Editorial : Johny ML / Editor-In-Chief Artehelka
Want Contemporary Art Market? Then Make Contemporary Artists
Contemporary art in India, as far as the galleries are concerned, seems to be ‘cost cutting art’. The uniformed watchmen at the doors with shining steel/brass knobs are missing these days; visiting a gallery has become a thankless job, for a critic at least, for there is no salute at the entrance. No one scurries around to switch on lights and videos. Like a blind man’s eye, the dark monitors stare at the viewer/s. In one of the galleries in Delhi, a stray dog sleeps inside the gallery space giving company to the works of art; and together they decide to sleep throughout the day. In another gallery, a much celebrated show done by a celebrated curator rots in neglect and in yet another gallery, the glass panel displays the name of one artist and inside, on the walls you see a few more works by other artists; why waste space and lights? A gallery that has been doing its brisk business has taken off its name plate and the empty space reminds me the gaps in an old man’s gums. From the dark void of another gallery familiar styles of my artists friends look out through the glass dark, which in fact reflects the buildings in the opposite street. Here you read the reverse typography of another gallery as a sort of mutual reflection of their loneliness. Smiles have been gone off from our art district, Lado Sarai in Delhi, although the smilies in whatsapp and facebook have proportionately increased. There in Mumbai, Colaba Art District too wears a gloomy look. Some gallery plays popular Bollywood music, the choice of the gallery attendant. Once, the music used to be soothing music, an assorted platter of classical ragas of the owner’s choice. Cost of contemporary art is really cut down, I say.
However, I am not a pessimist or a doomsday prophet. I see hope in the voices of the artists and seen from another angle, I am dismayed at the sad migration of young contemporaries to cost cutting art; performance and happenings. Facebook is full of images of performance art. Someone climbs a twenty feet tall fence in an illustrious fine arts college in Delhi and someone else gets his body and T-shirt painted by the audience. The done to death stuff repeats itself and I feel that necromancy has come to be a dark ritual in the lives of our artists too. I will not blame them. Most of the mid career artists make their presence felt in selfies and in page three photo ops. Their works are sort of re-run in from the gallery stock. It is like Sholay and DDLJ seen for the nth time in a multiplex that has decided to play consolation re-releases on noon-show slots. I say again, I will not blame the artists because they do not have buyers and storage spaces. Performance art goes with their own bodies and by the mercy of the spectators. Performance art in this context could be seen as a protest art or art of reaction. It is a way of saying that during the winter of art economics, we will lampoon the market with our flimsy acts, loaded with clichés and critique. It had happened in 1960s and 70s in Europe as they were going through similar economic crisis in art. It is India’s turn now. No Modi can help it. But the most unfortunate thing is that this form of protest art would rush to the galleries the moment the economy betters itself and collectors and buyers come back to the art streets.
Artists need to survive and make their lives meaningful therefore they do these ephemeral forms of art. Social networking sites have helped them to reach out to a larger audience. Unfortunately, even the foreign aid seems to have stopped. Today, nobody writes proposals for Residency programs abroad any more with the same zest that they used to show a few years before. Foreign artists are coming here, looking for name, fame and never fortune. They bring their fortune with them and our residency spaces are ready to accommodate them. Our residency programs have been reduced to facilitating agencies. Hence, dazzled by foreign skin and accent our artists too hang out with the visiting artists and become artists in their own right. Art has become a survival issue. Art has always been about the survival of the artists. But that survival was different. Her survival was to survive art itself. Her effort was to survive the time. Time and Art were collated into one entity of being. Why forget this fundamental lesson, young artists? I do not say that everyone should sit up and paint or sculpt every day. But I say that leave the flimsiness that you feel about art behind and get into the zone of artistic survival. It is more challenging than making sub standard installations and nauseating performances. To be frank, some public art projects and site specific works literally suck my energy out and I even lose the interest to be in the art scene. But at the age of 45, switching career is not a good option. Had it been so, I would have definitely looked for different avenues. I cannot go for prawn harvesting or organic food making because I do not have enough land or resources. No investor will spend money on me if I go for organic farming: I could criticize even broccolis and prawns.
I am not hopeless as yet. When I visit, Exhibit 320, there is a show titled ‘Archiving: An Artist’s Perspective’, I see that artists are still serious about their works. A few monitors that are supposed to play the documents/documentaries on the lives of the artists have gone blind. What I get to see is the life of a couple of artists namely Muktinath Mondal and Pooja Iranna. They speak about their practice and life. They look real and they do not make too many tall claims. Muktinath Mondal’s works still struggle to find a language; he wants to identify with the lower middle class and the working class. He brings the portraits of these people in various mediums and gives them iconic presence. A take from Richter, Luc Tymans and Shibu Natesan and many other artists who have done the portraits of unknown and missing people, Muktinath Mondal also strives for their emotional perfection; perhaps an emotion is never perfect as far as another person is concerned. Pooja Iranna speaks of her two decades long creative journey. She is one of the fine artists who does her work and lives with it in absolute happiness. Her creative calmness is more akin to that of her mother, artist Shobha Broota. Surprisingly, I see a series of candid and confessionary notes of Vibha Galhotra, which interests me. Jagannath Panda breathes in some freshness in his works and I can understand his rage when he defaces his work (an affected defacing act) with diagonal splashes of paint from famous paint companies. I stand before the work of Probir Gupta, an artist who could scale heights with his very expressionistic works. But I cannot look at his video as he keeps munching peanuts (metaphorical or something?) throughout the shoot. I generally cut the phone if someone talks to me while eating so how could I stand an artist munching something, peanuts or whatever, just to be casual and rebellious. So I leave the video in sharp thirty seconds and realize that I can stand a person munching peanuts to my face for thirty seconds! That is quite an achievement for me.
My point is simple: to have a market for contemporary art, there should be contemporary artists. Fundamental thing: art is done by artists. If there are no artists, then there is no market. To have artists, we need a support system for them. Support system comes in the form of materialistic supports. Materialism today is defined by money. Who could help the contemporary artists? Not the way they used to be supported- I mean, a lakh of rupees for an A-4 size work. This had boosted their personal egos into 8’x 5’. Now they need the help to remain artists. None other than the galleries could help. Cost cutting from their part would eventually kill the contemporary art scene in India. Beg, borrow or rob, the galleries have to do shows and find a new market for the contemporaries. Not the thriving ones with blind speculation. This new kind of marketing contemporary art should come from a different kind of maturity; maturity to attract buyers to contemporary art, not by showing them speculated profits but by showing them the reality. Showing them the models of the Moderns. And telling them about ‘trading’ in the vintage and matured; they understand it.