A compass for navigating contemporary art

Among the gimmicky installations and concept artworks at the India Art Fair, some pictures take you towards your north pole

Published - February 10, 2019 12:02 am IST

Every year, Delhi’s art season throws up all sorts of odd things. Nowadays there are art events in the NCR all across the year but the so-called season is in the cooler months, from mid-October to mid-March. However, a bit like the magnetic North Pole that’s currently playing catch-me-if-you-can, the exact epicentre of the season can be hard to pinpoint. An early winter show can define a particular season, or a big retrospective of a big-name artist at a museum might yank the point into March, but one steady fulcrum is the India Art Fair (IAF) that usually takes place in end January/early February, with all the shows and events that are clustered around that sales jamboree.

For this year’s IAF, the Arterati landed in force from out of town, while their local allies came out of the city’s fortress-palaces. You could see them at various locations: looking sniffy in Khan Market, long-ball air-kissing in the lounge of the Taj Mansingh, piling out of SUVs and stumbling about trying to find the cleverly disguised entrance to the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, and so on. You can easily identify these bipeds by the bright orange sunglasses (even at night) and the generally outlandishly expensive and unsuitable designer pelt in which they are covered. At the Fair itself, you see a few of them in the exclusive VIP lounge, not too many foreigners, and not too many proper Arterati, but a lot of the Indian nouveaugarchs who are clearly discovering new and unique ways of spending their ill-gotten crores. As soon as your group approaches the lounge (your own card having been acquired by dint of a friend being a part of the official proceedings), the young women at the desk put you through the questionnaire: ‘What car do you drive, sir? Umm, usually Uber, sometimes three-wheeler.’ ‘Oh. And which model of our brand would you be looking to purchase, ma’am?’ ‘None, at least not in this life. No, wait, maybe I can afford one at Hamley’s toy shop, I’ll go look.’ ‘Okay ma’am, okay sir, thank you, can I take that card? It’s one-time use only. Thank you, this way please.’

Through the grids

Entering the lounge you feel as though you’ve stumbled into some ill-conceived art installation. At the centre of the space is the fattest, most obscene staukampfwagen the sponsoring brand produces. Inside it is the suited salesman trying to show off all the bells and whistles to two gangsta-constumed chaps from Chandigarh. Around the ‘car’ mill the potential buyers and waiters with international cuisine canapes that tend towards the vegetarian. You look at the SUV and you can just see it, as still as it is now, embedded in the slow-moving car park that is the Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday in April — you can just see this shiny thing in that oceanic traffic-jam, preening like some godman, with dirty Ubers and spluttering autos surrounding it like worshipful bhakts.

After this vision, even the worst art on display outside should like a relief. But as you wander through the grids A, B and C and then the projects section of the expo, you do feel as though you are examining cross-sections of the internal organs of a large, dismembered creature called Indianartnow, with all its anxieties and stress having caused various kinds of ‘art’ to come into being like ulcers and cysts, leading to multiple organ failure in the beast. However, as you move from stall to gallery stall, you also come across a few gems hiding in all the posey, moribund dross — a small oil by Raza here, a lovely early canvas by Madhavi Parekh there or a series of photos by Simryn Gill.

Some rewards in the maze

Away from the Art Fair crowds, the big KNMA retrospective of Arpita Singh’s work spanning half a century is quietly rewarding. For a while you can be lost in the maze of rooms hung with good, old-fashioned water-colours and oils, the form of the two dimensional ‘flat work’ centuries-old, but the images painted upon them like fresh maps and scans of the last few decades. As you slowly make your way through the rooms you can see the explorations becoming deeper, some lines becoming more playful, other things — a figure, a colour combination or the use of stencils — beginning to work rhythmically, coming up again and again like the samm of a raga.

At Vadehra Art Gallery you come across a practitioner from an earlier era – the great Benode Behari Mukherjee. Again, just the flat work hung on the wall: a picture painted or drawn on paper, a surrounding mount, a frame and that’s it. And yet, the dance of the brush, or the staccato stippling of pen and ink creates whole worlds, opens up wells of deep emotion. A series of landscapes, a suite of watercolours depicting the same flowers, figures against a mountainside brought alive by the most parsimonious deployment of brush-strokes. Nobody sensible can argue that only this drawing-painting of Benode-babu’s and Arpita’s is genuine art and that all the installery and concept-churning of the contemporary art world should be dismissed as gimmicks. But when searching for something that hits you, that moves you and makes you think, it’s good to think of these pictures as being somewhere near your genuine north pole.

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