Originally from Kolkata, India, Deepanjan Mukhopadhyay subtly investigates shifting meanings within post- and neo-colonialism in works that also reflect on the specific mediums that he favors: photography and sculpture. I met him while studying at Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens, where he is pursuing his MFA in photography. I did not know him well then. I was in my BFA program in printmaking and book arts, while he was in his second year of graduate school. From afar, his work was always eye-catching and mysterious to me. Its clean and poetic presentation was immediately striking. The attention to detail and craft of its presentation led me to believe that there was a specific reason for every detail.
I had not heard him speak about it, so I wasn’t totally aware of what it was about, and this is what ultimately made me appreciate his work so much. He leaves little clues about the content, subtle references. This hint of narrative piqued my interest and made me want to know more. Last spring, I attended a critique of the MFA candidates in photography, where he discussed his work.
Right now, Deepanjan has work in FAST FORWARD // REWIND, an exhibition curated by Mary Stanley at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Georgia. The piece will be up only a couple more days. It closes October 14. Titled Outsourced: Fall, it is, in my opinion, the star of the show. Tucked overhead in a back corner of the gallery, it is a very quiet yet powerful site-responsive installation featuring a Brother brand printer. Every two minutes, the Brother printer spits out a page. Each day from 9am to 5pm, it prints 6.5 copies of Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 10: The Working Day on 160 sheets of paper.
I met with him at MOCA GA to find out more.
CC Calloway: I wanted to start by talking about your pieces featured in MOCA. Tell me about the process of creating “Outsourced: Fall,” from the origin of the idea to the installation of the piece.
Deepanjan Mukhopadhyay: I had made work about the outsourcing of pregnancies to surrogate mothers in India. I’m also always thinking about terms, words, and phrases. At the time, I was thinking a lot about the term ‘brother.’ The short story that goes with the piece draws from real-life experiences of having known friends who have worked or are working in the information technology sector in India. I like the idea of outsourcing my labor as an artist to objects, to make them perform or behave a certain way in a gallery space. The Brother brand of printers was perfect for this project: to print The Working Day —Chapter 10 from Marx’s Capital, Volume I. The Working Day talks about labor, especially the struggle between the employer and the employee (the laborer) regarding how many hours one should have to work.
What was the experience you were trying to create?
I would say that viewers bring their subjective reading to the work and create an experience for themselves. I might have some control over guiding them through that experience. For example, when we talked earlier, you had latched onto the element of surprise. When you first heard and saw a sheet of paper being printed and falling down, you compared the feeling to snowfall, which is ironic because I didn’t grow up in a place where it snows.
In regards to my broader practice, what I want viewers of my work to experience is what Raqs Media Collective calls “the sensation of thinking.” Art works through a variety of sensations, and with the kind of work I make, the point of access for the viewer is through the visual. But it’s really important for me to create sensations of thinking as well as having the viewer move through spaces and makes connections between pieces. I think the work is most alive when this process is taking place within the viewer’s mind.
You work online as well. Can you talk a little bit about your project with Minecraft?
Even though I have made work in Minecraft, I had never played the game before, or since. I was invited by the founder of localhost gallery, Drew Nikonowicz, to respond to the space. localhost is a gallery within Minecraft. A lot of museums and galleries have already built satellite spaces within virtual worlds like Minecraft and Second Life.
I attempt to make my work interact with art and/or institutional spaces whenever possible. For example, I think “Outsourced: Fall” engages the labor of the institution as it prints during the gallery hours and museum staff has to maintain the printer and keep it running — refilling it with paper every day, and toner when necessary. When I started thinking about localhost, some of the work from my series “Pre/Post/Eros” was translated to that space. I made two new pieces specifically for and in that virtual world. These were outside the gallery and in the surrounding landscape, almost like in a sculpture garden. For me these functioned as earthworks in that landscape.
So how would you say making work for virtual reality and online is different from making work in a physical space?
My approach to making work for virtual and physical spaces is not different or disconnected. Like physical spaces and materials, the digital and virtual come with their own materiality and opportunities. Documentation of work I make in physical spaces exists online and my documentations are often stylized and are responsive to the digital space. Coming back to Outsourced: Fall again, its online documentation is an endlessly repeating gif.
Do you think about reaching audiences internationally when you make work?
Yes. By default, I would want my work to be accessible to an international audience, especially when the work is about interconnected global histories. I grew up in Kolkata, a post-colonial and cosmopolitan city cherishing a certain sense of internationalism in both culture and politics. I have also been a non-citizen in the US for over five years now. I wouldn’t want my identity or my art to be contextualized only through geo-political terms, especially with the current rise of nationalism across the world. But on the other hand, roots are important. It’s definitely a precarious position to be in.
