Losers and Rejects

I wrote about Prashant Pandey’s Shelf Life II and Sarnath Banerjee’s Barwa Khiladi – a gallery of underachievers in this week’s The Mag.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any connection between Prashant Pandey’s new exhibition, titled Shelf Life II, at Gallery Maskara and Sarnath Banerjee’s Barwa Khiladi — a gallery of underachievers at Project 88. Banerjee’s prints tell endearing stories about mediocre athletes. Pandey is a sculptor who works with found objects and there’s rarely anything humourous in his work. If you consider the moods of the two shows, they’re completely opposite. Barwa Khiladi is sometimes hilarious and constantly amusing. The sculptures inShelf Life II, on the other hand, are shadowed with melancholia. Here’s what the two do have in common: the starting point for both artists’ work is rubbish.

In Pandey’s case, this is literally the case. His last show had works using sweat, blood and even urine (his own). This time, the materials are less personal, but no less rejected. Pandey has used objects like chunks of road tar and dried sweet lime pulp to create his sculptures. You might recognise that “Black Moon” is made up of bits of a road — particularly if your commute forces you to travel on roads that look about as fragmented as Pandey’s sculpture — but if you can figure out the original materials of “Yellow” and “As I Cut Them”, you deserve a prize.

An installation view of Shelf Life II. From left to right: Black Moon, Yellow, Missed and Woven Mirror.

“Yellow” is an off-white cube, which looks unremarkable until you realise Pandey sculpted it out of sweet lime bagasse (the dry, pulpy residue that’s left behind after the fruit has been juiced). The circular fruit has died and been reborn as a white cube. “As I Cut Them” looks like it belongs in a hair salon because it seems to be made up of swatches of hair that look shiny and soft, like ponytails from a shampoo advertisement. They’re actually bunches of sharp, spiky copper wire. “Love”, a massive heart-shaped sculpture that hovers in mid-air, is made of marble blast stones that give the work an almost balloon-like quality even though marble is anything but light and airy.

 

While Pandey’s use of the mediocre and rejected is poetic, Banerjee opts for a more humourous take on immortalising those whom we’d relegate to the trashcans of history. Banerjee was commissioned to create a public art series for the Olympics in London this year. Considering the reputation Bengalis have for being disinclined towards athleticism, Banerjee and the Olympics seemed like a curious combination. However, Banerjee chose to create a series about underachievers and proved that the Bengali dedication for slacking off physical activity could hold its own even when faced with the Olympics.

Curated by the Frieze Foundation, Banerjee’s drawings of Olympics non-medallists were seen as billboards and posters all over London and now they’re enjoying pride of place in Mumbai. As usual, Banerjee’s work is great fun and its strength lies more on Banerjee’s storytelling skills than his drawing prowess. Take for example, the ping pong player who at a crucial moment is distracted from the game because he can’t remember the correct spelling of eerie. Banerjee tells you about a high jumper whose commitment to keeping himself primed for a sport at which he’s not particularly good means he spends his days contemplating gravity and surrounding himself with all things light: “Light food, light music, light reading”. The only thing that grounds the high jumper is his lone medal, which is bronze.

From Sarnath Banerjee’s Barwa Khiladi

For all the humour in Banerjee’s work, what makes his work charming is that there’s no finger-pointing at failure. On the contrary, he’s full of sympathy for these rejects who persevere despite being losers, because they show true dedication. Anyone can stick to doing something they’re good at, but if you continue with something despite failing, that’s love. In Banerjee’s show, it’s the fact that they’re rubbish at what they do that makes them heroes who are worth immortalising as art.

The ancients from all over the world had been convinced that an object known as the philosopher’s stone, which could turn base metal into gold, existed. Christians and Muslim alchemists of yore believed God was supposed to have given it to Adam. In Buddhism and Hinduism, it was known as chintamani and appears in many legends. Philosophically speaking, the idea behind the stone is simple optimism — the stone makes it possible to create something precious and refined out of the ordinary. No one’s found the philosopher’s stone so far (except Harry Potter), but Pandey and Banerjee have come close enough.

