For even satire is a form of sympathy. It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives. And here lies the vast importance of the novel, properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead. Therefore the novel, properly handled, can reveal the most secret places of life: for it is the passional secret places of life, above all, that the tide of sensitive awareness needs to ebb and flow, cleansing and freshening.
Praise Undeserved is Satire in Disguise: the Irony of Ved Gupta’s art
Ved Gupta’s sculptures and paintings mock existing social and economic hierarchies in India. Ved’s young life has taken several decisive turns which have influenced his concepts and methodology, precisely articulated in this first solo exhibition. His ambition – to create a dialogue that begins with his work – is grand but the context is localized, grounded in his experiences and observations.
Born into a business family in the remote town of Narkatiagunj in Bihar, the artist describes how newspapers arrive at noon and illiteracy is given new meaning – lack of education and knowledge compounded by the lack of information. Ved moved to Delhi in 1994 (where he worked as a daily wage worker for three months) after reading an interview of the artist Maturam Verma and joined his studio in Pilani, Rajasthan as an apprentice. He worked with Maturam Verma (Guruji), till 1999 and in those 5 years worked on several public commissions, becoming proficient in portraiture and use of cement and clay. A chance encounter with an artist from the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University in Vadodara led Ved to apply and join the Bachelors program in 2000. It was his desire to understand the notion of contemporary in art and to find ways to empower himself, other then economically, that led him to the threshold of the Fine Arts Faculty, where he has recently completed a postgraduate degree in sculpture.
Ved has observed first-hand the iron clad principles that still manifest themselves in the class society of present day India, he has experienced the loneliness of migration but he has also seen human kindness and learnt the power of the visual language. His fascinating journey to this point can be seen in the forceful and limited vocabulary of his sculptures and paintings.
A short man in a suit with sunglasses perched on his bald head, leans against a red leather sofa and peers up at you in It is Tough to Hear You Sir!!! (The Chairman). He reappears, slightly modified, with a mustache this time, in The Man with Untitled Companion III. The man looks confident, ingratiating and utterly repulsive. He stares at us while a hideous large red frog rests on his shoulders, looking out with beady yellow eyes. Here he is again, the dwarf man, this time replicated nine times as a ‘Punch me’ toy, each the same with slight superficial changes in Motion in Paralysis (Left – Right – Centre). These men represent the politician, the ruthless business man, the contractor – all those who will cut others down to their size by command, manipulation and the forked tongue. No matter how often you try to beat them down they will bounce back.
On the other hand we are confronted with a tall lean naked man, elongated and idealized in his sensual sensitivity. He represents the disempowered minority, the honest worker. The two face each other in It Lies in the Eyes of the Beholder (The Man and Man). They clearly are in the midst of a dialogue their tongues wagging furiously. The tall man looking down is meant to be a new manager or director of a company, not a laborer but a naïve new initiate to the capitalist/ bureaucratic world. He is being taught his duties but also his role by the short man clad in pajama kurta and Nehru jacket with the forked tongue. One cannot predict how the tall man will turn out; will he become the dwarf in a few years or will he beat the system that is rigidly procreated and protected by individual interests. The conspiracy is again outlined in Untitled where the dwarf and the tall man, now wearing trousers but bare-chested (perhaps to mark his slow induction into the exploitative system) share a love-seat.
Karl Marx wrote in German Ideology (1845), ‘For each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.’ Through the ages the small group of rich and thus powerful persons have owned and managed the resources for the plenty. The rich control not only resources but also construct the dominant thoughts of any era. The bitter cry of the expropriated has fuelled revolutions down the ages and while some of these have been successful, by and large they have brought little fundamental change in the social order. Society returns, with slight variations in terminology, to a non-collective social order where there are the haves and have-nots, the rulers/ governors and the subjects/ governed.
