There are more than a few people in the art world who scoff at the idea of an opening night. I am not one of them.
I’ve never been ashamed to confess my true identity: An alcoholic with a writing problem. Given my meagre monthly income as a freelancer, and my almost clinical dependency on some form of intoxication, it is indeed rare for me to deny myself the opportunity to consume copious amounts of red wine without having to spend a rupee.
I’m a marginal figure in the art world. I doubt I feature on more than three gallery mailing lists, and only because I may have written about a show they’ve mounted. But I’m reasonably good at tapping into the grapevine, and thanks to Facebook, its easier to know when’s the next opening in Delhi.
But free alcohol isn’t my only motivation. If you’ve ever been to an opening in Delhi, you’d agree with me that there’s something irrefutably alluring about the ‘scene’, something about being able to ‘mingle’ with some of the most exciting figures in the art world, or, like me, observe them with a fly-on-the-wall sense of detachment, curiousity, and fascination.
If, like me, you derive pleasure from observing human nature, there’s no way you’d be bored at an opening. Beside the art on the walls, there’s more than enough to write home about, and I’m not only talking about accounts of who was wearing what and who left with whom, who made an appearance and who strategically didn’t. That’s best left to Page 3. What intrigues me more are the pure dynamics at work that often go undocumented.
Opening nights have always been exclusive, I’m sure. I suppose in the good-old-days they were perhaps meant as a private viewing for the artist’s friends and members of the press, or collectors, times when newspapers would carry a review the very next day. I’m not sure what purpose an opening serves in contemporary times. I doubt the old rationale still holds. But I have my theories, and I have my observations, and I’m convinced openings are a sociological phenomenon that is definitely worth investigating, because, like the art that openings are meant to celebrate, they are a reflection of the times we live in, and whether documented or not, offer tremendous insight into the unspoken rules and etiquette that govern the art world.
But of course, it’s usually the same bunch of people that you’re likely to see at any given opening. The world of art, like the world of publishing and journalism, is extremely incestuous. Broadly speaking, you can expect to see the following types at any opening:
The genuinely invited: In this electronic age, hard-copy invitations have acquired a special currency. You know you’re a bonafide member of the art world if you receive at least five printed invites to openings each month.
Presswalla: Of course, receiving a print invite doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an artist. You could be a member of the fourth estate, which means galleries look to you to document/review/preview/feature the work on display.
A show with any merit whatsoever will have a guest list that includes the who’s who in the Delhi art world. You can expect to see the always trendily dressed Subodh Gupta and wife Bharti Kher who’s usually casually dressed, hair in a bun, graciously smiling at everyone, and other prominent figures including Anita Dube, Pushpamala, Ram Rahman, Sonia Khurana, Vivan Sundaram, GR Iranna, and Gigi Scaria, Rashmi and Ranbir Kaleka, Gauri Gill, and art critics and historians, like Geeta Kapur and Kalidasa.
Then there’s the young band of curators, like Meera Menezes, Maya Kovskaya, Gitanjali Dang, Himali Singh Soin, and Vidya Shivadas, who scan the walls, hob-knob with the artists with whom they seem to have an intimate relationship, and make mental notes.
The most entertaining, though, are the gafapastas and the freeloaders. Gafapasta is a term a Spanish friend came up with for pretentious, pseudo-intellectual hipsters at art openings, the culture vultures who are quite obviously there to be seen, to network, to promote themselves and their art. There’s no simple criteria to spot a hipster, but there are a few indications, like hipsters never seem to run out of business cards, and/or often have a rather enviable collection of spectacles and hats, and throw around words and phrases like ‘juxtaposition’ and ‘a searing indictment’ or ‘deconstructivist’ like they were going out of fashion, and usually in an easily contestable accent.
Lastly, we have the freeloaders and the lurkers. They are the least pretentious among the crowd, and you’ll find them strategically placed at that one spot where the waiter makes his appearance with a tray filled with appetisers. Theirs is a two-point agenda; 1. to make sure the tray is mostly empty before it reaches another soul. 2. to test the limits of how much free alcohol can be consumed before the bar shuts and the gallerist decides to call it a night.
Like I said, its usually the same bunch of people, but what makes each opening special is the peculiar architectonic of each host gallery. For instance, the various galleries that dot the Lado Sarai lane usually have their openings or the same night, or, they collectively host The Lado Sarai Open Night, which encourages guests to wander between galleries and fuel themselves with multiple glasses of wine at each pit stop. Among these, Abadi Art Gallery seems most intimate. Located on the first floor of the building next to Exhibit 320, it has a balcony which is conducive to smoking, and wine is either served in steel tumblers or clay matkas. On a well-attended night, the guests spill onto the street, glass of wine in one hand, cigarette in the other. The art on display at Lado Sarai isn’t always exciting, but I imagine it’s this peculiar house-party-on-the-street atmosphere that makes the Open Night a much awaited monthly event.
I also thoroughly enjoy openings at Photoink. There’s something comforting about its predictability. The starters are always minimal, the wine is always good, and since its possibly the only gallery in the country dedicated exclusively to photography, you can always expect to meet some of the best photographers, and usually at the entrance to the gallery which, on opening nights, becomes the de facto smoking zone. The shows are often expertly curated, so the focus never drifts from the photographs on display.
The most fascinating, though, is any opening at Nature Morte. I make it a point to get there at least by seven pm, because the make-shift bar, situated on the lawns, almost always ‘runs out’ by 9pm, which is when the freeloaders and the gafapastas take their cue and leave. Then, the party shifts into the private room that is the gallery owner Peter Nagy’s office. There’s no ostensible ‘door policy’, but I find there’s an invisible line that deters the uninvited. I’ve rarely ever stepped across this line. And the one or two occasions when I did, it was with an influential friend, and in order to refill my glass. There’s an aura of exclusivity around that private room.
I remember one evening when the bar outside had shut down and as I was about to leave, I bumped into a gallerist who seemed to flaunt her recently replenished glass of wine in my face.
“Ah, you have access to the private stash, I see,” I said to her.
“Darling, I’ve earned it. I’ve paid my dues.”
There’s much wisdom in her rather lofty reply. It’s easy enough to penetrate your way into the art world, but even though you may be welcomed into the fraternity, you must first ‘arrive’ before you can belong.