“Terminal” by Subodh Gupta (2010)
“Terminal” by Subodh Gupta (2010)

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Dozens of gleaming brass towers rise like an ancient city to greet visitors at the entrance of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Nearly 50 of these golden spires occupy the lobby pavilion in the latest installation in the museum’s long-running series of one-off contemporary art projects. Spools of thread connecting the towers, which rise from barely a foot off the ground to 15 feet high, form a vast interconnected web. Subodh Gupta’s “Terminal” (2010) gestures at enduring ideas about faith, progress, and modernity. But the artist’s strategy is dated, and so is the argument behind it.

“Terminal” reads like an infographic or data visualization. The thread that connects these brass towers gives the sculptural installation a sense of linear progress, as if it is chronicling a movement over time. The towers, which are really stacks of interlocking brass containers, could be civic or religious structures, such as minarets—or they might be markers of significant turning points in the transmission of an idea. An avenue winds through the installation, giving viewers space to investigate freely and take in the composition from every direction. Yet the urge to map over it a chronological procession is powerful.

So is the complexity of the idea that Gupta seeks to convey. His installation is a visual demonstration of the map-like metaphor that often stands in for global networks, from package couriers to airline carriers to social media platforms. The piece’s shining towers suggest a vision of religious imperialism, and there’s a whiff of sinister, Machiavellian intent about the piece, but it’s more capitalist than theocratic. The logic of “Terminal” is unmistakably neoliberal—a sense that the world can be organized and structured through rational enterprise. “Terminal” could refer to the end of history, in the vein of the American political philosopher, Francis Fukuyama, who predicted that society had reached its zenith in Western liberal democracy.

History never ended, of course, and now, less than a decade after Gupta realized “Terminal,” with the liberal order teetering before the threat of disinformation and fascism, the notion of a coherent world order seems distant and naive. Was Gupta’s sculpture a warning? Certainly the threads connecting his structure look stretched taut—as if the installation would fly apart violently if even one thread were snapped. Instead, Gupta’s sculpture comes off as optimistic, or rather, worried about the wrong things. Would that we could all go back to the time when globalization was the enemy.

A one-world order is still the rule in the art world, however, and a handful of mega-galleries, fairs, and festivals—names like Pace, Basel, and Venice—rule over it like illuminati. For its Perspectives series, the Freer | Sackler has always drawn from the biggest names in contemporary art, including Ai Weiwei, Anish Kapoor, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and more; Gupta, who is represented by the behemoth international gallery Hauser & Wirth, is among the best sculptors working today. The Perspectives series at the Freer | Sackler is a rarefied platform for top-tier work.

Carol Huh, curator for contemporary art at the Freer | Sackler, has given the D.C. area a tremendous gift in Perspectives (a series title that the museum has shed with Gupta’s installation). The Smithsonian Institution’s Asian art museum has established a consistent platform for artists who infrequently grace other major museums. Yet even this focused program is not free of the influence of the art world, which relies on a global network of tastemakers to bubble up and confirm the top names in contemporary art. The world that “Terminal” mirrors is the art world itself.

At the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery to February 3, 2019. 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 633-1000. si.edu/museums/sackler-gallery.