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On Indian Collectors

This article was published in the June issue of Wallpaper*.

The Great Pretender

Standing outside Gallery Maskara, in the belly of Mumbai’s art district in Colaba, you’d never guess you’re standing in front of one of Indian art’s most avant-garde galleries. Since 2007, the gallery has had inflatable babies, dust sculptures and other odd objects that can only belong in an art exhibition. One of the most memorable shows at the gallery was Shine Shivan’s debut solo in 2009. Titled “Sperm Weaver”, it made Gallery Maskara’s previous exhibitions look tame. His gender-bending works looked at sexuality with a dark mischief and brutal frankness that is rare in Indian contemporary art. One installation was titled “Used Dicks” and was made of empty nests of weaver birds and Shivan’s mother’s hair. “Psycho Phallus” was a site-specific installation comprising two enormous, 11-foot towers made of grass, wood and cow dung patties. It created quite a buzz, literally. Along with viewers, the cow dung attracted a swarm of files. But “Sperm Weaver” established Shivan as one of the most promising young artists in India today. His work used elements that were intrinsically Indian, like the cow dung patties that can be seen all over rural India, but Shivan’s concerns and practice were not limited by his nationality. Of course the question that hovered in most visitors’ minds was, who would buy something like “Psycho Phallus”?

Exhibiting unsaleable shows has been a cross frequently borne by most Indian galleries of repute. The artists who receive critical acclaim are rarely the ones who are popular among Indian buyers, much to the frustration of gallerists. While bland landscapes and paintings of doe-eyed women, Buddhas and Ganeshas have a steady market, only a few collectors are willing to put their money into the innovative contemporary art that respected galleries showcase. “India-based commercial galleries, especially those based in Mumbai, are the driving force for the Indian contemporary scene,” said Mortimer Chatterjee, who runs the Mumbai gallery Chatterjee & Lal with his wife, Tara Lal. “It is they that represent the tastemakers as of the present moment,” he said. “We await a new generation of collectors to emerge.”

In comparison to the art markets of America and Europe, the subcontinent is a minuscule cog in the global machine of art. The habit of buying art is a new one in India and most contemporary art galleries complain that those who buy art are mostly speculators, not collectors. Rather than judging a work for its aesthetic value, the question that is regularly asked is whether the financial value will appreciate. “The market is still very conservative and fixated on painting,” said Peter Nagy, who came to India as an American tourist in the early nineties and became so fascinated with the country that he returned to stay and opened the gallery Nature Morte in New Delhi in 1997. Today Nature Morte is one of the leading contemporary art galleries in India, with a branch in Berlin and a tie-up with Bose Pacia in New York. Nagy’s list of artists include superstars like Subodh Gupta, Anita Dube and Raqs Media Collective; all of them known for making the kind of avant-garde art that few would consider suitable for the wall space above the living room sofa.

“If you take someone like Subodh Gupta, Indian collectors are more likely to pay the amounts that his works are worth for a painting,” said Nagy. “But Subodh is primarily a sculptor and the international market is interested in his sculptural work.”

While many Indian contemporary art galleries are heavily dependent upon foreign collectors and institutional buyers, there is a select set of Indian collectors who are more interested in the present than the past. Hotelier and co-founder of the Devi Art Foundation, Anupam Poddar, for example, is one of the most revered collectors of Indian art precisely because of his collection has a strong emphasis upon the contemporary. The Poddar collection was begun in the 1980s by his mother, Lekha. Lekha Poddar put together a noteworthy collection of Indian art, mostly paintings, from the early twentieth century. It was Anupam Poddar who broadened the scope when he began buying unconventional works in the 1990s when the current luminaries of Indian contemporary art, like Subodh Gupta and Anita Dube, were young upstarts.

