State Of The Art: To Kanchana Gupta, Being An Artist Is About Breaking Barriers

"Moving out of my comfort zone, experimenting, and questioning my mental models and conditioning [keeps] art-making fresh and invigorating," says textile artist Kanchana Gupta from India
"Questioning my mental models and conditioning [keeps] art-making fresh and invigorating," says textile artist Kanchana Gupta from India
Kanchana Gupta

For our Art issue, we invited artists from Singapore and the Asian region to ponder the questions surrounding creativity, inspiration and purpose in today’s world. Here, we speak to Kanchana Gupta from India, represented by Sullivan+Strumpf.

What would you say are the best things about being an artist today?

Technology and a globally connected art ecosystem are the one of the most exciting things about being an artist today. We are working in a dynamic art landscape beyond the barriers of physical location—full of possibilities for creative expression, collaboration, and professional growth. Cutting-edge technologies, digital tools, software, augmented and virtual reality, tokenisation, and blockchain have opened up new possibilities for artistic expressions, and enabled artists to scale up their practice fast. Today, artists can sell their work directly to their audience, allowing for greater financial independence and the ability to build a sustainable career.

The Internet continues to revolutionise the way art is being exhibited, shared and consumed. The Web itself, along with social media platforms, online galleries, and portfolio websites enable artists to showcase their work to and connect with a diverse and widespread audience without any dependency.

Cultural exchange and residencies, facilitated by globalisation have created profound shifts in artistic influences and diverse expressions. Social media and online communities are great enablers for artists to actively engage with their audience, creating space for feedback, collaboration, and the building of a supportive artistic community.

What are the biggest challenges facing the art world now?

I’m not sure I’m qualified enough to comment on challenges of the art world as a whole, but I can share my observation and perspective as an artist. In my limited experience, I feel accessibility of and inclusivity into art institutions and museums is a challenge that many face. It seems the divide between the art that’s consumed by a wider audience, and art that’s approved as art by art institutions and museums is widening. At times, it also seems that art institutions and museums are becoming ivory towers, relegating themselves to what’s perceived by them as intellectual art and pandering to only a certain part of the art ecosystem.

This phenomenon has also created a sort of bias that a visually beautiful work may not be considered a serious form or expression of art. Such biases perpetuate a kind of segregation of artists into so-called commercial artists and serious artists, and create an entry barrier into the world of art institutions and museums. While a lot of conversations are going on about the inclusivity of the art world, there is a long way to go and it won’t change as long as we perpetuate such divides and biases.

How should one approach contemporary art?

Contemporary art stimulates our thinking and discussion on subjects that are important to us. It helps us understand the conditions of our living, the environments we inhabit, and the subjects that affect human conditions and history. I consider contemporary art an instrument of connection and conversations. If an artwork makes one feel connected to the subject and sparks curiosity and conversations, then it’s successful. Contemporary art often embraces ambiguity and encourages viewers to interpret the work in their own way. My approach is to be curious, open-minded, ask questions, engage in conversations and be willing to engage with the art on a personal level.

Why do you create art?

I create art to engage in conversations about social and gender context from a few materials that are part of my milieu and personal history, and also to stimulate a personal connection with the materials and visuals among the audience. The creative process to me is about expressing my thoughts and research on a concept visually through various materials, processes, techniques, research, and iterations. It is also about stimulating dialogues and discussions, pushing barriers, taking risks, and negotiating with my vulnerability as an artist.

Being an artist to me is about being vulnerable, being unsure, being lost and questioning my self-image. Of late, this sense of vulnerability drives my work and I like to be in a space where I am constantly exploring my visual language and not be too confident about it. That tension fuels my art making.

My art practice focuses on materiality and I deploy various artistic processes to talk about social and gender politics of the material that I am working with. The materials which inhabit my work broadly belong to three categories—socially weighted and gendered materials such as fabrics like chiffon and lace to substances such as vermillion powder, henna, silk, sandalwood powder; urban materials like jute and tarpaulin; and art materials such as oil paint. Each material brings with it its own particular identity, social symbology, weave, texture, structure and colour, which I leverage using a combination of studio and industrial processes that often irreversibly alter the inherent properties and contexts.

My latest research and works investigate the intricate relationship between gender identity and lace, the politics surrounding its construction, labour, patterns, materiality, and a fabric that sexualises and eroticises the female form. The fundamental construction of lace has remained unchanged since its inception in the 16th century; however its gender symbolism has shifted significantly, as a material associated with both female labour and female form. Its history of being exclusively crafted by women makes it a compelling material to explore as an artist.

Lace has often conveyed issues of gender and sexuality in art throughout its history. Its origins with virgin nuns making it, followed by other women and specifically housewives, symbolise female labour. It has been instrumental in adorning bodies to convey signals of status, wealth, power, and erotica. In the postmodern era, the construction of lace has evolved to have three significant signifiers—conceal and reveal, adornment, and fetishism.

My artistic interests centre around the evocative and powerful interplay of lace patterns to captivate and confront the audience, evoking both decorative and uncomfortable sensations on a sensual and visceral level.

How do you continually find inspiration? 

I am constantly inspired by the social and urban context that I inhabit, as well as my personal history as a woman from India. I am intrigued by and curious about various materials that have been part of my growing up years and I use art making as a medium to reinvestigate my personal connection and context.

I am hugely inspired by the artist Cornelia Parker, who harnesses the potentiality of materials to speak about a diverse range of subjects. I am inspired by how she harnesses the potentiality of materials, fragments them physically and figuratively, and arranges them to create unfamiliar forms, scenarios, and installations. To me, her powerful visual aesthetics represent intellectually complex ideas. Other artists that I look up to include Sheela Gowda, Doris Salcedo, Eva Hesse, Rachel Whiteread, Tara Donovan, and Ruth Osawa, among many others.

In my works, I strive to employ simplicity of form and focus on essentials. Although I do not aim to be minimalist, the ideology of minimalism undoubtedly continues to influence the aesthetics and spatial language of my practice. My studio process is both reflective and meditative, developed through repetitive actions such as layering, tearing, burning, peeling, stacking, folding, bundling, heaping, arranging, compressing and cleaving.

In addition, literature and cinema in various languages and from around the world continue to be major influences in my life and my work. I incorporated film as a medium in my site specific installation work, Two Tales and a City, and my current series of works, titled Production of Desire are videos which dissect the narrative of sexualised presentations of the female body in commercial Indian cinema of the 1980s and 1990s. This series is deeply personal and intimate—part personal memory and part social commentary.

How do you stay true to who you are as an artist?

A research- and process-based approach helps me to stay true to my art practice. Personal connection with a material and subject is important to me as an artist and I take many months to pick up a new material and go deep into its context. My practice is research-based, where each work leads to a series of investigations, and each series becomes the foundation for the next. I work in iterations of a concept, starting with visual and theoretical research, references and frameworks, material studies, choice of a medium, and series of examinations and explorations leading to final works. It takes me many months and years to produce a series of work through a systematic investigation. I deal with conceptual difficulty through more research and uncertainty through more visual studies and explorations.

I am also a hiker, and I apply learnings from my hiking experiences to art making, to keep me true to my path.

The journey is often more important than the destination. Staying true to my conviction is more important than following any trend. Art making is a long journey, and being true to myself keeps me motivated on this path. Being an artist is also about breaking barriers, moving out of my comfort zone, experimenting, and questioning my mental models and conditioning, which keeps art-making fresh and invigorating.

What’s something you would like to explore next? 

My practice is constantly evolving and I have made works ranging from painting, sculpture, installation, video and performance. It has taken a significant pivot in the last few years from a studio-based one to also include a performance-based video one, which is very research-based, combining academic research with cinema footage and using artistic strategies of imitation, subversion, and transgression.

I have been working on two parallel narratives in the last few years: the story of a material through my studio practice, and the construct of a female body by cinema through my video and performance works. I will continue deepening these two bodies of work in the coming years.