Tuesday, July 31, 2012

United Art Fair at the Age of Rumourtainment


johnyml: This could be a strange interview because I am taking an interview with someone who is my other self; to be precise a self that is seen generally in the public and he is qualified here as ‘JOHNYML’. Currently he is the Project Director and Chief Curator of the United Art Fair, which is slated to take place from 27th to 30th September. Now JOHNYML, how many artists have you selected finally for the United Art Fair and how do you justify the selection process?

JOHNYML: It is always good to speak to your own other self. It gives a lot of scope for introspection. Before I go into the question that you have raised let me give an advice to all the art scene players: One has to speak to one’s own other self on a regular basis, if possible twice a day, before going to bed and after getting up in the morning. I tell this to everyone as a remedy to check egos because each time you speak to your other self, it tells you how to go about with your life. The best way to speak to one’s own self is to look at the mirror, not to do make up or comb hair. Looking into the eyes of the face that you see reflected in the mirror and stare at least for thirty seconds. It will take out all the problems out of you. The moment you look into the eyes of your own reflection you realize you are nothing. You realize that the world is completely okay without you. You realize that all that you have done to boost up your ego is nothing but a fading fancy which is seen only by you and none else because none in the world has so much of time to care about you. If you have this realization whatever you do in this world become so beautiful.

Okay, now coming to the point; we travelled all over India and this road show is by now a well know event in our art scene. Initially, we had this idea of selling out spaces/booths to the artists. You like it or not what we found was a very grim situation. Most of the artists were ready to participate in the Fair but the moment when they heard that it was against a payment many backed off from their plans to participate. Finally, after visiting thirteen cities and meeting over 1500 artists personally, Annurag Sharma, the Founder Director of the UAF decided to make it free for all the artists. The moment we declared it free, the artists were really happy and they were absolutely open in expressing their gratitude. This was reflected in the number of application that we received after that declaration. The applications crossed the magic number of 3000 and we had to make several rounds of filtering in order to zero in on to 520 artists.

It is not just you who has asked this question regarding criteria. We had involved a panel of judges in filtering the list. After several round of conference room exercises we cut the number down to half and after that we applied one single criterion; the works should be contemporary in feel, in subject matter and approach even if the style already popular or art historically assessed. When I took the charge of the UAF, many of my artists friends had asked whether the fair was going to be ‘contemporary and cutting edge’? What they meant by this was whether the whole fair was going to look like something that predominantly passed off as ‘good and great’ art as per the contemporary standards. This observation mainly came from habit and training. We are such a lot of people who are trained to see art in one way; this unilateral way of looking at art is actually an imposition by the most successful and visible gallery practice in India. The kind of works of art that these galleries present is considered to be the ‘right’ kind of works of art. Of late, we have been seeing a lot of contemporary cutting edge art in the scene which has been hailed as the right and in thing in the international art scene. Therefore most of the people think that anything that does not look like those works of art must be sub-standard. This fallacious view has actually killed the variety that could have been possible in our art scene. Hence, the selection of the UAF was in a sense a correctional approach in order to tell the world that it is not one kind of works of art that are to be good or is bound to be good works of art. We need to accept variety and diversity in approach. If at all certain criteria are used in selecting these 520 artists, it is all about variety and contemporaenity in the sense of approach and execution, it is not about an international ironed out style.

(Annurag Sharma at a show opening)

Jml: Does that mean that the UAF is working against the gallery system?

JML: When we call anything a system, we should understand that it has evolved after a lot of negotiations and experiments. System itself means that it has undergone some kind of codification. It has evolved a nature of its own. It has developed its own terms and conditions. Anything that works from outside this system would be viewed as an enemy to it. State versus terrorism or software engineers versus hackers and so on reflects on the same issue. System needs reiteration and most of the people like to operate within the system because it is the easiest thing to do. Having said that, I do not have any illusion that everything is easy and possible from within a system. Any system has a guarding facility that prevents intrusions and challenges. If you see it theoretically, there is a mutuality between the system and the emerging systems. They are at loggerhead with each other and at the same time they find each other indispensible. Each time a new system emerges the existing systems secretly welcome it; but the way they show their reception is through indifference and criticism, which would amount to cynicism. Hence, if at all the Indian gallery system finds the UAF working against it, it should be taken as a happy sign because it is only in this mutuality or de-recognition that a new system would emerge. When resistance happens the resisted gets roots. If it is not resisted and received with open hands, then you should understand that there must be a deeper conspiracy behind it. In the corporate world the growth of smaller corporate are often curbed by acceptance by the bigger once. They embrace them in business plans and eventually the smaller ones get decimated in the process. Healthy competition always paves way for a new growth and change in the existing system.