“My love for Indian contemporary art developed through my deep friendships with artists who were making courageous works at that time when I started collecting,” said Poddar. “But it is also about a desire to possess those objects, images, moving images that affect you at a gut level, and how they grow on you over time at living spaces.” His collection today includes every Indian contemporary artist of note and has some of the most bizarre pieces that have been shown in India, including Sudarshan Shetty’s large-scale sculpture titled “Love”, which shows a metallic dinosaur skeleton simulating sex with sports car. The Devi Art Foundation, which opened in 2008 in a suburb of Delhi, is the first attempt at a private museum for contemporary art in India. It shows exhibitions curated out of the growing Poddar collection.

For Rajshree Pathy, an entrepreneur who bought her first painting at the age of 17 (it was by M.F. Husain and set her back by Rs. 17, 000, which is peanuts compared to what any Husain painting is valued at today), the works of contemporary Indian artists resonate in a way that art from other time periods and countries cannot. “I only collect Indian contemporary,” she said. “I visit most international museums and the major art fairs during the year, but I’ve decided to focus on what we have here. I collect any medium — painting, sculpture, installations and more recently, digital art. Whatever is strong, edgy and perhaps controversial. Contemporary art is nothing but a visual expression of the issues that confront society today, so it’s a bit ugly, a bit macabre, and not so pleasant!”

Pathy’s complete commitment to Indian contemporary art is rare. Most collectors have chosen to include art from other time periods or countries in their collections. “When you collect across a wide range, you filter better and you’re creating a dialogue between the various artists that is interesting,” said businessman Anurag Khanna, who lives in a small town in Gujarat and has over the past nine years amassed an impressive collection of contemporary art, with an emphasis on video. Khanna is not interested in artists born before 1960 and while he has a few paintings in his collection, he doesn’t care much for the conventional canvas. “Paintings around our house to me are like clothes in a cupboard,” he said. “They’re there and it’s all around you. You stop noticing them and you don’t really stand in front of the work and think about it. Video art requires you to make an effort. Putting on the dvd, the darkened room, it all pushes you to watch it and think.”

Like most collectors in India, Khanna travels within the country and internationally to keep abreast of what is happening in the art world. This wider perspective has led to him turning increasingly to buying works by foreign artists. He feels video in particular is handled ineptly by South Asian artists whereas the same medium in the hands of international artists like Keren Cytter and Jane and Louise Wilson can give a viewer goosebumps. “Indian contemporary art is not exciting right now,” he said bluntly. “I find it expensive and Indian artists are not pushing boundaries and prices are still absurd. To me, if I have Rs. 40 lakhs, there’s enough I can do with it internationally. I don’t have to spend it on Indian art that isn’t of that high a standard.”

Khanna’s sentiment is echoed by Poddar, who is widely regarded as one who is ahead of the curve so far as the Indian art market is concerned. When asked if contemporary Indian art excited him as much as it used to earlier, Poddar replied, “Not always!” He said he was now looking at art from “regions like Central Asia and Iran, which are more exciting for me at the moment.” His criteria for art that he considers worth buying is demanding : “I respond to those works which are original, honest and more importantly courageous. There is no one particular medium that I exclusively collect, but I am drawn towards those works that challenge mediatic conventions.”

Given his waning interest in Indian contemporary art, this would suggest he isn’t seeing these qualities in the works of most upcoming artists. While there are Indian artists that he is “curiously following”, Poddar doesn’t feel that Indian contemporary art has developed a distinctive character. “Although Indian artists have been trying to play out Indianness through culturally specific content, it is too early to say if Indian contemporary art has a distinct character,” he said. “For example, Pakistani contemporary art is deriving a lot from the miniature painting traditions and even while abandoning that mode of representation towards more inter-media works, their practice is still animated by rigorous traditional training. That kind of a national identity is lacking in Indian contemporary art.”

