By Amrita Varma
It is that time of the year again when one finds the entire art fraternity coming around and putting up their best face through their finale for last year’s work in the first month of the year. This is in the eyes of the art jockey, is the India Art Fair 2015. There are talks and exhibits and parties hosted round the clock with the culturati descending in droves from across the world to see and do work in what best Indian art has to offer.
It is also an indicator of where we are heading as brand Indian art artfully!
So what exactly is the Art Fair this year all about? The fair in its seventh edition this year opened with a more clean rested look in its stalls, display and installation of works. That was a wonderful sight to see. One did not see the pomp and show of earlier times perhaps because of a lower turnout or just the fact that one has established India Art Fair as a viable brand, which does not need the initial outreach. There was ample space to engage with works for perhaps the first time in comparison to all its editions when one went to the special preview at three with those enviable silver banded cards.
When one looked at the collectorship in numbers the turn out this year was lower of the guys with the pockets for the big buys. There was something missing if you picked up on the chords. The flash of names and the excitement of a headline buy was also missing. This was a bit disturbing because these little details make a big difference to the morale and the inflow of money and resources made available to the art system besides the eyeballs it grips to bring to the fair and in extension to art in due time.
From a macro perspective, is the global player drawing away from Indian Art and are we failing to attract that quality of collectorship and artistic quality to push Indian Art forward? ...These are deep questions to ponder upon.
One has to say it has been tough times for the fair the last couple of years with the art system restructuring and the swings of the art market in tow. They have kept a brave face on and met mettle in making sure the fair happened somehow. This however, does not justify the low turnout of International Galleries and the dwindling Indian gallery line up.
The new strategy is perhaps, a policy of more inclusiveness, which may be great in the introduction of new artwork and artists. Some galleries of quality however were missing and that was disappointing.
The reasons for this could be from justifying the stall price to the discerning collectorship quality available to the gallery or perhaps a rethinking of their own programming to see how best to fit the viability of making art and its business of effective dealing without suffering losses, meet. The point here is that to make that happen some measures would have to be taken on the part of the fair and its management which have not yet seen the light of the day precisely because art works differently from any other industry in its structure and purpose.
Coming back to the galleries and artists showcased, the art at the fair this time felt safe. Not too much risk. That work of Indian art that holds the torchlight of wonder, magnanimity and fascination to carry the image of Indian art today through for the world to see and admire was also missing. The talks and seminars were difficult to catch up to with so much to view and analyse.
One did see exceptional works by artists like Sudarshan Shetty, Shipa Gupta, T.V. Santosh, Nandita Kumar and Puneet Kaushik to balance the scales besides the project stalls that held interest.
What was interesting to see though was the engagement of the masses in the projects like the ongoing process of painting by Chitra Ganesh and Dhruvi Acharya through the fair. The curated project supported by Akar Prakar which showcased Jayshree Chakravarty’s work Roots was also an eye catcher along with some interesting works from Ganesh Haloi. One could also see with this edition the emancipation of the questioning eye of the general viewer who a few years back would not have paid much attention to the art on the walls and its subtleties and dimensions of context or want to know what it was all about.
One also found that the galleries had made an effort to push artists with works of quality, which sometimes surpass their seniors. Nandita Kumar, Hema Upadhayay, Remen Chopra, Girjesh Kumar Singh Anandita Dutta and Zeeshan Mohammed.
Some artists with exceptional work chose show outside the fair premises this time. As a result the art fair was spread in a larger geographical area. Works from Alwar Balasubramanium, Manjunath Kamath, Achia Anzi , Mrinalini Mukherjee and Anju Dodiya are worth a mention. Tyeba Begum Lipi’s exhibition was also of cerebral quality which one doesn't find often when working with social issues. Manav Gupta’s installation was also interesting to experience.
The coded message underneath this showcase at the fair and around is clear. Art works of quality and with an intrinsic nature to push and expand the creative eye are key for art in India if it has to stay a healthy system, where seniority or country of birth is loosing its hold and one can’t sit on past laurels.
