Mumbai scrap makes it to Harvard

Updated: Oct 06, 2019, 07:30 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre | Mumbai

Sculptor Sakshi Gupta enters Harvard's South Asia-centric classroom to ponder over cities, like her own water-logged Mumbai, where the past is being fast-discarded in exchange of a 'redeveloped' future

Seeking an after-life for industrial scrap:  Sculptor Sakshi Gupta at her workshop in Reay Road. Pics/ Suresh Karkera
Seeking an after-life for industrial scrap: Sculptor Sakshi Gupta at her workshop in Reay Road. Pics/ Suresh Karkera

SumedhaIndustrial scrap, rusted beams, cement debris, crushed stones, discarded objects, and other familiar cast-off material in Mumbai's mega construction sites and industrial areas form the quintessential aspects of sculptor Sakshi Gupta's visual language. She picks up the discarded, forgotten or rendered useless, to give it new meaning and value while exploring notions of space and form. Her recently exhibited work was developed using rubble from around the city and she continues to investigate the potential of this material in the new body of work she's making currently at her studio in Reay Road. She is obviously not carrying the scrap to Harvard University's South Asia Institute where she is going to spend the next two months. She is there to explore the unexpected in a new environment of a residency.

Gupta, 40, one of the Visiting Artist Fellows for Fall 2019 will showcase some of her key works, which are her attempts to frame abstruse human conditions, and also her take on materiality. The exhibition starts on October 15 at the institute. But display of her art works are not the focus of her stay. She is there to connect with the faculty of the School of Design as well as students with similar research interests. She will gain access to data and archives of the Harvard libraries and museums. The fellowship comes as a moment of pause that she was looking for within her practice, having worked independently for the last 10 years in Delhi, Baroda and Mumbai. It is a time to recalibrate her relationship with the immediate workspace and also review her place in the larger much-discussed South Asian demographic. "For all you know, I may come back with new collaborators from Nepal and Bangladesh or fellows from within India who have thoughts on an artist's role in our emerging future," says a hopeful Gupta who believes that geographical distance triggers fresh perspective. She started her classes on October 1. In the days to come, she is going to study art and design in public spaces as well as focus on themes of permanence-impermanence of spaces and form. Towards the end, she hopes to make a site-specific installation using found objects from within the campus.

Gupta's works are deeply influenced by the environment and physical contexts in which they are produced; for it is not only the sculptural form, but also its relation to the space it occupies (and defines) that her practice seeks to highlight. Ever since she relocated from Delhi two years ago, Mumbai's unfolding aesthetic has been on Gupta's mind. As an artist she feels compelled by the city's constantly changing landscape—a frenzied deconstruction to build the new without much understanding of what constitutes the 'new' and without full appreciation of what the old has to offer. Her Reay Road studio is, in fact, a bank of the city's 'waste' whose after-life interests her. She hunts for concrete debris and industrial iron scrap and then re-purposes them in her studio. At the beginning of this year, one of her motorised works—an animated breathing metal that appears to be acquiring slow cancerous energy—was part of a group show (in Delhi) titled Deeper Within Its Silence: Form and Unbecoming. The chaotic but heaving mass of rusty iron speaks of the urban landscape Gupta has in mind. Similarly, her series, Become the Wind (Gallery SKE, Bangalore, 2013), provoked an inquiry into abstract forms—either metal scrap welded from underneath or rusty metal mesh—which are open to interpretations. As the title suggests, she says, "It is asking the viewer to flow between a tangible state and an intangible essence. For individuals and for cities, the constant pull and push of opposing forces are inevitable."

Gupta's emerging body of work is a deeper exploration of the state of flux and the process of transformation. It is an inquiry into the notion of time, space and form. "Engaging with scrap and rejected materials presents me an opportunity to convert elements from the past into something contemporary, giving it a new life. It furthers my investigation of internal and external change, while questioning the useless vis-à-vis the useful," she says. Artistic interventions, according to her, encourage multiple ways of viewing an object (or even an architectural structure) that is discarded. It sensitises us, as a community, to possibilities of bringing in new systems of urbanity whilst preserving its essential history. "The deliberate use of physical materials and spaces encourages a certain breather amidst the almost irreversible decline of the environment and ecology around us—a poignancy that people can experience in a non-stop and chaotic life of the city."

Many of Gupta's works are either untitled or have generic names like Leaning Elephant or Column Work, which again underline the power of possibilities in her vision of the cities. She finds it difficult to lock the idea in a name. For instance, the peeling wall (2009) threaded by smaller and larger bits of industrial iron scrap reveals newer layers underneath. It is a dense, vertical surface pregnant with crusty creatures; the peels bulging powerfully, as intended to be a reflection of material and personal change. Another recent work of 2017, loosely called Whirlpool, is a labour-intensive depiction of a watery shadow; a comment on shifting states of mind. The Fan-Column (2013), which is part of Become The Wind series, is an undefined column tree-like growth. The blades of the two fans at the heart of this form move in opposite directions, suggesting the play of opposing forces—life-giving and life-threatening. In its evolving state, the form represents a dynamic, self-fuelled process. One of her titled works, Freedom is Everything, is a carpet (among the select images that will represent her oeuvre in Harvard) that is inviting and luxurious at the outset, but the surface reveals itself to be made up of nuts, bolts, cogs, and bearings arranged in a symmetrical pattern. The viewer is invited to walk on it to experience the unrelenting discomfort on a simulation of a lush carpet.

Gupta has surprised herself in her choice of installations and sculptures as a prism to see contemporary reality. The Delhi-born initially wanted to take to advertising and documentary film making, Fine Arts were low on her priority list. But she enrolled in the Bachelor of Fine Arts course in the Chandigarh College of Art, after not getting the desired options in Delhi. After graduation, she took a break for a year, in which she tried her hand at doing different things including a stint with a TV news channel. Soon after she enrolled for her Masters in Sculpture at College of Art, Delhi. But the true insight in sculpture came only once she started experimenting in her medium in artist residencies after completing her Masters, of which Sandarbh Residency (2005) based in Rajasthan proved the first turning point. Gupta flourished in Sandarbh where site-specific art projects and community-based interactions encouraged her to delve deeper into sculpture.

Gupta's sculpture practice came into her own after several other residencies she was fortunate to be part of, such as Kashi Art Residency (Kochi, 2006), Artist in Residence—Krinzinger Projekte, Vienna (2008), and Ranieri Fellowship, Umbria (2011). She has also been a recipient of several grants and scholarships like the Inlaks International Scholarship (2007), Illy Sustain Art Prize (2011), and more recently was the finalist for the Enrico Marinelli Contemporary Art Award, Florence (2018).
Gupta is wary of the lifestyle templates forwarded to South Asian cities from the West. She feels cities in her part of the world (including Mumbai and Delhi) try desperately to fit into 'forwards.'

In a time wracked with doubt, rifts and transitions worldwide, she feels the need to revisit and redefine the centre, not only of the finite self but of the self in the larger context. A hiatus away from her routine studio work is a chance to step closer towards appreciating polarities that perhaps cannot find an easy reconciliation. It is also an avenue to identify patterns emerging from the complex, layered and chaotic milieu of South Asia that she herself comes from.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at

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