Is there a collector’s code?

Photographer Dayanita Singh recently pulled up a home project that used copies of her artwork. This highlighted a question — how should one display art? The art world responds

February 11, 2022 03:31 pm | Updated 03:31 pm IST

Dayanita Singh with her Pothi Box

Dayanita Singh with her Pothi Box

We live in a post-modern, post-Duchampian world, where technology allows us to reproduce almost anything, both artistic and personal. We can recreate concepts, and change arrangements and assemblage of artwork once it’s been ‘collected’. However, when this is done without artistic permission and consent, it brings us to a very stimulating discussion in the age of the NFT: what are the ethics and when is not okay to do this?

On January 15, photographer Dayanita Singh caused a flutter on Instagram when she questioned (good-naturedly) Mumbai-based interior designer Ravi Vazirani for making copies of her Box of Shedding artwork — one of only five unbound books that she made, each with 30 image cards held together in a wooden structure — and displaying it in his client’s home. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but she wasn’t flattered. (While the display of an artwork is separate from copyright, it must not hinder the work’s integrity or compromise its intention.)

The post on Instagram

The post on Instagram

While Vazirani did not comment when The Hindu Weekend contacted him, he did immediately respond to Singh, taking down his post and making the required changes. “The problem is not the display; that is totally the collector’s prerogative. But to alter the artwork? To make copies of it? That’s the problem,” Singh shares. “However, in this case, I believe they actually did not realise what they were doing; they just got carried away.”

If Raja Ravi Varma’s oleographic press (started in Ghatkopar, Bombay, by the artist in 1894 to print copies of his work for mass consumption) has taught us anything, it is that to bring fine art into the realm of popular culture is perhaps the best way to make an artist a household name. However, not all artists are comfortable lending their imagery — or, if they do it, they would like to go through their parent gallery supervising the production.

So we asked a few from the art world to weigh in:

Nishat Fatima

Photographer and writer

“Dayanita’s artwork allows you to change the front cover, if you own two boxes, which means she has given her audience/collectors the freedom to collaborate. But collaboration is not to change the entire concept of an artist’s work. She has created the box so that her images can be viewed one at a time. It is a collection presented as a single object. Collectors would not dream of buying an art installation and breaking it up into pieces, or duplicating and displaying it. This would hold true whether or not they understood the concept behind it. So does this [Vazirani’s project] indicate that photography is not considered serious ‘art’? I would argue that there is still a feeling of ‘less than’ that exists about photography, fuelled by the proliferation of images, amongst other factors, and that is something that needs to change.”

Roshini Vadehra

Director, Vadehra Art Gallery

“The display of artworks as far as possible should be done in consultation with the artist. It could sometimes be as simple as a diptych painting that is meant to be hung together. If an artist intends for a work to be installed in a certain way, it is the right and respectful thing to do. Also, the copyright of images always stays with the artist, even if they are not alive anymore. Permissions need to be taken for the reproduction of images, whether in print or for use in art memorabilia [the gallery’s shop sells products like limited edition prints, cushion covers, books and calendars]. If the artist is not around, then we ask the family or trust.”

Vikram Singh

Independent photographer and founder of Art Dose

“I am all for allowing folks to experiment with imagery in different formats and mediums — and the display of the artwork can be the prerogative of the collector — but the intellectual property rights of artists and copyright laws have to be respected [in India, the copyright law is valid for 50 years, after which, unless the image is copyrighted to a particular person or association, anyone is free to use the image].”

Monica Jain

Curator-Director, Art Centrix Space; shealso works in interiors

“While installing an assemblage or an installation at a client’s, I inform the artist and we do a conference call. In some cases, the artist has even travelled down to install the work themselves. After all, it is a signed work and not just a ‘design element’, and we have never encountered a problem since communication and consent is inherent to the process.”

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