Monday, February 3, 2014

Holistic discourse at India Art Fair 2014 - art beyond narrow walls


New Delhi The India Art Fair 2014 took a holistic look at contemporary art — from both India and around the world — to probe its sustainability in the vibrant and competitive contemporary space through a combination of site showcases, business propositions, brandings, viewerships and ideas in exchange across geographical boundaries. In the last 10 years, when the world was still battling economic fluctuations, the approximately 250 million US dollar domestic art market came across as surprisingly resilient — barring for a brief spell in 2008 when the bubble of inflated pricing burst in the Indian art market triggering a sharp price correction. Gallries ensured that they stayed in business by quality enhancement of their portfolios as the prices tumbled by as muh as 30 per cent. The India Art Fair 2014 showed that the quality consciousness was still the driving factor in the Indian art space with the entry of new segments of collectors, institutional buyers and independent acquisitions - to fill a vacuum created by dwindling invstment in art.
The India Art Fair 2014 evolved a refreshing a "kitty" of devices to keep the average visitor and the odd buyer in the loop - with pe5rformances, interactive projects, offsite interventions around the city, new media art and installations. Consequently, the nature of art went through a subtle shift — purging mediocrity for more reflective and mature expressions conceived in the leisure of lowkey commercial compulsions. It is this spirit of deeper exploration of the finer nuances of Indian contemporary art that the fair tried to encapsulate in the backdrop of the greater canvas of global aesthetics. 
Twenty-five large scale installations at the fair brought the discourse back to the importance of art as a symbol of social ownership and the material of material from the traditional confines of pigments and lifeless solid mediums (like metal, wood and glass) in the open. Artist Riyas Komu, one of the founding co-curators of the Kochi Biennale 2012, carried photography as a notion of still temporal frame of an object, figure or landscape on the wall to the fashionable pop canvas — on a large wood panelled collectors' box with printed collages — in his installation, "The Collectors' Room"— to create a bioscopic sweep of violence,  discord, conflict and change in India where politics has been the catalyst of apocalyptic change down the history. The photographs were sourced from the personal collections of three photographers that Komu used on his box — including one of a Congress Working Committee meeting, an event that often steers the political destiny of the nation. Another project that related to the viewer was The Mermaid's MIrror — by multi-media performance and conceptual artist Sheba Chachhi (presented by Volte Gallery) explores memory and nostalgia as links between the "virtual, real and the divine" through the life of the tragedy queen of the 1950s-1970s Meena Kumari in sequences where she replaces the diva's image with those of Indian deities — in subverted transaformations of personas. In India where movies influence popular psyches, actresses often enjoy demi-god status — as figures of invocation. The 24-odd  - and 25 installations — probed the synergy between art and life, art and reality, co-relation between the different mediums of art and human psychological response to it. The images and mediums connected to traditions, nostalgia and people — the key schools of thought that shaped the course of the visual repertoires alongside a return to the 1960s-style minimalism and post-conceptual aesthetic thinking characterised by "sensible visual canvases closer to basics on the hround and in nature". The ostentatious works — of giant proportions and futuristic — that occupied the centrestage of the fair two years ago were conspicuously absent.    
Kolkata-based Akar Prokar Gallery brought a collection of works by contemporary Bengal master Bikash Bhattacharya — an artist who often slips off collective consciousness since his demise few years ago. A cache of 10 artworks — from his early watercolours, figurative studies and renderings of political repressions and global conflicts of the later years- were displayed in chronological sequence. "The works spans the decades of the 1960s-1990s chronicling the progression of Bhattacharya as a nature colorist to a politically rooted artist. There is a museum quality to the works. My experience is that as we get introduced to new buyers and new viewerships at the fair, something more rooted and serious stands out among all the glittering shining cutting edge things," Reena Lath (co-owner) of the Akar Prokar Gallery pointed out. 
The flavour of the season was Nalini Malani — a leading contemporary artist who combines memories of 1947 Partition when she came as a  refugee  with international urban ethos with elements from the Indian dramatic stage to make works that comment on dislocations, migrations, confused identities and psychological backlash to social upheavals in complex and bog works. "We have been working with Malani for the last six years. In 2013, she had curated an all-woman show for us at the fair in a document of the feminine power in visual arts down the major contemporary historical phases of 20th century. When we decided to exhibit her solo this time, she was eager. Malani has an international appeal because of her cutting-edge practise and mediums — she has also been exhibited in all major shows in Europe and US," Patrice Cotensin, director of Paris-based Gallerie Lelong, which brought a solo showcase of Malani to the fair, told thsi writer.Two other premier art houses in the Indian national capital, the Vadehra Art Gallery and the Kiran Nader Museum of Art, are exhibiting Malani as well. 
The theme of museum-type solo shows — showing an artist's complete oeuvre in mini-spaces — extended into the display of works by artist Atul Dodiya as well. Dodiya, who was hosted by the National Gallery of Modern Art in a major solo exposition in 2013 end— was extensively represented by Vadehra Art Gallery in a showcase that touched uopn all his practises. The display was accompnaied by the unveiling of a biography of Dodiya's art - based on the exhibition- curated and complied by art historian, critic and writer Ranjit Hoskote. 
Leading contemporary artist Anjolie Ela Menon switched roles as a curator for the Dhoomimal Art Gallery to put together a mini retrospective exhibition of contemporary icon, Francis Newton Souza's works, "Sacred To Profane & Masters of Indian Art". Menon paid tribute to Souza, a fellow traveller influenced by Christian traditions of western art, by describing his "works at once audacious, inventive and iconoclastic". Souza  was the first modern Indian artist to be recognised globally. "His paintings often reflect the dichotomy of his love-hate relationship with the Chruch and women," Menon said of the works that were made of "head studies, Ganesha interpretations and his trademark women - in poses of sensuous seduction". 
The Souza showcase drew responses ranging from sheer rapture to surprise at the innovative curatorial approach of an "artist to artist" response in artspace. 
The idea of art space as a elite curators' and gallerists' "exhibition and interpretation interface for a select group of informed audience" is changing, experts observed. A new arts space — more democratic and accountable in nature is beginning to overwrite the exclusivity subscribed to the Indian art space. 
In a symposium, "Public and Art" - one of the key  discourses at the Speakers' Forum at the Art Fair featuring a panel of Harvard University-based cultural theorist Homi Bhabha and Chris Dercon. director of Tate Modern (London) said a redefined "cultural citizenship" — a concept that opened new doors of dialogue and reception between citizens and cultural protagonists and projects in the second half of 19th century — tailored to the needs of the 21st century coul create a new alternative forum for public expression where artists together with the common citizen could mobilise public perceptions - and offer innovative insights for thoughts. "Cultural citizneship is a profoundly political concept - where people with practitioners and institutions of cultures could create a new shape of cultural affiliation - a new sense of citizenship about what was cultural, social and poitical," Homi Bhabha said. Dercon said he was happy "when he looked around". "Riyas Komu's container (with political messages and images) and Vikram Seth's billboards (critiquing the tirade against alternative sexual minorities) show new forms of (cultural) ownership - as part of what we can give citizens new confidence about ownership".     
The democratic spirit was the essence of the fair — where discourses and visuals transcended the walls of idealogies, religion, politics and colours to bring every voice on to the canvas of conetmaporary art and its purali expression of creativity.
-Madhusree Chatterjee


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