(From the UAF Baroda Artists Meet)

Jml: From some quarters I hear that on the one hand you talk about the UAF being an emerging artists’ platform and on the other you highlight the presence of the senior artists. That means end of the day you too are accepting the thumb rules of the existing system. Is that right?

JML: If you look at the age of the artists who are included in the emerging and ‘young’ section, you would find some of the artists who are above fifty. These artists come from different regions in India and most of them have studied in reputed fine arts institutions. Here we need to ask a question: why these artists are ready to participate in an ‘emerging’ platform? Why, like many artists who are working with the established galleries, don’t show their reluctance to be with the really young artists? The answer would take us to the point that all these artists demand their due and they need recognition to their practices. An artist who is fifty today must have been working all these years and is not able to find a gallery to showcase his works or to get promoted by it. It must have various reasons behind it. But we in the mainstream, we those who live and operate from the urban centres should ask this question to ourselves: why these artists have been left out? What is the main reason behind it? We generally don’t want to find an answer to it. The UAF is an answer to this question, not through words but through their works. Their works may not be as ‘magnanimous’ as the works of our established artists. But wouldn’t they have been established themselves whether they had been picked up and promoted at the right time during their career? We are not going to make them the masters of the new age. But we are definitely here to tell the world that Indian art is not just about a few artists.

Yes, definitely there is a senior artists’ section which is rightly called, ‘Mind the Gap Now’ and is curated by me. This section as well as the sections like Photography, Printmaking, Video Lounge and the Sculpture Park has got several senior artists. These sections are mainly conceived as the platforms of tribute and endorsement. We have a special section called Master Corner where we present around 20 Indian masters. The artists in these sections in fact lend their names to endorse the young and emerging artists who are in the general section. These artists are doing a great service to the youngsters. We belong to India and irrespective of its religious varieties we are all very respectful to the people who are senior both in age and practice. So these sections are meant for respecting them and in turn their names endorse the names of the young people.

(from the UAF- work by Oli Ghosh)

Jml: I too respect those artists who by their presence endorse the youngsters. However, as far as I understand and as people say, the UAF is a huge show and it has all the reasons to operate like a gallery. Is that so?

JML: There is a grain of truth in it. But still that truth does not hold much water in this case. For example, as Annurag Sharma once explained in one of the public artists’ meets organised by the UAF, a show could be a solo show or a show of a few artists. An exhibition could be a show of a large number of artists. But a fair is an exhibition that attracts people from all the walks of life to it for different reasons. A fair is place always a variety of experiences are packaged and showed. It is from such places that people tend to buy things impulsively and instinctively. And fairs as being the places of new experiences they could be the places of new beginnings too. The UAF is going to be a fair with a lot of variety of art and related activities. It is going to sustain the interest for the all four days. Fairs are the exhibitions where people come back again for a re-look. It is a place for business and relationship building. In that sense, though the UAF is an exhibition of 600 artists including the seniors, masters, printmakers and photographers, it is happening in a fair context therefore it is a fair in all its nature and complexion.

Jml: You have been talking about the mutuality between the existing gallery system and the UAF, a sort of love-hate relationship, I believe. How the existing system is going to benefit out of it? Some say the UAF undercuts the galleries.

JML: Rumours cannot be contained in this age of ‘rumourtainment’ (good that I coined another word). These are all unfounded rumours. In fact we are doing a great service to the galleries. During the boom time most of the gallerists used to go to different cities and institutions to campus recruit and studio recruit artists. Now with the recession still not abated, gallerists are not doing the same. The UAF makes all efforts to reach out to most of the places and get fresh and young artists. Hence, the UAF could become a hub for recruiting new artists by the gallerists. Galleries are always welcome to pick up the artists from the UAF and promote them. We are not going to bind any single artists who participate in the UAF. On the contrary we would encourage both the artists and the galleries to work together. The UAF welcome the galleries to pick up the artists from the UAF.

 (Dr,Deepak John Mathew)

Jml: You were talking about Photography and Printmaking sections. What are they?

JML: Photography has always been a strong art form ever since the invention of camera. In India, somehow we have failed to recognize this art form. However, in the recent years there have been concerted efforts by agencies like Tasveer, Photoink and so on to promote Indian photography. The National Institute of Design has a special photography design department devised and established by Dr.Deepak John Mathew. I have invited him to curate a special section on photography. Also on the third day of the fair we have a whole day seminar on Photography. Printmaking is an art form that needs promotion today. We have invited noted young printmaker, Rajan Fulari to curate a section on printmaking, which I am sure would make a lot of difference to the UAF. One of the highlights of the UAF is going to be 30 rare photographs by Raja Deen Dayal, the pioneer Indian photographer.