I have noticed that you use a lot of readymade objects in your work? What does the idea of the readymade mean to your work?
At a certain level photographers are already working within the concept of readymade because we are producing images of pre-existing objects. I think for contemporary readymades, their provenance and function within the global economy is important. In my work, I will usually purchase products and photograph them in arrangements when I feel that the arrangements need to exist in their photographic form. The tiffin box, cloth, napkins, and wires in Luncheon are all products. When I decide that the objects can go straight into the gallery is when they are readymades. I can create a stage for them to behave or act in a certain way and consequently divulge their social and cultural histories. For me there is also a connection between objects and texts — playing with them is like playing with words. Readymades are like quotations.
I have learned a lot from viewing and thinking about your work. How much do you care about education when you make art?
I don’t think that the primary function of art is to educate people. But perhaps art can create conditions for critical inquiry. As someone who hopes to pursue a career as an educator. I think about this a lot. Teaching goes beyond art in its ability to serve and engage with society at a more concrete level. The challenge is to have a basic education in disciplines like literature and history with diverse and inclusive content. It is also important that the approach we take towards learning any subject prepares us to intelligently consume and process new information to produce knowledge. This is where I think art education plays a key role. And hopefully all of these together can help someone access and appreciate all kinds of art that deal with different themes.
You seem to work in a completely interdisciplinary mode. I know your main area of study while in art school is photography. How do you feel about the field of photography? In my opinion, sometimes the conversation surrounding the field feels somewhat circular, especially in art school.
Yes, that is true, not only in photography within academia, but sometimes in other mediums and outside academia as well. All mediums including photography have their own traditions and processes and artists often work within that. Conversations about technicalities and craft can sometimes seem stifling. Not always, but often, both delivery by the artist, and reading of the work by viewers is limited to the bounds of that medium and the work fails to engage with broader conceptual concerns within contemporary art. My photographic work is often self-referential but at the same time I hope that it also explores ideas that are not just limited to photography.
Do you make references to the medium of photography in your work? Tell me about your piece Luncheon, for example.
First of all, it’s a still life so it tries to situate itself within the history of still life not only in photography but also painting. Second, in a way this image talks about a scene being photographed. The heavy shadows, the direct lighting, the way it’s blasted with flash. You instantly know someone photographed this scene. There was no effort to try to conceal that process by using natural lighting and making it into a portal, a window to see this arrangement. The title tries to connect the piece to various luncheon scenes in Modernist painting.
In terms of content, I’m interested in the relationship between texts and the left-leaning ideologies that stem from these texts, but at the same time how these texts are sometimes deconstructed through the enacting of those ideologies. In this case, that’s Mao’s Little Red Book. What happens when you blow up a text? On the other hand, you could also say that I have a certain “communist nostalgia.” In the late ’60s in many places around the world, there were left-leaning student revolts. There were uprisings in the state of West Bengal — where I am from — that were supported by students and intellectuals from Kolkata. Those student revolts are the roots of the Maoists in India, who are now fighting the government as an insurgent group spread across central India, and who refuse to participate in the Indian democratic process.
They make IEDs out of tiffin boxes, like the one here, and they cover their heads in a balaclava fashioned out of that check pattern.
When did you start making art or calling yourself an artist?
Sometimes it is empowering to call oneself an artist, but it also connotes a certain privilege that we should be aware of. I grew up in a family that has four generations of doctors and no one around me was an artist. It felt like everyone was either a doctor or an engineer, and that is what everyone became when they grew up. I dropped out of high school when I was in 11th grade. At the time, I wanted to be a physicist but I detested the education system I was going through. There wasn’t any standardized examinations in India. Ww were preparing for all these different tests, so we had to sit for about ten different exams to get into different science or engineering colleges. Even though I was a good student, I was just fed up with all of it. I just dropped out. I didn’t know then that I would become an artist. This is where my interest in teaching and working in the field of education and pedagogy stems from.
Because I was not in school, I decided to try photography since I thought I had a knack for it. So I joined a local photography group that held regular classes and put on group shows. I worked with them for about a year, mostly in the documentary mode of photography. At that time, I was really inspired by cinema, especially Andrei Tarkovsky’s work.
I realized I needed to get an education in photography that was not just about technique and craft, but more academic in nature and one that treated photography as a discipline within art. So that’s why I decided to come to the US, since there were no BFA programs in photography in India. I think once I was in the US and I was studying art, I soon knew this is what I wanted to do professionally. It still took a couple of years for me to confidently start calling myself an artist.
Deepanjan is currently working on “Tripwire,” a show he is curating at UGA Dodd Galleries in Athens. The show is scheduled to run January 26 through March 22.
CC Calloway received her BFA from the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia in May 2017. She is a 2017-18 WonderRoot Walthall Fellow.