The question of whether Indian art has a national identity is one that irks most gallerists. “Indian contemporary art is marked by its very diversity,” said Chatterjee. “Unlike the Chinese contemporary art scene, India has never really been afflicted by identikit artists.” As far as Peter Nagy is concerned, the question is irrelevant. “I don’t know why there is a demand that Indian art have a distinctive character,” he said. “Do we do this with American art or French art? I think it’s a bit of a disservice.”

Whether or not Indian contemporary art is distinctive becomes relevant with galleries and artists from the subcontinent stepping on to the international stage. Artists like Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat and Shilpa Gupta (no relation of Subodh) with their innovative practices have got foreign galleries representing them (Hauser & Wirth, Haunch of Venison and Yvon Lambert respectively) and this has helped generate more international interest in art from the subcontinent. Over the past five years, an increasing number of Indian galleries are participating in art fairs. They’ve showcased the talent in their stables alongside the best galleries of Western Europe and America at Basel, Hong Kong, Dubai and elsewhere. There’s been greater access to foreign buyers, both private and institutional. Also, the participating Indian galleries have been able to rub shoulders with their brethren in other parts of the world.

“As a gallerist what I enjoy most [about art fairs] is that I get to meet gallerists from all over and they are all at work,” said Sunitha Kumar Emmart, who runs GallerySKE in Bengaluru. “One gets to meet people from all over the world — collectors, curators, museum directors, artists, and many more.

It is also a space where one can initiate collaborative projects with other galleries.” The world of art fairs has removed what gallerist Prateek Raja, who runs Experimenter in Kolkata, describes as a sense of “geographical alienation”. The question is, can Indian contemporary artists hold their own and stand out next to their peers from other countries or are they remarkable only within the South Asian niche?

The gallerists are confident their artists can. The diversity in Indian art practices today is its greatest strength, they argue. “The most exciting thing about Indian contemporary art is its ability to capture this mega-nation’s multiplicity and to do this through mediums that are challenging and at the same time representatives of the times,” said Raja. Galleries like Chatterjee & Lal, Experimenter, Gallery SKE, Project 88, Photoink and Gallery Maskara should know. Over the last few years, they have been consistently showcasing new talent whose works have not succumbed to predictable tropes and have received critical acclaim. Some of their artists have won over even doubting collectors like Poddar and Khanna. When asked which upcoming Indian artists had interested Poddar in recent times, he gave the following names: Sakshi Gupta, Shreyas Karle, Baptist Coelho, Minam Apang, Kiran Subbiah and Susanto Mandal. Khanna’s list had many of the same names, as well as Pakistani artist Bani Abidi and Bangladeshi artist Naeem Mohaiemen. All these artists were discovered and are represented by the galleries listed above.

“The missing link in India are the legitimising institutions,” said Nagy, “Abroad, all big institutions, such as Tate Modern in London or the Museum of Modern Art in New York, have a small gallery that focuses upon experimental contemporary art. They play the role of validating and legitimising a selection of the contemporary artists. That, in turn, makes the collectors more confident about this type of work. We have nothing like that in India.”

It has fallen upon galleries and collectors to fill the space created by the absence of museums, and they have. Today Poddar doesn’t simply collect for himself but for Devi Art Foundation. Collector Kiran Nadar opened up her personal collection to the public in 2010 when she set up the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in a Delhi suburban mall. The galleries that have been championing contemporary art continue to do so, even as they struggle to find a happy balance between earning enough from the business of art to keep nurturing art practices that have a limited market within the country.

Despite the absence of infrastructure and frustrations, there’s a determined confidence the country’s gallerists that Indian contemporary art isn’t a bubble but rather a nascent scene. “There wasn’t a market for Richard Serra in the New York and London of the 1970s,” Nagy pointed out. “He didn’t have a market till the ‘80s and ‘90s so why complain about India and its market today?”

Review: The Trophy

This review was first published in ArtSlant.