Jml: What do you think about those galleries stopping their artists from participating in the UAF?

JML: I am not aware of such things. But as you asked I would say that it must be coming either from an inexplicable hatred or fear for anything new. It could be also coming out of sheer amount of cynicism. Such cynicism will not stand as experience has taught me. In 2008, I started a project called Video Wednesdays@ Gallery Espace. It was devised as a year-long program. When I launched it at the gallery, many cynics raised their eye brows and asked whether we had enough video artists to last for a year. But I successfully curated it for one whole year and today Video Wednesday is a brand and is known by my name. So I am sure the UAF is also going to have a strong brand value soon.

(Rajan Fulari)

Jml: What kind of other promotional activities that you have planned for promoting the UAF artists?

JML: Going by the principles of a fair platform we need not exactly take the charge of the artists who are participating in a fair. But considering the special Indian situation we need to take certain pro-active steps to help the young and emerging artists. Soon we will be launching a magazine titled ‘C-art Wheel’ edited by me, which would function as a flagship of Indian contemporary art and its varieties. It will have both print and online versions. We are planning residency programs in collaboration with other residency programs. Besides we would be giving scholarships and awards to the young artists. There would be build up exhibitions of the UAF throughout the year in the cities other than Delhi. The UAF also would collaborate with five major museums in its second edition. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Red Toe Nails

She was polite and I was arrogant. She had a doctorate and I did not have one. I never considered having no doctorate detrimental to my career. But when people with a doctoral degree try to bully you with that magical prefix before their names, you get disturbed. Though she had a doctorate she never showed it off. Whenever she tried I brought her back to her senses. I was editing a magazine and she was a contributing art critic.

Our friendship grew over emails. As it often happens an editor puts more weight around than his writers. Thanks to my aggressive art journalistic style, she grew sceptical over her own writings, despite her PhD., and was always full of questions. I critiqued her observations and she did relent and rewrote some of her pieces. Soon she grew an ardent fan of my writings and wanted to see whatever I wrote. Occasionally I sent her my pieces and otherwise I sent her the links of my blog, which I had started writing by then.

Those were the pre-facebook days. Gmail was the in thing and the chat lines were what made life both heaven and hell at once. You felt like having some green lights always on. And if you did not see them you felt low. When the green light against a name glowed, your face too beamed with happiness. Chats could add fuel to your self confidence and desirability. You made parallel bowers in the Gmail chat rooms where you played multiple roles. 

I did not delete her chats. That I realized much later. And in the meanwhile I had been deleting many chats that could have created discordance in domestic peace. However alert you were, when you did a crime you left forensic evidences. Undeleted Gmail chats were the forensic evidences of your extra-conjugal crimes. And I had fallen victim to such findings by a diligent partner a couple of times. Each time I thought I would grow wiser. But I don’t know, like many in this world, I ever would grow wise.

The chats between us were innocent, though at times they went into a zone of flirtations. It was always good to follow settled people and coax them to commit to your dreams. I followed her like a jester courting a witch both always talking in riddles. I knew that it was a pointless effort. And pointless efforts always make the target more desirable than any. One day you realize how foolish you were all these while. But then foolishness of yester years are like cherishing wounds and licking them gives you some kind of happiness. If anyone smiles to himself, be sure he is licking an imaginary wound.

I met her first time in a metro city. She came to meet me in the hotel. We met at the lobby and talked for a while. Those people who chat in the virtual spaces might find it difficult to pursue it with the same verve in the real life time situations. So we were looking at each other and at the girls and guys at the reception desk. Coming out to meet me a person who had been her chat friend, for her was like a crime committed against all virtues. Then I realized that chat lines are the places where sin adores the garb of sophistication and flirting. I noticed her toe nails. They were all painted red.

When I stopped editing that magazine, our conversations became infrequent. There was no reason for us to talk. Still she told me her plans. She informed me when she attended seminars and also sent me messages when she travelled abroad. Then one day she disappeared. By that time I had survived two earthquakes that too came in the form of chats and had registered ‘nine’ in my family’s Richter Scale.

Today, when I opened my inbox and found a mail that raised my curiosity. It was not from a familiar person. But the content of the mail had a familiar name. It was her name. I had forgotten her completely. And the prefix of her name was different this time. It was an invitation that commemorated her services and an award instituted in her name. I googled her. I could find a lot about her but not about her status now. Then in one of the links I found something that I never wanted to find out about her.

