years hence, the scene change drastically for him. In 1997, Gupta was awarded the Gasworks International Residency in London. An emerging artist award by Bose Pacia Modern, New York, came soon after and translated into a solo show. Then residencies and exhibitions in Japan, France, Australia and South Korea came in quick succession. He had arrived.

Gupta is best known for incorporating everyday objects that are ubiquitous throughout India, such as the steel tiffin boxes used by millions to carry their lunch as well as thali pans, bicycles, and milk pails. From such ordinary items the artist produces sculptures that reflect on the economic transformation of his homeland and which relate to Gupta's own life and memories. As Gupta says: “All these things were part of the way I grew up. They are used in the rituals and ceremonies that were part of my childhood. Indians either remember them from their youth, or they want to remember them… I am the idol thief. I steal from the drama of Hindu life. And from the kitchen - these pots, they are like stolen gods, smuggled out of the country. Hindu kitchens are as important as prayer rooms.”

What sets Gupta aside is the way he transforms the icons of Indian everyday life into artworks that are readable globally. He is among a generation of young Indian artists whose commentary tells of a country on the move, fuelled by boiling economic growth and a more materialistic mindset. Gupta's strategy of appropriating everyday objects and turning them into artworks that dissolve their former meaning and function brings him close to artists like Duchamp; He succeeds in finding an art language that references India and at the same time can be appreciated for its aesthetic throughout world; as Gupta says: “Art language is the same all over the world. Which allows me to be anywhere.”

Naturally, Gupta has dictated the market and has been a beneficiary of what has often been panned by critics as a 'formulaic' style of expression., in one of its recent weekly market focii dealing with the ten best auction results in 2010 for works by Contemporary Indian artists had this to write about the Indian art market vis-a-vis the world.

"Boosted by specialised sales, Contemporary Indian art has shown an impressive progression: over the ten years to January 2008, our price index for this category posted growth of 830%! Among the stars of 2010 auction sales there were four Indian artists: Bharti Kher, Anish Kapoor , Raqib Shaw and Subodh Gupta."
So what has the same article to say about Gupta?

"Subodh Gupta perfectly illustrates the price explosion of Contemporary Indian art. Unknown to the international market before 2005, when his 1990s paintings were changing hands for between € 4,000 and €10,000, he had a number of major shows in 2006 (New York, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, New Delhi, Peking, London, etc.) and his price index rocketed. After the catastrophic Contemporary art sales in November 2008  more than a million dollars worth of Gupta's works were bought in  it wasn't until the summer of 2010 that he saw the first signs of an auction recovery: his majestic Chimpta doubled its estimate with a winning bid of £440,000 (roughly $640,000) at Christie's on 10 June, giving him eighth place in the ranking. The crisis appears to have been nothing more than a passing storm on the market for this artist whose canvases fetch higher prices than his sculptures (which scored two 7-figure results in May and July 2008).

"Anish Kapoor, Bharti Kher, Raqib Shaw and Subodh Gupta are the winning quarto of the market for Contemporary Indian art. Their works are also presented at prestigious sales from Hong Kong to New York including London, Dubai and Paris, and exhibited all over the world."

Gupta is absolutely happy in his state of being, though the highest price that he achieved in recent years have been way back in 2008. Of his so-called 'repetitive' style, a reason pointed out by his critics for his not-so-happy figures in recent auctions, Gupta has this to say:

“I do many things but my detractors only focus on what they know; what they understand...“. Think about any artist whose work you remember. You remember them because they created a bold style and believed in it completely ... “It took me years to find my 'formula'. Why should I abandon it?” (Livemint, August 11, 2011).

And that is so true! Gupta may have come to be known internationally as the one who works with cans and buckets, but he has spread his wings beyond that, trying to find modes of expression which regularly try and cross the boundary of what we have traditionally understood as typically him.

The same article in Livemint gives this piece of information"Gupta's latest show in India, Oil on Canvas, in Nature Morte in New Delhi in December (2009) did go beyond what we have come to recognize as a Subodh Gupta work. He worked with bronze, marble, brass and wood and further explored themes of the ready-made and the found object.

Over the last year, he collaborated as scenographer for a ballet staged at Moscow's prestigious Bolshoi Theatre at the invitation of the celebrated French choreographer, Angelin Preljocaj."

Actually, Gupta has been a very fine example to understand the process of honing one's skill in cutting-edge art in India, where there is no real measure for appreciation of this kind of art. In the absence of a proper analytical background back home, Gupta used the market as his bouncing board and since his rise, he has largely had reasons to be upbeat about his 'formula'.

After all, it is not often that a penniless young man in Delhi can refuse an apprenticeship from one of the greatest artists of the period M. F. Husain. That was in the early nineties. The senior pro, who had been introduced to the young artist by a common friend, had been gracious to spend a day with the young man, studying his works. He had then offered him the job. On being refused, Husain had said that he will keep a watch on the young man and his works.

In 1996, and this was one of the many early distinctions the young artist received, Gupta got the first prize at an all-India painting exhibition held at the Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi. Incidentally, it was judged by Husain.

After all, the self-made artist who actually goes on print saying he learnt nothing at art school, has also said this to Carnelia Garcia in 2009 – I think, as an artist, all I should worry about is the work I'm making. That's all I should care about. If the work is good, then the show will be good."

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