is curled up in bed, bare-chested in white briefs, one hand holding a cigarette and the other licking through the New York Review. On the adjoining wall, a grainy photograph shows moustachioed protesters brandishing a placard which reads: TRAVAILLEURS GAIS SOLIDARITÉ (‘solidarity for gay workers’). These thoughtfully composed works, if somewhat naive in sentiment, set the tone for the rest of the exhibition: for Gupta, the personal remains political.
Across the room, the black-and-white series ‘Christopher Street’, 1976, captures the emancipated atmosphere of the West Village in the wake of the gay liberation movement. Promenading down the Stonewall Inn’s infamous street, the jocks, bears and clones portrayed in these street-style photographs display just about all of Hal Fischer’s ‘Gay Semiotics’ signi iers: from chevron moustaches to satin gym shorts and leather chaps (Pro ile AM432). This series also marks Gupta’s second coming out: this time as an artist. That year, he abandoned his business degree in favour of the New School’s photography class, then taught by documentary photographer Lisette Model (whose alumni include Diane Arbus and Peter Hujar).
The following room brings us to the 1980s, which coincides with Gupta’s move to London. A er graduating from the Royal College of Art, he soon became involved in the capital’s grassroots scene, including his work with the Association of Black Photographers, Autograph, induced by his 1986 series ‘The Black Experience’ (originally exhibited as part of a group show at the Brixton Art Academy). That period is also marked by a visible shi away from the documentary tradition and towards ictional narratives, addressing postcolonial preoccupations against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic (Gupta’s own diagnosis instigated the 1999 series ‘From Here to Eternity’, which lends its title to the retrospective).
This shi becomes apparent in ‘Exiles’, 1987, a high-contrast colour series in which local gay men re-enact encounters across Delhi’s popular cruising spots, including a park, a war memorial and outside a mosque. Mostly, these men turn their back to the camera, occasionally gazing affectionately at one another. These theatrics allow Gupta to overcome ethical issues of privacy and consent while rendering the experiences of Indian gay men visible. Looking through these works, one might say that Gupta’s series is an act of fabulation, bringing the Deleuzian phrase ‘the invention of a people to come’ to mind.
Adjacent is Gupta’s ‘Trespass’ trilogy, 1992–95, which marks his irst experimentation with digital techniques. In its inal iteration – originally commissioned by Southend’s Focal Point Gallery – SouthAsian iconography is juxtaposed with imagery found in Essex, a historic gateway into England. Stemming from the postcolonial critique then advocated by the late theorist Stuart Hall – who once famously claimed to be ‘the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea’ – Gupta’s photomontages evoke the residual imperialism which contemporary Britain continues to feast on.
‘“Pretended” Family Relationships’, 1988, de ies the Thatcher-era Section 28 law with tenderly staged portraits of multiracial queer couples, incorporating black-and-white protest shots and poetry (written by Gupta’s then partner Stephen Dodd). But the show’s ictional climax is reached in ‘Sun City’, 2010, a speculative series inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 experimental ilm La Jetée, famously constructed from still photos. In Gupta’s revisited plot, however, the ravaging impact of the nuclear war has been replaced with that of the AIDS crisis. Throughout some 16 photographs, we follow the journey of an Indian migrant, from his arrival at Paris Orly airport to the dramatic setting of a gay bathhouse, evoking at once religious iconography and Wilhelm von Gloeden’s 19th-century homoerotic nude studies. We are far from the truth-claim of the photographer’s early works – as if indexicality had revealed itself to be inadequate to chronicle queer life in all its complexity.
At once timely and timeless, Gupta’s photographs appear as an antidote for the distancing the gallery signage reminds us to observe. His practice is more than one of encounters – by chance or by political will. It is an exercise in togetherness. Benoît Loiseau is a writer and critic based in London.
Thao Nguyen Phan: Becoming Alluvium Chisenhale Gallery, London 26 September to 6 December ‘Why did the stream dry up? I put a dam across it to have it for my use, that is why the stream dried up,’ reads the 52nd lyric of The Gardener, 1913, by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. The words appear as subtitles in the opening shot of Thao Nguyen Phan’s video Becoming Alluvium, 2019, a close-up aerial view of rippling water, with a narrow boat gliding slowly up the screen. The water, we soon learn, is the Mekong River, whose colonial history, ecology (and extractivism’s disruption of it), folklore and mythology constitute the subject of the Ho Chi Minh City-based artist’s painstakingly researched and highly lyrical 16-minute video, which is the focus of this exhibition, appearing along with a sculptural lacquer cabinet framing a series of watercolours (Perpetual Brightness, 2019) and, on the adjacent wall, a single panel of Vietnameselacquered wood (Delta, 2020). The rare combination of research and lyricism – the former usually associated with academic discipline, the latter with affect, instinct and spontaneity – is one of the show’s more remarkable strengths.
Dams pose a huge threat to the ecology of the Mekong. The title of the video (as well as the exhibition) honours the nutrient- illed sediment characterising the Mekong’s water, which is necessary for the river’s survival as a functioning ecosystem, on which depends the livelihood of more than 60 million people. Thus, the ilm takes as its point of departure the disruption caused by the building of dams and hydropower plants ‘upstream’ (most of which are in China, which operates
Thao Nguyen Phan, Becoming Alluvium, 2019, video
Art Monthly no. 442, December 2020 – January 2021
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