Be led into the obscure

India Art Summit – Review

Anushka Rajendran, a Delhi-based art writer, reviews India Art Summit 2011:

I must admit up front. Most of my four days at the India Art Summit was spent crouching over a limited edition work by Prajjwal Chowdhury and not so by choice though even otherwise, I would not have minded lavishing quite some time over the work. When I finally got the opportunity to go around, it was just before everything was closing and a half hour there made sure I was way too saturated to witness the rest with any cognitive prowess whatsoever. Still a few works did grab at my interest and they along with the work by Prajjwal Chowdhury make up the premise of this article. What I enjoyed about the summit beyond all else was how by making an event out of artworks that in most cases remained accessible to all and sundry on an everyday basis, putting all of them in the same space, and lavishing the PR industry’s skills on them, could put a whole city in touch with a part of the aesthetic sphere that do not feature very heavily in their quotidian cultural experience. As we all know, it is no well kept secret that the industry enjoys this exclusivity and does not try too hard to change things while keeping an eye out for prospective patrons. I do not want to tread any Marxist discourse here, but these three days when the doors are thrown open to the public, giving them a reason to access the art world, is one of the reasons that makes the summit significant to me.

During the course of my vigil, I had several brief interactions with visitors at the summit. Save the VIP launch, where almost everyone seemed to know what they were talking about or at least what they wanted from the summit, the rest of them predominantly fell under a singular adjective – overwhelmed. I suppose that is what art does to people. Or, maybe I am being overly presumptuous. Back when Clement Greenberg was the last word in art criticism, he was taken very seriously when he laid out an underlying difference between the works of T.S. Elliot and a Tin Pan Alley song, the former being ‘high brow’ where as the latter was ‘popular,’ though both were the offshoots of the same collective society. We no longer adhere to the gospel of Greenberg. Postmodernism came and knocked out cold humorless formalist masturbations (not that I discredit these in any way for most of my favorite artists fit this description).

India Art Summit

India Art Summit

Though the stalls that welcomed you to the summit mostly featured modern and contemporary masters whose works have become mostly self-referential of their value and genius over anything else it might speak of, weary to the initiated and alien to the uninitiated, the note gradually shifted as one moved along the narrow corridors. Past the Souzas, the Picassos and the Miros, a couple of rungs down but nowhere near down, I came face to face with a work by Mithu Sen that reminded me of the Prajjwal Chowdhury I had been staring at. What I saw was a pink velvet spongy spine, flexible in all its gigantism, going up a wall not unlike a common garden creeper. Her idiom popularly references the kitsch and middle-class household decorative, and takes it very seriously. While she tries to incorporate such a ubiquitous aesthetic into the high space that art assumes, the incongruity of its mere presence on a red carpet playfully pokes fun at taste that may not appear very refined to many connoisseurs. Yet she remains important for this very reason. At the summit, this simultaneously played a different role. For most, right after lines and paint that spoke a language they could not comprehend, for I believe art is an acquired taste, this spine literalized as installation the adjective few of us have not heard – spineless or weak-spined. This is a saying that proliferates, vernacular languages not excluded. This spine brought with it a flash of recognition. Finally something familiar, very relatable.

Similar was the Nano fenced outdoors, decked and decorated with mosaic by Ketna Patel to several times its price, poking fun at Indian Roads and Indian traffic. Prajjwal Chowdhury’s matchboxes carrying images of iconic works that are universally familiar thanks to their heavy dissemination in the mechanical age almost amused whoever chanced by. The use of the matchbox put them in their comfort zone and the recognizability of the images that bring with them some of the fetishized aura of the original, made it endearing. A lot of them wanted to carry individual boxes back with them, not quite able to recognize its status as a work of art. But I must admit, this made me happy. It is not just enough that high and popular art conflate in theory and in practice, as long as the work itself circulates in a highly insulated circuit. The India Art Summit heralds a day when spaces of art conflate beyond mere instances of public art. I have been unfair to some brilliant and note-worthy galleries and artworks in this account by virtue of their omission, most specifically a few that caught my eye like the gallery from Pakistan Grey Noise, Nielson Gallery from Spain and Nature Morte’s booth for Thukral and Tagra’s ‘Put it On’ – whose virtues verge on those of the Mithu Sen as a trophy carried over from their background in advertising. Yet, I hope to have been faithful to the spirit of the summit.

Anushka Rajendran

Anushka Rajendran

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