Committing a Dream: Chapter II — It’s Tango Time with Ratna Gupta
(Above: Ratna Gupta, Untitled, 2019)
“If only I could be Louise Bourgeois,” writes Ratna Gupta in her above work.
Written in American Typewriter typeface, size 14, and centre aligned to boot, this wish is so right a title for this untitled work; it is only fair it isn’t.
As in the case of Ratna, the psychologically charged works of Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) — a towering figure in 20th century art — were also fed by her insomnia. Although insomnia was a longstanding nemesis and/or companion, it was between November 1994 and June 1995 that Bourgeois specifically put her state down on paper. During this time she made 200-plus drawings and on the back on one of these she wrote: ‘Key to insomnia: peace or trust’.
‘Key to insomnia: peace or trust’ is an odd sentence, even for someone like Bourgeois, who seems to have dug contradicting herself.
The bit before the colon is phrased as if Bourgeois is offering the reader a key to deliver them to insomnia. The words appearing after the colon don’t necessarily speak with those that precede because ‘peace or trust’ are after all the stuff of sound sleep.
“I perpetually contradict myself,” discloses Ratna. When discussing her work and life she is likely to use the word ‘contradict’ often. And when she’s not saying the word, she’s saying it anyway, and in many a roundabout way.
“We are in a state of degradation. Personal, the world, our environment. I can only state this in my practice. I do state this in my practice. I don’t know. I have no solutions. I don’t think we can change it. We can change it. But the world would have to change. One person at a time,” goes Ratna about her work.
When Ratna says she aspires to be Bourgeois, so that she, like Bourgeois, can make hay while the sun is not shining, this too can be read as a contradiction of sorts. While Ratna might not physically be making works in the wee hours, she uses her insomnia anyway, to think up all the details she can in the run-up to the actual making.
Weighing in on the inescapable condition of contradiction, Maya Angelou writes in her poem A Brave and Startling Truth:
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet / Whose hands can strike with such abandon / That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living / Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness / That the haughty neck is happy to bow / And the proud back is glad to bend / Out of such chaos, of such contradiction / We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
About chaos Nietzsche has said: One must have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.
In a recent article, the philosopher Julian Baggini states, “Albert Camus met his end in a car that wrapped itself around a tree at high speed. Nietzsche collapsed into insanity after weeping over a beaten horse. Posterity loves a tragic end, which is one reason why the cult of David Hume, arguably the greatest philosopher the West has ever produced, never took off.”
Everyone loves a tragic philosopher, even Raymond, and Hume was a content and happy man when he died at the age of 65. Nietzsche died aged 44.
Got to give Freud his death drive due. Us humans are attracted to the tragic like whales to a song.
Gupta is claustrophobic and yet, “claustrophobia used to play a major part in my practice. Wrap myself in plastic. Take a mould. Then cast in fibreglass. Claustrophobia as in a fear of small spaces, claustrophobia as in being surrounded by too much. Overtime though, I have learnt to manage it better,” she explains.
Is it too far out then to cast insomnia as an extreme that is both forbidding and alluring? Something that can spur creativity despite its vice-like grip.
Raymond Carver thinks it is far out not, in Your Dog Dies:
It gets run over by a van / you find it at the side of the road / and bury it / you feel bad about it / you feel bad personally / but you feel bad for your daughter / because it was her pet / and she loved it so / she used to croon to it and let it sleep in her bed / you write a poem about it / you call it a poem for your daughter / about the dog getting run over by a van / and how you looked after it / took it out into the woods / and buried it deep, deep / and that poem turns out so good / you’re almost glad the little dog / was run over, or else you’d never / have written that good poem
A roadmap to nosleep is not without its wicked Poesque cool. I double dare you to deny. Everything is double-edged. Eros and Thanatos do the tango ad infinitum/nauseam.
Edgar Allan Poe’s reputation as a troubled, sinister, drug-addled mind is mostly the result of his arch-enemy, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, becoming his literary executor. About contradiction Bourgeois has said, “Expose a contradiction, that is all you need.”
Ratna’s text-based work — a first for her — is a cross between a journal entry, a letter, a long social media post and an email written in response to the curatorial text. Speaking of, there’s a ‘Dear Insomnia’ meme out there (because of course there is), that appears either to be written by women or to be addressing them, in particular.
Women require more sleep than men because of their ‘complex’ brains. Research tells us that, on an average, women need an additional 20 minutes of sleep because their brains multitask hard through the day.
Motherhood equals multitasking much. In the introductory lines of this work Ratna drops a clue, “I am obsessed with the idea of sleep. I lack it. It’s been seven years.” Motherhood happened to Ratna seven years ago.
Women sleep better in gender equal societies. As do men; sleep better, that is.
Artist in Focus:
For Ratna Gupta, repetition is sacred. The act of doing, over and over, what has become instinctive, is a way of unearthing new meaning, to mark the passage of time and the metamorphoses of bodies; reaffirming the ephemeral. A part of her practice is self-representative and revolves around the fragility of memory. Her recent solos were at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, 2018 and in Felix Frachon Gallery, Brussels, 2017. She lives and works in Mumbai. More here and here.
Gitanjali Dang is a curator, writer and overall shape-shifter. In 2012, she founded Khanabadosh, an itinerant arts lab. More here.