Wednesday, February 16, 2011

When the corporate takes over the aesthetics. Art Summit, New Delhi 2011

It was enjoyable to be back in Delhi, a city I love a lot, a city that has given me a lot - an educational phase that would always remain in my memory, terrific friends, experience of a vibrant art world, a set of jobs, a couple of heart-throbs and finally my wife.

As in the case of my last visit to the city, this time too it was to attend the Art Summit. Delhi has changed. The art scene too! Friends with whom I use to hang around have become the face of Contemporary Indian Art. It was good to meet them again, though briefly.

Not being in Delhi I miss a lot of exhibitions and I looked forward to Art Summit as a chance to see new work and listen to artists and critics. This absence from Delhi, from the thick of action, also provides a chance to be the outsider. So what I see and listen to, partially, is from this perspective.

It was as if one is witnessing all the exhibitions that would happen over the span of a year or two in one shot and at one place. The mela of course had an energy that was enjoyable. Both a reeling head and hallucination was assured. Unfortunately it was also a bit ‘toxic’ rather than ‘intoxicating’.

Reaching back to Bangalore, I decided to wait for a few days to reflect on the summit. I thought this would allow me to reflect more calmly and at school the exams are around and there was a lot of work to complete.

Art Summit, to start with, is not a gallery space. Art Summit, by objective, is to endorse the art market, the value of branding, and not necessarily about aesthetic value. It is not a group show or anything curatorial. It is a fare to energize business ties. It is a forum for art galleries and independent artists (who can afford it) to showcase their set of art and it is widely and truly addressed to the potential buyers and investors. It is a forum to form new connections. In this regard the space here is a ‘point of purchase’ (POP) and not necessarily related to a conventional sense of gallery. The presence of work in the gallery and experiencing it cannot be possible in an atmosphere of stalls. There is always this limitation of ‘art space’ to the summit. However, criticism is only an extension of experiencing arts and an intrinsic element of its culture, and Art Summit too cannot escape from it. The large public turnout to the Summit is primarily because of its aesthetic and experiential reasons- to see art works and not to buy (a sort of window shopping).

A note about the summit, either reflective or critical, is problematic in that sense. However, I would like to approach it from the premises of being an artist and as I mentioned earlier, from the freedom of an outsider. It is looked at as ‘art culture’ and exhibits as work of art. In short, the Summit is the best example of what happens when the corporate world takes aesthetics over.
The discussions about the aesthetic or critical aspects of art practice were limited and the focus was on the ‘commodity value’ of art. There is nothing wrong in selling and buying and having a robust art market. Yet it is sad that art culture limits itself to the ‘art corporate’ and ‘art estate’. The displeasure at such a situation was apparent when Atul Dodiya said in his opening note at the Speaker’s Forum that, ‘it is not a corporate event but an art event and things should be in that context.

There is a fundamental shift in recent times and that shift is from art to the buyer. The locus has moved from passion to resale value- from collection to investment. That is where a work moves from the realm of aesthetic to that of commodity. Such a situation may not promote a free and sound art culture but a nexus between the curator, galleries as well as the buyer and often, the artists themselves. Daniel Boumann (Director of Adolf Wolfli Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts, Bern) has clearly indicated the situation by saying that ‘one needs to stay away from the market, if she/he wishes to be an independent curator’.

Modern art, for a large part, towards its fag end became stereotypical and was made to be ‘look like modern’. Looking at the Summit one could say that contemporary art too has its share of this. What one could observe at the Summit and various other shows happening in Delhi in January 2011 is a kind of despair in making a contemporary piece of art.

Any art that belong to a genre or an era in history would have common aspects and resemblances. Such visual codes would denote a genre of art. No period in history has escaped it. However the work at the Delhi in January 2011 looks too deliberate and seems to have emerged out of restlessness and the desperation to be fashionable and catch up with the wagon. The trends are unbelievably funny. I do not mean to hurt anybody here and many who participated are my good friends and I wish that it would remain so even after their reading this.

It looks like a Bollywood masala mix, a formula to make an art piece. There are too many examples to miss- by the choice of themes, images, by style of execution, by display. There is too much similarity in the visual adaptation, scale, process and display- something like a membership to the club. On the top of that there is too much of an ‘Anish Kapoor syndrome’ and a POP infection. Of course, one can argue about similarity. All new cities are similar in many ways, all have malls and all malls look the same and feel the same. We all wear increasingly the same kind of dress and will try to look in the same ‘happening’ way. Isn’t it? What is wrong in it and what alternative conditions are you talking about, right? All news tends to be sensational and edgy. Isn’t it a common thing? Why does art alone need to be so different?

It is not easy to settle for such an argument. Many works that you see in the Summit, unfortunately, remain more as still life studies and curios than as anything significant. Many others have moved marginally only over the years (and I mean over many years). Their work looks almost the same, as it was many years before. This is not about such senior artists like Raza or Souza but those among the young and contemporary category. A large part of the remaining looked pathetic for the simple reason that they are into the lifting of forms from other parts of the world. Sorry guys, the king is naked!

Postmodernism heralds the death of the author and postmodernism is synonym with the reshuffling of the existing. So simulacra can be accommodated. Isn’t it? Or is it the other way as Homi Bhabha puts it -“Collecting art based on authorship / signature value can be a kind of a neurosis, some times a good neurosis”. However put, authorship is both good and bad in the current context, like many other symptoms of our time, because the irony of our time is that it is often the protagonist himself who is or becomes the antihero. To be honest, simulacra, if seen out side its euphoria, can be a limiting experience. ‘The notions of anxiety are important to an art object, says Anish Kapoor. Contemporary Indian art sometime misses the point. In our context the anxiety (mostly) is missing the wagon.

The absence of many who participated in its second edition was visible and notable among them was the Gallary BMB. I attended eight sessions of speaker’s forum, four on 21st and four on 22nd and none on 23rd. The speaker’s forum too, for the most part was obsessed with the art market and collecting. Sessions such as the one about urban popular visual culture and making Indian modern/ contemporary and forms of public address in contemporary art were some breathers that discussed the wider aspects of art. These sessions to an extent discussed conditions that shape a work, visual codes, and how art works are shaped at a given cultural condition. The conversation between Homi Bhabha and Anish Kapoor was very enjoyable and it also witnessed the largest turn out of people. Incidentally, the presentation by the Outset had the smallest group of listeners. Though there were insights about curatorial practices, how and why people collect and when they wouldn’t, the forum could have had more intense discussions and dialogues.

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