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We change each other

'Can there exist something only to trigger an emotion or a thought?' asks artist Shilpa Gupta with her new animated light installation in Mumbai

Shilpa Gupta’s light installation in Mumbai is on view till 18 February. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Shilpa Gupta’s light installation in Mumbai is on view till 18 February. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

On the evening of 31 December, at the turn of the new year, artist Shilpa Gupta switched on an animated light installation by the sea face on Carter Road, Mumbai. “We Change Each Other," it says in English, with translations in Hindi and Urdu. The words light up one by one.

We met by the installation earlier this week and watched as people walked around it, took selfies and made Instagram stories.

Gupta has used this promenade by the Arabian Sea as a backdrop for her installations twice earlier in the last 10 years. I ask if she feels like the film-maker who slips into a movie theatre incognito to gauge audience reactions. The 41-year-old artist has a long and considered response. Even for an artist who has exhibited her work around the world—she will show at MoMa in New York later this year—exhibiting in her everyday environment, where she might take an evening walk with her son, for instance, has special significance. Even more important, Gupta points out, is this location by the sea, for this is a work about the mutation that follows when two beings or cultures come into contact with each other. “Water is a symbol of movement, migration and such great vastness which dwarfs every turmoil," says the artist’s note. “It completes the thought for me," she tells me.

The first of her large-scale light pieces, spelling out Today Will End (2011), in Switzerland, used the sky as its canvas. “It was installed on the side of a building (near which) you had the intercity train. Commuters saw it while on the move. The idea was to convey the passage of time…a sense of porosity," she says. It was “driven by the idea of free movement across terrains, not only geographical but also in terms of class, gender, and social practices".

Her art practice of over two decades has been strongly informed by the notion of political and cultural borders. Now, her 100 Hand Drawn Maps Of India (2007-08) is on the cover of the 20th anniversary edition of historian Sunil Khilnani’s Idea Of India. Surveillance and security have been recurrent concerns. She has placed suitcases in public spaces with “There Is No Explosive In This" printed across; she has encouraged viewers to take away soap bricks that say “Threat", tearing down a wall in the process. And in a startling performance work called Blame (2002), she peddled bottles of fake blood in Mumbai local trains with a label that read: “Blaming you makes me feel so good, so I blame you for what you cannot control, your religion, your nationality..."

Gupta’s concerns as an artist are eerily relevant to our present milieu. Incidentally, the place where we are meeting is where the Mumbai arm of the #NotInMyName protests took place in June. While this wasn’t by design—it’s where the electric points are on Carter Road, needed for art installations and protest marches alike—it prompts me to ask what concerns her as an artist today. “It’s the sense of posturing. You are liberal, you are socialist.... Who would even think being ‘secular’ was questionable? Labels are the start of all trouble," she says.

As a crowd gathers around the installation, a local resident, Sunil Kathale, tells us that her installation made him think back to the Bhagavad Gita: Parivartan hi sansar ka niyam hai (Change is the law of the universe). What impact would she like the work to have on people, I ask her. “In the last two days that I’ve been here, I’ve had different kinds of responses. People have spoken about caste, religion, violence, parenting.... I don’t know what is the one best response or if there even needs to be one," she says, adding, “In terms of people receiving the work, there is no direct utility—it’s not toothpaste—but can there exist something only to trigger an emotion or a thought?"

It is the transient nature of a light installation that seduces her. “It reinstates the idea that it’s a temporary thing. I could have had all the text lit up at once but I needed it to move. There is something about these kinds of contortions or unfixity," she says.

With art, as Gupta reminds us, you don’t need to complete the conversation. It’s about starting conversations and letting them change you.

Happy New Year from the team at Lounge.

The writer tweets at @aninditaghose

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