She had gone to the abode of god a year ago. None told me. It was not mentioned anywhere in the art scene. Or had I missed it? Did I grow so busy during the last one year that I missed the news of the death of a friend? She had died of cancer. I sat before my computer as if I was hit by a thunderbolt. I spoke to a friend and he told me that she had undergone surgeries. And I calculated the time. It was just before that surgery she had met me in the hotel lobby. She never told me that she was going through a problem like that.

I remember her averted eyes and the unsure smile. I remember her discomfiture in sitting at a hotel lobby in her own city where she was quite known. I remember her toe nails painted in red. I can ask her only this much: Why didn’t you tell me? 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Koodafication of Art in India

(A Garbage Dump)

Five hundred and twenty artists- young, emerging, upcoming- you qualify them with any of these adjectives, the truth is that they are the chosen ones out of the thousands of applications that we have received at the United Art Fair office via emails, mails, couriers, drop-box and so on. Recommendations were aplenty. And finally, when the list was published there were jubilations all over the country- there were a flurry of phone calls and text messages thanking the United Art Fair Team Members for selecting them- and also there were broken hearts. There were angry calls and hate mails- and some hate mails came in the form of good advice- and we replied all of them with equanimity saying only this much: do good works and there is always a next edition to the United Art Fair.

(Work by Vivan Sundaram)

Someone told me (a well wisher and a great friend) that United Art Fair could be all about number game. And sheer number could gather a lot of garbage (they call it Kooda in Hindi). So scepticism that does its rounds in the art scene is this: how can there be so many artists in this country who are talented and emerging whom we have not noticed so far? Or even if we have noticed, we chose to ignore? Could all of them be kooda? You may ask me who could be the people who raise these doubts. I cannot pinpoint anyone because I don’t know them though I can sense them. These doubts are casted because none wants to believe that there could be good artists out there who generally don’t get chances in the mainstream gallery system.

(Neo Monster by Vibha Galhotra)

But I want to ask you this question, dear artists, would you like your works to be called kooda? And will you allow such people to flourish in this country who call your works kooda? I am sure that your rage could ensure the erasure of their presence from the art scene of India. But be sure those artists who were brought initially by some bold curators and gallerists, most of the people called them kooda. Later on same kooda became the mainstream and the kooda wallahs became the stars. Let me tell you, if you are not a good kooda gatherer you are bound to doom. United Art Fair, if you think that has collected garbage from all over India, let me tell you, this garbage is going to make a change in the Indian art scene because now there are not many artists left out of United Art Fair. This fair has got the remaining best in India. I say ‘remaining’ because a good minority is already there in the galleries.

(Trash book cover Vivan Sundaram)

I should acknowledge Vivan Sundaram here. He is the pioneer in bringing trash to the mainstream galleries. He literally trashed the existing aesthetics. But with that he proved that trash could be a way of explaining the current aesthetics. Now if you look at the shows, trash is the in thing. Best of art projects are made from and within trash or around kooda danas. Photographers photograph garbage dumps. Activist-artists walk along Yamuna and speak about kooda collected in there. If you cross from Select City Walk Mall (after going into Kiran Nadar Musuem or not), you shift your gear and the moment you start seeing Kirkhee village you start thinking only about kooda not because you see a lot of kooda there, but because most of the experimental art is raised from the urban kooda. If you have any doubt you may go into the archives of Khoj International Artists Workshop. When you don’t get any kooda to rely on, you go to city pages of the newspapers and do photo-realism.

 (Work by Cindy Sherman)

Then how can you call those artists who work from outside the mainstream systems and establishments ‘kooda artists’? How would you turn kooda and into aesthetically palatable delicacy when it enters a mainstream establishment? How come a gallerist whose cheques have been bouncing left and right, and for that reason hated by every artist in this country suddenly becomes an intellectual gallerist when s/he starts working with performance artists and god alone knows who types of foreign artists, and also becomes a retailer of a few metro galleries?


Let us now realize the fake activities in our art system. Let us wake up to truth. How can a video work shown in a not so famous Lado Sarai Gallery gains all those critical appreciation when the same work is presented in the same way in a mainstream gallery? We need to question this snobbishness. Collectors of Indian contemporary art should now wake up and see art in its entirety. Art collection is always driven by emotional responses of the buyer/collector towards a work of art. And its investment possibilities increase when the collector works in tandem with the artist and his/her promoting agencies. We cannot let ten individuals in India to decide what could be the taste of this country. We should not allow them to call our works Kooda. If they call, I know how you are going to tackle them.