Trophy Hunting

From The Trophy, by Ruben Bellinkx

Generally, when you walk into a gallery, you expect two things: light and silence. Enter Gallery Maskara and you’re plunged into a darkness that is made all the more eerie by the whirring noise of projectors playing Belgian artist Ruben Bellinkx’s 16mm films on loop. “The Trophy” presents a set of videos that Bellinkx has made over the past five years, beautifully displayed in the cavernous gallery. All except one use animals (predictably, animal rights activists aren’t enamored by the artist’s work but Bellinkx took great pains to ensure the animals were much happier and settled than the videos they starred in). The first work that greets the viewer shows a dog and a chair. Further inside is a table whose legs are on the backs of four turtles. In the depth of the gallery is the work after which the show has been named — featuring a reindeer and a wall. Ensconced in a niche above the door is one work that may initially seem out of place because it lacks the leit motif of animals. The black and white video shows water streaming, seemingly out of a lamp, and bathing a table with light and water. It’s a hypnotic video, made all the more dramatic by the fact that it’s tucked deep in an unapproachable, dark corner. You can’t go up close. You can just maintain your distance and stare at its continuous loop as you try to work out its meaning.

Actually, the connection between all the works in “The Trophy” isn’t the presence of animals but rather the fragility of what we know as human civilization– the human effort to dominate the uncontrollable aspects of nature and create an orderly pattern. Civilization is supposed to be proof that we’ve left the bestial side of ourselves behind. “The Trophy” isn’t entirely convinced. Through his videos, Bellinkx wonders whether the orderliness that we value as a sign of evolution isn’t an illusion.

Every video in “The Trophy” shows a symbol of human civilization – a table, a wall, a chair – but they are each redefined by natural elements. The most violent work in the exhibition is the set of three videos showing the chair. In the first, one dog is seen with the chair. It wags its tail, sniffs around, and watches the immobile and unresponsive object. In the second videos, two dogs join the first one and the pack attacks the chair. The last video shows the three dogs panting but at rest, with the chair reduced to splinters all around them. Given that the chair is a well-established symbol of authority and power, the central theme of this work is quite obviously an attack upon civilization. There are also disturbing ideas of the destructive quality of a crowd mentality and the terrible effects of miscommunication. After all, the solitary dog was quite friendly. It’s when the dog received no response for its friendly gestures that the pack entered the scene. But does the dog know that a chair doesn’t have the equivalent of a tail wag? Is the pack being manipulated by someone (like an all-knowing artist, for instance) to destroy the chair?

In “The Table Turning”, a table moves slowly on the backs of turtles instead of being rooted to a spot. At first, the image is simply cruel. It looks like an attempt to domesticate the animals but when you consider how the table is rendered useless by the turtles, the power balance shifts in favour of nature. Yes, they carry it on their backs but they’re not immobile and crouching inside their shell. They move, and with a certain degree of coordination, to render the table dysfunctional.

Manipulation is one of the major themes of the show. In the video showing the table under a shower of water, it looks like the water (a natural element) is falling out of the lamp (a man-made element). Look closer and you realize that this is an illusion. The lamp simply appears to release water. In actuality, it has no control over how much water washes over the table.

The illusion is most powerful in “The Trophy,” which is as clever in execution as display. Two screens are arranged so that you can’t see them simultaneously. One shows a reindeer mounted upon a wall. Within seconds of standing before it, you realize the animal is alive. You can hear the breath, see the flare of the nostrils on occasion. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of seeing this half of “The Trophy” is the complexity of the power dynamic that Bellinkx sets up between the viewer and the work. To be mounted while alive should be a painful experience, almost akin to a crucifixion. But the reindeer’s face shows no expression. It looks down regally and impassively, as though it is lording over the scene.

The second scene shows the other side, literally. The reindeer’s body, neck down, stands steady and still on the other side of the wall. There’s an occasional tail twitch. Bellinkx has placed the animal between the death pose of the mounted trophy and the vitality of a reindeer standing on its own four legs. It’s a strange, disconcerting and yet fascinating limbo, much like the entire exhibition.