While I am deeply grateful for the vision, quality of artwork and experience of senior artists who have produced some very seminal works of art to bring the global eye to India and would like artists from this country to prosper, I do feel this is the healthiest cataclysmic change for a system where we were getting sluggish and marketing and branding was overpowering the validity of the art work.
This in turn was affecting the sales of the works long term and drawing people away from their initial interest in art from India. This transfer to quality and level pricing is like fresh air to a claustrophobic, incest ridden art world.
The long term changes it brings is an insertion of a mid market segment and bringing in the new collector with an eye. It explores the mass expanse of potential collectorship of a younger generation who vibe keenly with the contemporariness of the works and can understand it as something they are connected with.
Another observation one has been seeing repeated reflections of, in parallel, is the return to the figurative with a more rooted Indian foundation to it. The works are cutting edge contemporary and drawing from a local heritage or tradition.
This seems to be working well especially where one has seen the opening out of new collectors picking up work and associating with it keenly besides the fact it is firmly grounded in its contemporary nature. Works of Girjesh Kumar Singh, Sidharth, Manav Gupta, Jangarh Shyam and Atif Khan are exemplary in this new language on contemporary art.
Some interesting photography saw the light of day in PhotoInk, Tasveer and Wonderwall’s booths. Serigraphs were given their due importance by the likes of Archer Art Gallery. The international gallery turn out was low and in that one found introduction of artists from India. On talking to them one found that the reason was also the higher price points of international artists and the collector here having leanings towards form and the figurative besides the fact that the Indian Collector was not willing to pay the monstrous amounts required for the works of the leading American or European artists. Sculpture and video works were not as many though Nalini Malani, Jitish Kallat and Veer Munshi’s video work did leave one in thoughtful mode.
What was also amazing was the various idioms of display of art work and the beginnings on the dialogues on actual curation, which has missed its mark in India with largely shoddy curation in galleries or the booths earlier with a few exceptionally curated shows through the year and in a few booths at the fair.
Delhi Art Gallery’s curation of period works was excellent and a mesmerizing world of its own, where because of the richness of content and curation one could not do justice to it in the limited time of the four days. Galleries like that of GallerySke, Experimenter, Volte and Chemould Prescott were exceptional in the curation of their works stalls which stood out and deserve a credible mention.
Gallery Espace’s selection and curation of Nilima Sheikh’s works was par excellence and transformed the space to the environs of meditative stillness and lyricism the works vibrate with.
Sakshi Gallery had an interesting array of works to ponder on along with Nature Morte and Latitude 28.
Apparao’s curation of works with the theme of the chess board was playful and engaging for the general viewer and at the same time serious in its artistic contextualization. The Portrait Project was important in initiating a new dialogue in curation in this edition as was the Museum of Sacred Art for looking at contemporary and modern Indian art in a different light.
There was a strong presence of Museums and Archives creating a much-needed awareness on Contemporary Indian Art and drawing one into visiting with the likes of KNMA, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Bombay and the Asian Art Archives. One saw these Institutions now having built their repertoire and become a milestone of the upheld quality of Contemporary Art and its presentation to the world. One also saw the keen efforts of its trustees and management to ensure its growth and quality, which is a heartening factor and a big positive driving the art system in India.
Weather intended or not, the fair this year has given some ground learnings. The need to uphold the quality of art work and for the artist to push the creative dimensions of his work irrespective of colour or stature and the need for a more open ended growth and stability within the art market that we need to find practical solutions to. Most of all, is the birth of a more stable grounded contemporary art world which has a daunting and intricate journey to build its visions to reality.
In all this hope generated by the efforts of the galleries, artists and auxiliaries who have a direct interest in art, there are a few factors that glare one in the eye; the fair and its capacity to bring in the collectorship and the galleries worldwide, the relatively non risky quite affair which is not expected of an art fair and the cooling heels of the international community and publications.
These are problematic for the future existence of the fair and its complicated marriage to Indian Art on which it sustains, weather liking the involved association with it or not. There is a need to sit on the drafting table and find viable, practical tailor made solutions keeping in mind that it is art and working over the entire year to these challenges instead of throwing the volley across the net and back and dealing with things at the end.
It is a tough job keeping this marriage of art and its mentor together. The challenge is to do that. The solution also lies in that.