“So he called out aloud, «Open, O Simsim!» And no sooner had he spoken than straightway the portal flew open and he entered within. He saw a large cavern […] in height equalling the stature of a full-grown man and it was hewn in the live stone and lighted up with light that came through air-holes and bullseyes in the upper surface of the rock which formed the roof. He had expected to find naught save outer gloom in this robbers’ den, and he was surprised to see the whole room filled with bales of all manner stuffs, and heaped up from sole to ceiling… – Excerpt from ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ Translated by Richard F. Burton In Les Moulins, artist Subodh Gupta has reimagined Ali Baba, a work first shown in Centre Pompidou in 2011.
This new version of the work has not only been adapted for a dramatically different space but also captures progress and transformation in Gupta’s practice. The title of the central work in this space, Ali Baba, references a popular tale from the Arabian Nights of a poor man who chanced upon a cave of stolen treasure.
Here, Gupta has produced a cavern full of glittering objects, and the installation allows viewers to feel the surprise and delight of discovering something unexpected, a rare experience in a contemporary world that is fully mapped, tracked, and navigable.
But what appears to be a thieves’ paradise upon initial discovery, turns out to be filled with stainless steel utensils, a consumers’ paradise. Stainless steel serving spoons, buckets, and vessels of every kind, still emblazoned with brand stickers, are suspended from the ceiling. In the passageways, piles of glasses and lunch boxes sit on old tattered bed covers and spill out of bundles of used saris. Stainless steel tableware is commonly used by middle class families across India.
Yet, the glut and glitter of empty vessels in Gupta’s installation remains haunting and suspect, as a cave of stolen treasures would seem when discovered by a modern explorer. Thus, Ali Baba attempts to highlight some consequences of the rapid transformation of urban and rural landscapes in South Asia wherein cities and industries are being designed to feed the needs of capital rather than feeding citizens.