There’s something extraordinary about Christie’s September 12 auction of 1 K.G. War, a Subodh Gupta sculpture, at its South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art sale in New York. The pre-auction price estimate for the work has been fixed at between $15,000 and $20,000 (Rs 8.35 lakh to Rs 11.14 lakh), which is rather low for a work by Gupta. But then 1 K.G. War is, unusually for Gupta who is known for working on a monumental scale, very small — just 3X3X1.5 inches in dimension.
However, what is even more inexplicable is that Christie’s price estimate does not even cover the cost of the material of the sculpture, which is one kilo of pure, 24 carat gold. At the current international rate of around $1,660 for an ounce of gold, the cost of 1 kg of the yellow metal works out to nearly $60,000 (a little over Rs 33 lakh). So, in effect, buyers can walk away with one kg of the precious stuff — and a Subodh Gupta art-work no less — for just one-third the price!
Asked about the anomaly, Hugo Weihe, Christie’s International Director of Asian Art and International Specialist Head Indian and Southeast Asian Art, responds tongue-in-cheek over email: “This is a conceptually brilliant work by Subodh and sometimes collectors can truly strike gold!”
Setting aside Christie’s mystifying pricing, 1 K.G. War is a conceptually ingenious sculpture, marrying subject — a critique of warmongering and profiteering from war — with a material that is the very symbol of lucre and power. As Gupta told the art critic, Christopher Mooney, in an interview published in the journal Art Review, “[…] One kilo of war. How many kilos do you want?”
1 K.G. War was made in 2007, at the height of the American military engagement in Iraq. It was exhibited in 2008, at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery where Gupta had a solo show called “Still Steal Steel” which included another of his celebrated sculpture-installations — Gandhi’s Three Monkeys featuring three outsized soldier heads wearing eye shades and gas masks.
Kept in a glass display case in a small annex of the gallery “to prevent it from reaching hands that might misuse it”, 1 K.G. War attracted a lot of attention at the exhibition’s opening, with art website Blouin Artinfo reporting that it “caused a small bottleneck… as visitors peered at the object as if it were a precious, rarely seen treasure unveiled at a museum”. But not everyone was taken in by the luster of gold. Peter Nagy of Nature Morte Gallery, which represents Gupta, saw 1 K.G. War at the show and says he found it “rather sinister, dense and compacted”.
1 K.G. War is unusual in being a contemporary work of art made entirely of gold. There are many artists who’ve been attracted by the sheen of gold and its association with purity, on the one hand, and with the greed and rapaciousness of capitalist society, on the other. French avant garde artist Yves Klein and Thomas Lee Byars, an American performance artist and sculptor, have used gold. But mostly, they used gold-plating or gold-leaf embellishments.