The baby machine

When it comes to Chintan Upadhyay’s clones, there’s more where they came from

Manju Sara Rajan

“It’s not my baby,” says Chintan Upadhyay. “I function like a DJ, constantly putting things together,” says the artist. Looking around the 35-year-old’s western suburb studio (one of several) in Mumbai—an unremarkable apartment in an unremarkable far-flung neighbourhood—you’d be forgiven for being surprised by Upadhyay’s disownment of his favourite artistic vehicle: babies. Babies, according to Upadhyay, are the perfect canvas to tell the story of our time. To him, they offer up endless possibilities to talk about all sorts of things: cloning, the new India, censorship, morality, social commodification. Canvas upon canvas in this colour-smattered apartment is a testament to what Upadhyay considers his latest strategy: telling his stories through an unindividualistic army of infants.

They will also be the subject of his latest show, Metastasis of Signs, at Gallery Espace in New Delhi. The show will include 18 paintings and a video installation. The main theme remains in the same vein of work he has produced in the last couple of years. But this time, his creatures have gotten a little more cheeky. The 3ft x 3ft canvases show naked male babies superimposed with images of Mughal-style men and women; each character uses sign language to show symbols that are popular in culture, saying “**** you” in one, giving the victory sign in another. “The babies themselves have no specific identities. I have imposed identities on them,” says Upadhyay. “I have used sign language to show colloquial signs and manipulated their gestures for various reasons.”

In this particular show, the main reason is the sense of censorship that prevails over Indian art and culture today, from the agitation against M.F. Husain to the fracas surrounding Taslima Nasreen, to the attack on provocative art works. Upadhyay says he’s reacting against a group of people who have appointed themselves society’s moral police. “Like a cancer that spreads from one organ to another, there’s a group of people that are manipulating gestures and symbols for their own political agenda. Who gave them the authority to decide what’s right and what’s wrong?” says Upadhyay.

His video installation fuses MMS videos about divergent subjects, from war to porn. Upadhyay says it inspects how technology interferes in the private and public space of individuals. “I don’t need these MMSes but they still come to me,” says Upadhyay. Despite several previous efforts, this latest video is Upadhyay’s first consolidated video work.

The Mumbai-based artist with the bee-stung lips and shock of greying hair began his career as an assistant to several artists, and today uses a small contingent of his own to create his works. But Upadhyay is the visualizer, the originator of ideas. Another important aspect of the execution of his work is technology. Upadhyay’s art-making process includes the use of Poser software, a 3D software package that animates and renders 3D polymesh figures. Those figures are then projected on to a canvas and Upadhyay traces the outlines of his babies. “All this is nothing new. Everything has been done before,” says Upadhyay.

That it’s nothing new is also the criticism that some viewers have of Upadhyay’s work. Last September, for the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art South Asia auction, pre-sale estimates of $400,000-$500,000 (Rs1.6-2 crore) for Upadhyay’s work New Indians, an installation with 33 individual baby sculptures, came in for severe criticism, with some people saying that it was a gross overestimation. The large work finally sold for $529,000. But, is the baby theme wearing a little thin? “The criticism comes from people who don’t understand my strategy,” says Upadhyay. “There’s a theme and strategy in mass production, and not everyone gets it. There’s resistance to what I do because what sells in art is purity, not piracy. But my babies are not sweet, they are bastards.”

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