Sometimes a work of art can make an indelible impression. That was the case when I saw the Indian artist Subodh Gupta’s Line of Control for the first time in 2009, the year after it was made. I was walking through Tate Britain in London and suddenly there it was, towering above me: a colossal mushroom cloud fashioned from more than 40,000 shiny stainless-steel kitchen utensils commonly found in New Delhi. Despite its lustre, this vast sculpture, which was assembled in China and took an entire year to put together, alluded darkly to the territorial dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan. It was unforgettable.
Five years on, and Gupta, now 50, is arguably India’s most celebrated and exciting contemporary artist. He is currently being honoured with a mid-career retrospective at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art. Everything is Inside contains an array of his artworks stretching back to the mid-’90s, including a dramatically upturned traditional Keralan fishing boat more than 21 m (69 ft) long, crammed full of objects: chairs, electric fans, a radio, a bicycle, and pots and pans. There are also plenty of sculptures, like Line of Control, created out of gleaming Indian saucepans, tiffin boxes, milk pails, wide-rimmed dishes, bowls, and sundry culinary implements. These, for Gupta, have become something of a signature.
I spoke to Gupta by telephone from his studio in Gurgaon, a smart satellite city southwest of Delhi, and asked him why he made sculptures out of everyday objects. “Because even people who don’t know anything about contemporary art are able to relate to them,” he tells me. “My art comes from the common people. It comes from daily mundane objects. It comes from what we see in our lives every day. It comes from Indian culture.”
Flying the flag?
So does he consider himself an Indian artist? “People often ask me this question,” he says. “I consider myself an artist of the world, just as artists living in America or Europe or China make art drawing upon their own cultures. That’s why [the American artist] Jasper Johns painted the American flag, not an Indian flag.”
He sounds slightly exasperated – I wonder whether this question annoys him. Perhaps he feels it’s patronising? “A little bit,” he says. “But at the same time I live in this part of the world, and so my work is influenced by what I see in day-to-day life.”
Over the past decade, Gupta has been feted by super-wealthy art collectors including the Ukrainian businessman Victor Pinchuk and François Pinault, the French billionaire who bought the artist’s Very Hungry God (2006), an enormous skull made out of aluminium kitchenware weighing 1000kg. Pinault exhibited Gupta’s glinting death’s head outside his museum on the Grand Canal in Venice.
As a result, Gupta’s work now commands astronomical prices on the art market: six years ago, some of his sculptures already cost more than $1mn each. His life has changed dramatically from its origins in the town of Khagaul in the poor northern Indian state of Bihar, where his father, who died when Gupta was only 12, worked on the railways. Gupta commissioned his architect friend Rajiv Saini to design his large glass-and-concrete studio, which is spread across 500sq m (5382 sq ft), and he is married to another successful Indian artist, the London-born Bharti Kher, who also has a studio nearby. The fast-paced trajectory of his life has been described as ‘an allegory of today’s India’. Perhaps this is why so many of his sculptures – of taxis, bicycles, and even airport baggage carousels – evoke transit.
‘Damien Hirst of Delhi’
Gupta’s wealth, coupled with the glossy impact of much of his work, has led many commentators to describe him as the “Damien Hirst of Delhi”. How does he feel about that? “I feel very bad about it,” says Gupta, whose work has been bought by the Tate in London and the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris. “I feel that they have nothing to say about the art that I am doing. That doesn’t mean I hate Damien Hirst – I like his work, I respect him, I have no problem with him. But when people compare me to him, I feel sorry.”
Does he ever feel sceptical about the high-end world of contemporary art, which is driven by fashion and money? “I feel good about it,” he tells me. “Why not? If clever and big collectors are collecting my work, then I have no problem with that.” Yet isn’t there something almost distasteful about billionaires vying to buy his art, which comes from the impoverished world of everyday Indian culture?
“Look,” he says, “if an Indian author writes a story about the street or a poor man, and the book is published in Europe…” He breaks off, before continuing: “For example, [Arundhati Roy’s] The God of Small Things. How many copies were sold, how much did its author get for that? Does that matter? So if authors can write something about their own background, and do quite well in their lives, then why can’t I? If I have the opportunity to live the good life, why should I skip that? At the same time, dignity is very important in art. Just because you can make money, that doesn’t mean you should go for it and sell your art like a vegetable.”
I wonder, though, whether he ever worries that “living the good life” risks blunting the cutting edge of his art. He once had an exhibition with the title Common Man at the London outposts of the Swiss gallery Hauser & Wirth. Does he still feel in tune with ordinary people? “Yes, 100%,” says Gupta, who was part of a street theatre troupe before he became an artist (he used to paint the posters). “I buy fish and vegetables myself, I still walk in the street, and I visit my family and friends. So I believe I am still in touch, no matter where I will be. Besides, many people dream of becoming wealthy – so if I live the dream a little bit, then I still feel like a common man living the dream.”
He pauses. “My job as an artist is to make art,” he says. “Yes, there is shininess in my work, but behind that there are many layers: I’m talking about emptiness, about danger. There is a scream behind all that shining. If my life is changing, the work changes too – and why not? I go with my feeling, and I feel good about it. I still have so much to say.”
Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph.