Subodh Gupta: I Go Home Every Single Day Ian The:

The Vanishing: Altered Landscape and Displaced Lives on the Yangtze River

by Donald Goddard

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In the works by Subodh Gupta, only one person appears, the indistinct figure of a man at the far left in a photograph of huge bales of cotton that take up most of the picture's space.

On the other hand, everything is human, shaped by and for human beings: the bales, the patio with potted plants, peeling walls, and sandals in a second photo and the abandoned tents in a third, the bundles and bags on airport luggage carriers and the top half of a taxicab, the stainless steel milk pail, the row of aluminum walking sticks, the aluminum basket of cast bronze cow dung.

The people seem to have gone off and left these things, arranged as though in an art exhibit, in the context of the photos.

All the objects, the sculptures, are life-size, except for the pail, which is about six feet tall, surmounted by the even higher arc of its handle.

With its clean outlines and smooth surfaces, the pail towers over the battered bags and baggage carts, the sticks, car, and cow flops like a god or goddess, immense, perfectly formed, and impossible to see into.

For Gupta, from Bihar in northeast India, "stainless steel utensils are a symbol of the middle-class's upward climb.

Today, even the elite have it in their kitchens."

Like a mountain or temple, the pail rises above everything else, though it is tied to them in usefulness.

It is perfect, unlike all the other lumpy things, which extrude some kind of interior life.

We, however, are on the level of the other things, the earth on which people walk and wheel their possessions and look out on tattered scenes of habitation and labor.

The objects describe a social economy that depends on farming the land minimally and flying to other countries for months to work for low wages.

Bags, carts, sticks, dung, basket are silver or gold (in color at least) as though they had some exchange value, their actual value being in their heaviness and the effort it takes to move them.

But also in their utility and aesthetic presence, their closeness to those who possess them: the gnarled bamboo sticks for walking, the round, pancake turds that serve as fuel, and the bulging bundles that seem to enclose the secrets of those who packed them.

These last are said to contain products being brought home from a more modern world, but everything is hidden so it is impossible to know.

"I have been somewhere," but more "I go home every single day."

Yet home is hardly there anymore, except in bundles.

Home is in the process of disappearing in the photographs Ian Teh took in the Yangtze River Valley during the enormous and enormously destructive process of clearing more than 1,400 towns, 700,000 people, 1,200 cultural sites, and 75,000 acres of farmland for the Three Gorges Dam, which, like the pail, signifies progress.

This "vanishing" world is almost always slightly tilted, as though there were some force pushing it up from a level horizon, and it is often seen from above, as though the inhabitants occupied some kind of hell.

In fact, there is a strange kind of continuity from landscape to people to half-existing buildings.

Everything is being dismantled and the people are part of that process; they fit into the spaces that completely define their lives, and Ian Teh's photographs capture the density and complexity of that identification.

There is no alternative but to be part of it.

In a photo of migrant workers salvaging scrap for sale, slabs of concrete brick are being loaded onto a basket being carried on the back of a young man, whose face looms into our space.

His black hair tapers into elegant points on his forehead, curving like the river seen in the distance beyond him.

He wears a shirt or scarf that seems to be imprinted with a map or landscape, as though he were part of, or connected to, some more idealized world.

The man behind him adds another slab to the pile, his arm at an angle, his lower face and the cigarette in his mouth glimpsed between the slabs in a triangle that also holds a fragment of the river in its grasp.

All these elements and gestures and efforts are locked together as inevitably as the process they represent.

The young man is like a caryatid, carrying not only the slabs but the landscape itself, the slopes of the hills and turning of the river.

The blurred, diagonally descending slab is about to create a noise, a clamor, that reminds us of the weight being borne.

There are no photos of the dam itself and its construction, which will be completed in 2009, only of its effects on land and people over an area of 400 miles.

Only three of 26 photos have no people in them.

They are pictures in which the river is lost in mist, as will soon be lost "the scenic canyons that have inspired poets and painters for centuries.

Much of the spectacular scenery that has been a central part of Chinese life and mythology since time immemorial will be nothing but a memory," in the artist's words accompanying one of the river photos.

In the mean time, buildings are seen segmentally and unpredictably, creating a geometry of naked stairways and wall-less rooms through which people wander, and cling to life, to the remnants of their habitations, until the authorities find them out.

Life continues in this strange way, defying the fates as in an ancient myth.

A young woman of great beauty strolls down the street in a long blue-and-white dress, with braids, red shoes, and a red and white umbrella, as a man in a straw hat carrying a load balanced on his shoulder, only the upper part of him seen in the foreground, looks away from us and toward her.

Her presence is completely contradictory to the continuous drab wall behind her covered with postings, and somehow she represents a principle of life that is both vulnerable and powerful, determinedly headed in a particular direction. 

Donald Goddard © 2005

The exhibition was on view at Jack Shainman Gallery, 513 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011.

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