Biennale to Banal

My first attempt at an art story. But the best thing about the summit was bumping into the Arch Angel's good friend. What a good time we three had exchanging dirty stories in Volga. I now think of the Volga as an orphaned Koshy's.

ASHOK ART Gallery (AAG) is a five-year-old Delhi gallery that largely functions online. A mom-and-pop operation with a handful of unknown artists, AAG has never had any exposure in the media. Their only previous art fair experience was with the Mumbai art expo earlier this year. As one among 35 galleries that participated in the recent India Art Summit (between August 22 and 25), AAG did not expect to become frontpage news. But their 27-year-old Oriya artist Kanta Kishore’s marble sculptures of rolled-up newspapers were sold within hours of the fair’s opening. Gallerists Ashok Nayak and Kavita Vig, Kavita’s husband Bharat and septuagenarian mother-in-law watched astonished as the art world’s superstar Subodh Gupta and politician Maneka Gandhi came to their stall. And in their wake, thousands of visitors and the press.

The Summit, organised by international PR firm Hanmer MS&L, came as a surprise to many people inside and outside the art world. But a few weeks into the announcement, the Summit was underway with infrastructure and publicity machine well-oiled and pleasing to all. Dealers, collectors, dealers pretending to be collectors, and young couples hoping to invest, were among the 3,000-odd visitors estimated to have arrived at Pragati Maidan each day. For those who wished to gawk (a wellhonoured art fair pastime since the French hoipolloi went to the annual Paris Salon to laugh at the young artists they contemptuously called the Impressionists), there was Jitish Kallat’s Collindonthus, the snarling life-sized skeleton car specially flown in. Another display the organisers clearly considered a showstopper was Kriti Arora’s sculptures of faceless women made of tar at the Rob Dean gallery, one of the three international outfits present.

AAG’s happy approval has been echoed by many (more experienced) participants, including Peter Nagy of Delhi’s Nature Morte. Nagy, among the most influential people in the Indian art world, has been key in lending cachet to the Summit. Cachet it decidedly needed, in the absence of stylish galleries such as Chemould, Bodhi and Guild (Mumbai), Ske and Sumukha (Bangalore). Over half the galleries were from Delhi. Some ascribed the absences to a Mumbai verus Delhi rivalry. Others (with varying degree of tact) to the fact that they had never heard of the organisers before.
Will Martyr’s Vijay Mallya

Shireen Gandhy of Chemould said, however, that her early dubiousness about the Summit has changed after hearing several good reports. She, like many others, including Premila Baid of Sumukha, heard about the Summit in April. Short notice for busy galleries that plan their artfair season months ahead. “Perhaps next year. In any case this first one is a trial.” For those pragmatists who did participate, the fair was profitable. AAG, for instance, paid Rs 3.5 lakhs for the use of 25 feet by 10 feet of space. They sold 40 percent of their work on display. Half the 400 art works displayed at the Summit were sold, generating, according to the organisers, over Rs 10 crore in sales.

But this mercantile spirit is marred by those who believe that art fairs (especially ones with international aspirations) should be more selective. Bangalorebased art historian Suresh Jayaram said, “There was no sign of quality control. There was a spectrum of the good, bad and the ugly. It could have been any Pragati Maidan trade fair, cattle today, art tomorrow, ball bearings the next day”. Vibha Galhotra, a 30-year-old artist whose work was displayed by Gallery Espace, found a buyer for one of her sculptures, The inconvenience is regretted. Galhotra says with simple pleasure, “I have never been to international fairs but I thought the Summit was a good place for curators and older artists to see my work”. Though happy with the infrastructure, even she, an art fair neophyte, felt that there had been no screening process for galleries.

Art Basel, for instance, the 38- year-old Swiss fair, is notoriously difficult to get into. Nature Morte was the first Indian gallery to get to Basel (in 2006). Though there is an international art fair every week in ever more remote parts of the world, Basel is the town that dealers hoard their best work for. Nagy says, “You judge the calibre of an art fair by the galleries that attend. And you have to work very hard to get in”. Prestige is a mysterious thing. It can be argued that the unease about the Summit is a Grouch Marx-like feeling. Do you want to be in the clubs that will take you? But, right now, the Summit’s screening process is also rather mysterious. The organisers say they had 90 applications of which 35 were chosen. They decline to discuss how they chose, or name the panelists who chose the chosen. However, Nagy says the organisers have invited him to join the jury next year.

Gandhy, who shrugged that “any fair will have its share of junk”, pointed to another important issue. “An art show is not just about building a client base. It is also a place for galleries to show their new artists.” None of the major players in the Summit can name any hot new artist or trend emerging from this enterprise.

The cliché ‘hot young artist’ was probably invented for Riyas Komu, whose work was displayed by Delhi’s Pallette Art gallery. Young, articulate and good-looking, Komu is riding the boom. Last year his work was at the Venice Biennale. Yet you can hear the bitterness as he slowly forms sentences indicting the Summit and the larger phenomenon it represents. “Certainly, we can make considerations for the fact that this was the first time. However, we also need more groundwork, to build our credibility. I mean, we don’t even have a museum in which we display contemporary art. It is like asking whether India can host the Olympics when we barely have any Olympians.” Komu also points out that the Summit was almost entirely irrelevant to the huge alternative art scene in India.

MUMBAI ARTIST and curator Bose Krishnamachari, whose irrepressible optimism and energy has created many young Indian artists, liked the sound of the Summit in theory. And now wishes that he had gone. “Fairs like this need good curators. With some work, it can become an excellent event. But if the Summit is calling itself an international fair it needs international artists. We don’t have any because Indian collectors will not buy international art. That is why we can’t bring people like the Chapman Brothers to India.

New words have to be invented to describe the irony of an art summit that turned MF Husain into an alternative attraction. Because of security reasons, there were no Husains on display. SAHMAT, a Delhi-based NGO, mounted a small display of Husain reproductions and memorabilia at their office far from Pragati Maidan. In the closing hours of the Summit, a group of young men calling themselves the Sri Ram Sena arrived and vandalised it. They left notes with sexual slurs against Husain, but they arrived with a television news crew. “What is the point of having artists talk about war and death when they can’t protect one person?” says Komu

Enough has gone well for the Summit to become an annual event. The organisers promise more international galleries, a show thrice the size. Several commentators point out that with India’s wealth of young artists, it can become a hip festival, a place to be seen, emulating Frieze’s rapid ascent. But each of these optimists also shake their heads at the elbow-grease and sheer good taste required.


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