Suits, stainless steel, aluminium, coloured water, and motors, assembled to perfection, were the materials used in Sudarshan Shetty’s installation at the Gallery Krinzinger booth at the India Art Fair. Through business hours over the four-day-long fair, three motorised set-ups, each holding a suit, persisted in their designated task; placing each suit in a tub of water, symbolically immersing them, and then raising them up for a few seconds on display before submerging them briefly all over again. A corporate equivalent of T S Eliot’s phrase “life measured in coffee spoons”, Shetty’s installation was an apt metaphor for the commercial, corporate persona of the fourth edition of the fair, previously known as the India Art Summit.
This year, director Neha Kirpal and partners Will Ramsay and Sandy Argus abandoned the socialist-era set-up of Pragati Maidan which had hosted the previous three editions for the tabula rasa of the NSIC Grounds, 10 metres away from the Govind Puri metro station. Consequently, the scale was larger than ever before with 98 exhibitors from 20 countries. Wider, more spacious aisles encouraged a more intimate experience of the range of work on display.
Still, the fair had no pretensions to being anything but commercial. Press releases beforehand estimated the total value of work at the fair between Rs 50 crore and Rs 70 crore. A few hours after it closed, another press release recounted the sales trends and visitor profiles.
Perhaps there is merit to this obviously commercial profile. From its first year – with barely 35 galleries and a few thousand guests – it has grown substantially, and now provides a platform for new buyers to interact directly with Indian and international gallerists, and for the lay visitor to engage with art outside of the private gallery space, often perceived as exclusive. The Art Fair has succeeded where previous attempts in the history of modern Indian art, like the National Exhibition, started in 1955, and the Indian Triennale, founded by Mulk Raj Anand in 1968, have failed. Perhaps there is something to be said for the efficacy of the corporate mechanism as against the bureaucratic government machinery that had, for years, been the only refuge for Indian artists on home turf.
What the fair’s success does indicate is the state’s abject failure in constructing a sustainable space for a thriving arts scene that isn’t necessarily divorced from the market, but which isn’t entirely wedded to the commercial. “We have failed to construct a museum structure of any significance in India. All that we have is a market structure,” said eminent art historian Geeta Kapur, in her address at the press conference for the first-ever Kochi-Muzris Biennale scheduled for this December. Kapur, who for the last four years has insistently critiqued the format of the art fair, said that she is no longer in a position to defend her critique, because the form has entrenched itself internationally and now in India as well. “The kind of relationship that the viewer has to an art work in the art fair is against every kind of theoretical or perceptual premises that might have been laid through history to the present times,” she said. “I think it is the most hateful relationship to art works that you can possibly encounter.”
On the last day of the fair, when gallerists weren’t busy haggling with potential buyers over their demand for discounts, they could be seen either fielding the art work from the paying visitors who weren’t aware that it’s impolite to touch the art work, or answering questions thrown at them, like the name of the artist or where he/she was from. While the market structure has certainly democratised the access to art, the overall ambience remains one of exclusivity. We now have bestselling artists who show internationally, but we’ve yet to develop a dialogue between artists and the general public. There are few avenues for art education in the country, which explains why, despite the flourishing of Indian art, we continue to lag behind as far as the criticism and the curation of art is concerned.
Which raises some important questions; like who is the final consumer of a work of art? Under the current set-up, it seems to be the collector, or the buyer of art. Perhaps the art fair is most relevant because it offers an even platform for the viewing of contemporary Indian art, since it houses some of the country’s best galleries under a single makeshift roof. The only other spaces that offer a similar opportunity are privately owned, like the Devi Art Foundation or the one-year-old Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, both of which host some magnificent work. Still, the content of such collections is subject to the vagaries of individual preferences.
Certainly, the four-day-long affair was an exciting time for everyone in the art world, not just at the fair but at various venues outside the fair that hosted collateral events. One can only speculate about the scale of next year’s edition. But celebration must not distract us from the many problems that afflict the world of contemporary Indian art.
The writer consults for Zubaan.
Every week, Eye Culture will feature writers with an entertaining critical take on art, music, dance, film and sport