THE ART OF SUB­TERFUGE: SLIP­PING PAST BOR­DERS

Domus - - CONFETTI - Shilpa Gupta, Nancy Ada­ja­nia

Artist Shilpa Gupta’s re­cently con­cluded solo ex­hi­bi­tion Draw­ing in the Dark al­ludes to clan­des­tine move­ments and prac­tices in bor­der­lands, and to the metaphor of the line or thresh­old that links sev­eral of her works. The show is part of Gupta’s on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion into in­ter­re­la­tions be­tween struc­tures, specif­i­cally those of the state and the in­di­vid­ual, and their rescal­ing as en­coun­tered at, what is both fron­tier and pe­riph­ery

A smooth, dark mild-steel bar slices the air di­ag­o­nally. You have to dip your head ever so slightly to pass through. Shilpa Gupta of­ten phrases her works as ob­sta­cles, rid­dles or oc­clu­sions. You find your­self ad­just­ing your vi­sion, rewiring your view­ing re­flexes to ex­pe­ri­ence her work. ‘Draw­ing in the Dark’, on view at the Kiosk, Ghent, is an as­sem­blage of found ob­jects, rem­nants, traces and tremors that the artist has picked up from her ex­ten­sive re­search on the Bangladesh-In­dia bor­der – the fifth­longest land bor­der in the world.

“He got down to work, to the task of set­tling the fate

Of mil­lions. The maps at his dis­posal were out of date

And the Cen­sus Re­turns al­most cer­tainly in­cor­rect,

But there was no time to check them, no time to in­spect Con­tested ar­eas. The weather was fright­fully hot,

And a bout of dysen­tery kept them con­stantly on the trot, But in seven weeks it was done, the fron­tiers de­cided,

A con­ti­nent for bet­ter or worse di­vided.” 1

In ‘Par­ti­tion’ (1966), W H Auden sketched a chill­ing por­trait of the Bri­tish bar­ris­ter Cyril Rad­cliffe, who drew the ill-fated line that cre­ated the war­ring na­tions of In­dia and Pak­istan in 1947 and dis­placed mil­lions of peo­ple on both sides of an un­prece­dented bor­der. Seven decades later, the bor­der­land di­vid­ing In­dia and East Pak­istan – which has been Bangladesh since 1971 – re­mains a fiercely con­tested site. The bor­der­land in­hab­i­tants liv­ing in the chitma­hals or en­claves along the Bangladesh-In­dia bor­der – a cir­cum­stance that ren­ders them ex­cep­tion­ally vul­ner­a­ble, as cit­i­zens of one coun­try sur­rounded com­pletely by an­other coun­try – are stig­ma­tised, treated as crim­i­nals and mis­rep­re­sented as smug­glers. In pre­vi­ous ex­hi­bi­tions 2, Gupta has of­fered a poignant reflection on the predica­ment of these cit­i­zens of nowhere, who are forced to cam­ou­flage their iden­tity to gain ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion, health and civic in­fra­struc­ture. 3

Schol­ars Itty Abra­ham and Willem van Schen­del have ques­tioned the bi­nary forms of think­ing and gov­er­nance that priv­i­lege Stateau­tho­rized ac­tiv­i­ties such as trade and mi­gra­tion as licit, while stig­ma­tis­ing the clan­des­tine ac­tions of bor­der­land in­hab­i­tants en­gaged in smug­gling as il­licit. They urge us to see the licit and il­licit as­pects of life in the bor­der­lands as part of the same spec­trum of ac­tiv­i­ties. They ar­gue, from an an­ar­chist po­si­tion, that “his­tor­i­cally the bound­ary of il­lic­it­ness has shifted back and forth as ban­dits helped make states and states made ban­dits.” 4

Gupta as­tutely in­quires: “When does a smug­gler be­come a trader?” Her ques­tion, as well as Abra­ham and Schan­del’s tan­ta­lis­ing fold­ing of the ban­dit and the State into each other’s nar­ra­tive, can be val­i­dated by

a his­tor­i­cal ex­am­ple closer home.

I am re­minded here of the ex­ploits of the Bel­gian in­dus­trial spy Lieven Bauwens (1769-1822). Bauwens dra­mat­i­cally trans­formed Ghent’s flag­ging for­tunes in the late 18th cen­tury by smug­gling blue­prints of the re­cently in­vented spin­ning mule from Eng­land across the wa­ter; his in­tro­duc­tion of the stolen ma­chine gave the lo­cal tex­tile in­dus­try a tremen­dous fil­lip.