Review: Ashwamedh

This review first appeared on ArtSlant.

Inflatable Elegance

Ashwamedh at Gallery Maskara

Max Streicher makes sculptures using spinnaker, a lightweight nylon with a tensile quality that is dull white in colour. He stitches it into forms that are then filled with air to create inflatable sculptures. Particularly in his larger works, there’s a monumental quality thanks to the size as well as the marble-like texture that spinnaker acquires once it catches the light. This illusion of solid immensity is completely at odds with the fact that the sculpture is largely made of air and can be deflated and folded up to fit in a little suitcase, which is probably how the two massive horses in Gallery Maskara came to India.

Ashwamedh is Streicher’s second show in Mumbai’s Gallery Maskara. At 30 feet by 30 feet, the two horses in the exhibition make fantastic use of the gallery’s soaring ceiling (it used to be a warehouse). Their translucent spinnaker bodies soften the lights shining on them so that they look like glowing, mythical creatures. As with much of Streicher’s work, there’s a charming balance of technical sophistication and accessibility in the two prancing horses. Regardless of age and background, all visitors are likely to be filled with wide-eyed awe at the sight of the enormous sculptures. Because Streicher doesn’t fill the spinnaker sculptures tightly with air, they’re just slightly slack, which gives the forms a few natural creases and wrinkles. It also makes the horses bob gently, as though they may move out of their mid-prance pose at any moment. They’re accessible and yet imposing because these aren’t simple blow-up dolls. They harness in their forms the mythologies and legacies of classical sculpture, in which horses have played an important role as symbols of virility, strength and victory.

Ashwamedh is a fascinating example of how context and location can transform art. Streicher has shown horses before in North America and Europe. The ones in Gallery Maskara at the moment are indeed among the four that Streicher suspended from the ceiling of Toronto’s Union Station in 2007. What’s fascinating about the exhibition in Gallery Maskara is how the context adds to a work. As in the Western mythology evoked in Streicher’s equine displays, horses symbolise strength and virility in India. However, there is a central difference. In Europe and America, the rider-less horses are reminiscent of the majesty of the wild. They symbolise freedom and the possibility of magic (remember unicorns?), which is always shown as a power that lies beyond the scope of the average human mind.

In India too, horses are a symbol of strength and virility, but there is a difference. They also symbolise conquest, since they were introduced to India by Aryan invaders. This isn’t to suggest the animals haven’t since been co-opted.  Horses have appeared in Indian art repeatedly over the centuries. In modern art, M.F. Husain’s horses, for example, remain among his most famous works. However, by calling the show Ashwamedh, Streicher’s show references not so much the contemporary as the deep past. The title refers to an ancient Vedic ritual called the ashwamedh yagna in which a king desiring greater power sacrificed a stallion to the sacred flame. For a year before the sacrifice, the stallion was allowed to roam free (followed discreetly by royal servants) because it was believed that the king would colonise the lands that the stallion roamed. At the end of the year, the animal would be sacrificed. It was a brutal practice that seemed to have daunted even the ancient kings. (I suspect the ensuing cost of invasion and the fact that the queen had to simulate sex with the dead horse as part of the ashwamedh ritual didn’t help its popularity.)

This is the festering darkness that Streicher’s luminous horses couldn’t invoke when they were shown in Toronto or Germany but could when they come to India as Ashwamedh.  History and ritual add layers to these beautiful works, highlighting the tenuous balance between fragility and strength that marks Streicher’s work.  Look up at the neatly-stitched parts, and they give a sense of equine musculature. The subtle movements of the hoof and the way the horses seem to rear up towards the light imbues the sculptures with a special dynamism. Ashwamedh is a beautiful meditation on power and the poetry of form. The fact that Streicher’s spinnaker can stretch itself to take on various cultural interpretations makes it that much more powerful.