Ved looks at life from the perspective of the dispossessed, constructing them as heroic, tragic beings whose labors have built the much applauded symbols of development, the towers of modernity. Those who build the skylines and the highways, extract the minerals, weave the cloth, manufacture the wealth and dig the soil have not shared in the spoils of the market. The promise of broadly shared prosperity, made at the birth of the modern period, still remains a dream unattainable for many. Everyone wants a piece of the pie but they aren’t satisfied with their share, they covet what other have as well. In the installation Arrested Moment I a tall naked man lies on a conference table. On his chest is vertical scaffolding, the sort used to construct buildings and monuments. Around the table are eight throne style chairs, two of them occupied by dwarfs. Around the central group are ten relief panels on pedestals, each with a mutilated or deformed face of an unknown public servant. Ved identifies how everyone wants a piece of the polity, they do it greedily and clinically, with no sense of compassion or duty to the being who has placed them where they are. Greed becomes the dominant motivator.
While the country basks in the wake to the success of economic liberalization policies instituted in the early 1990s Ved visits the abuse of the basic values on which the modern Indian nation was conceived. For instance, consider the mockery made in the recent Parliamentary session of July 2008 when the Ruling government won the Vote of Trust amidst allegations of bribery and corruption, epitomized by three members of Parliament from the opposition waving wads of notes as evidence that they had been approached by members of the Ruling Alliance government to withhold their vote. Such displays of buffoonery undermine the role played by public figures in the democratic system of India, which all citizens hold in great pride. Motion in Paralysis (Left – Right – Centre) shows how the notion of ‘sleeping cells’ may be extended to the elected members of parliament. The work of a sleeping cell is often to arrange for funding and to provide all the local support required on the ground to enable them to carry out their carefully planned conspiracy. Such cells are 'activated' only when the 'mission' reaches its final stages of completion, such as the obviously orchestrated interruption made on 22nd July. Ved’s contention is that the elected representatives of the people to the government ultimately feel no responsibility to the larger interests of the community and thus are not accountable for their actions and decisions.
The supporting cast to the drama narrated by the two types of men includes a Dalmatian, a frog, a horn and sofa. Ved constructs a strong identity of his objects through the use of repetition. The relationship between human beings and objects is an uneasy one. These are not objects of everyday use, they have been culled from the millions of things that populate our environment to speak for the larger aims of the artist and aid him in his job as a commentator and initiator of discourse. The frog, for instance, is inspired by the Feng Shui frog (thus its construct here as an object and not an animal) which is thought to bring prosperity and good fortune if placed correctly. But in a strange twist that such tales often take, the frog has been punished for stealing money and thus craves it endlessly. Ved is not attacking superstition or belief, he is not aiming for reform but is attempting to exploit the maximum potential of every image towards beginning a conversation. He is intrigued by way in which superstition is exploited by the capitalist model as seen in the sudden popularity of vaastu and feng shui that rely heavily on material things for personal well being. The frog in Man with Untitled Companion III could represent the minefield that is foreign economic policy or global trade relations and the contemporary system of hidden production and consumption, example ‘I Love New York’ key-chains are made in Taiwan or Ganesha figurines are mass produced in China. As China and thus the world rides the commodity boom wave and the glut of production pushes prices ever lower, the frog is a reminder of all the things we remain blind to when we buy cheap mass produced items under the ‘Made in China’ tag – how it transforms centuries old industries; the environmental hazards of its breakneck consumption of raw materials and the hard labour conditions under which people work.
Ved’s art contains the rogue elements of society; it is an interesting look into the seamier aspects of the 21st century socio-political relations. The protagonist of his work is ultimately the viewer, the site where the transition from image to dialogue takes place.
The rabble gather round the man of news, and listen with their mouths wide open; some tell, some hear, some judge of news, some make it, and he that lies most loud, is most believed.
John Dryden (1631-1700)
Dryden’s words may sound unnecessarily cynical and perhaps even simplistic. The same may be directed, by some, at the sculptures constructed by Ved Gupta. But both, the words and the images lie in the interstices between honesty, derision, satire and simplification. In satire, human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, or other methods, ideally with the intent to bring about improvement (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004). Although satire is usually meant to be funny, the purpose of satire is not primarily humor in itself so much as an attack on something of which the author strongly disapproves, using the weapon of wit.
A very common, almost defining feature of satire is its strong vein of irony or sarcasm, but parody, burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre – all of which appear in Ved’s art.