Gupta’s ex­plo­ration of the slip­page be­tween licit and il­licit, clan­des­tine and of­fi­cial, heart­land and bor­der­land, led her to stage a mys­te­ri­ous event where large pho­tographs of the mo­tion­less sky sud­denly erupt with a scat­ter­ing of au­to­mo­bile spare parts. A brisk trade in spare parts abet­ted by the spirit of ju­gaad, the prac­tice of fix­ing prob­lems with in­ge­nious and some­times coun­ter­in­tu­itive im­pro­visatory tech­niques, con­tin­ues qui­etly at the bor­der with the com­plic­ity of State ac­tors. When these spare parts be­gin to lev­i­tate in the vast open sky, we are filled

with in­ti­ma­tions of in­fin­ity, a cos­mic epiphany that can­not be pa­trolled by ei­ther State across the bor­der.

But is this a lim­i­nal mo­ment or a por­tent of greater surveil­lance? With rapid mil­i­tari­sa­tion, the sky has been re­duced to so much airspace, mapped by the flight paths of planes and drones. The ex­plo­sion of the mo­tor spare parts in the sky her­alds a new nar­ra­tive of rev­e­la­tion, one in which maimed an­gels must tread care­fully.

The art of cam­ou­flage and sub­terfuge that de­fines the ex­is­tence of the bor­der­land in­hab­i­tants finds an echo, here, in a se­ries of ephemeral draw­ings that seem to dis­ap­pear even as we are look­ing at them. These liq­ue­fied im­ages, with tiny specks of the mar­i­juana bark float­ing in them, half-re­veal a bound­ary pil­lar or a walkie-talkie or the sil­hou­ette of a sol­dier. Car­ry­ing the traces of profit, plea­sure and ad­dic­tion – these crops are grown in prox­im­ity to the check-post area un­der the nose of the bor­der se­cu­rity forces – the mar­i­juana draw­ings hint at an else­where, are fluid and un­con­trolled like the river­ine to­pog­ra­phy that both States hope to con­quer and con­trol. Can we draw a bor­der in the wa­ter? Bor­ders are al­ways porous. The more sen­sors, lasers and flood­lights that are de­ployed, the more vul­ner­a­ble bor­ders are to sub­ver­sion. The si­lence of the mar­i­juana draw­ings is coun­ter­acted by the drum­roll of Gupta’s flap­board, which punc­tu­ates the plain­tive se­man­tics of ‘break­ing’: “A part of me wants to break me, wants to break away from me.” As the words break apart, syl­la­ble par­ti­tioned from syl­la­ble, our in­creas­ingly surveilled planet be­gins to mir­ror an ab­sur­dist play in which Pozzo is Lucky and Lucky Pozzo. The State can­not live, can­not even be sta­bly and se­curely de­fined with­out its bor­der; the bor­der is just an imag­i­nary line with­out the mag­nil­o­quent ter­ri­to­rial ob­ses­sions of the State to give it sub­stance. The per­cus­sive rhythm of the flap­board shad­ows the song of the stones. Picked up from the bor­der area, like the bar re­sem­bling the mild steel of the bor­der-fence, these stones are made to strike rhyth­mi­cally in uni­son by a me­chan­i­cal de­vice.

Is this the artist’s prayer for a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween State and bor­der­land, a one-hand-clap­ping Zen koan that re­minds us that it takes one per­son to ini­ti­ate change? Ter­ri­to­ri­ally, a State is de­fined by its car­to­graphic bound­aries. But as we all know, a map is a fic­tion, a draw­ing about a piece of land that com­pli­cates its prove­nance by dream­ing up more than one end­ing to its his­tory. In an un­pre­dictable move, Gupta gen­tly bends the map of Bel­gium as if it were a toy wire. I would in­ter­pret this ges­ture as the scor­ing of a tran­scul­tural affin­ity across dif­fer­ent his­to­ries of colo­nial ex­pe­ri­ence. The former Third World coun­tries are not the only tran­si­tional so­ci­eties or states of emer­gency. While Bel­gium has tried to re­solve its ethno-lin­guis­tic con­flicts – as em­bod­ied by the ri­val Flem­ish and Wal­loon move­ments – to forge a uni­fied na­tional iden­tity, the pro­po­nents of a par­ti­tion of the coun­try have be­come more vo­cal in re­cent years. The dis­torted map, whether of In­dia or Bel­gium5, tells us that na­tions are ar­ti­fi­cial con­structs that of­ten con­strain rather than sus­tain; that en­act re­pres­sion rather than in­spire free thought.

This page, top: In­stal­la­tion views of ‘Song of the Ground’; me­chan­i­cal in­stal­la­tion, bor­der­land river stones (2017)

This page: ‘24:00:01’; mo­tion flap­board (2010-12)

This page: ‘Un­ti­tled’; pa­per, pig­ment from mar­i­juana, grow­ing in vicin­ity of check­point (2017) Op­po­site page: ‘Map Trac­ing #2 — BE’; cop­per pipe (2017)

This page, top, above, and top-right: In­stal­la­tion views and de­tails of ‘1:444557’; steel, brass plate (2017) Right, and op­po­site page: ‘Un­no­ticed’; pho­tographs of bor­der sky, frag­mented spare mo­tor parts (2017)

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