An art show comes alive through the contributions made by many people. Art exhibitions as a whole belong to artists though there are several others who play a pivotal role in getting the shows up. While one does not discount the role of the gallerists and curators, one could say for sure that exhibitions are also enriched by the creative contributions of the exhibition technicians. In the cash rich art establishments in the developed countries the involvement of exhibition designers has been honoured for a long time but in India exhibition design by and large falls directly on the shoulders of the curators. During the short period when we had an art market boom certain foreign exhibition designers were imported from the west to add some creative as well as monetary value to the shows. Soon their presence evaporated with the fading of hard cash from the market.
Whenever there are display complexities involved in putting a show together having an experienced and skilled technician-cum-designer on board is always good. Presence of a rich market is a prerequisite for the artists to create complex works. Even the size of the works is directly proportionate to the size of the studio that an artist has. Though creation of a work of art and creativity in general are not determined by material circumstances, the size and complexity in the execution of works of art have a direct link with the material conditions. This explains why most of the works done in India till mid 1990s are not huge in size. Most of the artists must have also experienced the pleasure and pain of carrying their works on their shoulders and displaying them as neatly as possible with the help of die hard friends in the crudest of gallery facilities. Also I need to add here that the flourishing material circumstances need not push an artist to make huge and complex works though such incidents are exceptions.
Changes that have manifested in the making of art as well as displaying them in the shows are not innocently art centric matters. They have a lot to do with the changes in the general socio-cultural changes facilitated by economic redistributions and availability of spaces where works could be housed for whatever purposes besides turning them into absolute commodities. However, I do not intend to get into the detailing of those aspects but make use of the space for bringing certain unsung heroes in the gallery establishments into focus. While some of the artists make their works so complex that it demands the presence of the artists during the time of display, a ploy that works well for the artists who look forward to free travel and a bit of limelight for themselves during the opening of the show, we forget and almost keep the people who do the 'hanging' of the works in the galleries.
Let me call them 'art hangers'. I have this perennial itch to call them hangmen but the fear of the negative connotations I abstain from doing so. These art hangers are either hired by the galleries on a regular basis or if the gallery has regular shows they are trained from among the gallery staff. Art hangers are not just the people who hang works but the ones who know carpentry, framing, lighting and assembling. Though technical know how is important for this job what one needs here in this work is a sense of aesthetics, rhythm, harmony and balance. I have worked with different kinds of art hangers and most of them surprisingly flaunt their flair in the above mentioned qualities; of course not in words but in the way that they handle the work. Coarse and unsophisticated art hangers could easily be identified the way they carry a painting to the wall. The skilled and sophisticated ones would never let any part of their body touch the painterly surface or poke the fingers into it. They do not keep a work of art against another one and no sharp edges would be allowed to come near the works. With a mere look they could see the level of the work without using mercury levels. If a curator's design flaws at places they would subtly come up with suggestions which would make the show a class apart. The light men too know what works need a cool light and which one looks good in bright light.
These art hangers generally do not get any mention anywhere because they are treated as mere technicians while the imported exhibition designers are given royal treatment and profiles in art magazines. However, I have noticed how the traditional art hangers differ much from the exhibition designers. While the latter give importance to the final output, the former are sensitive to what they are working with. I have been given surprises by these art hangers as they talk about the artists whose work they hang. They also know the other works of the artist, the style variations and so on. Some even know a bit of art history! Recently I was touched by the gesture and decision of an art hanger; I had decided to place the image of goddess Durga, a drawing out of five drawings of an artist depicting different aspects of life at the lower end of the row. I placed it and showed the art hangers how to do it. But one of them subtly told me that it would be good if we placed the Durga image on the top. I had a different logic in keeping the goddess as the lady frame but his was purely devotional, which I thought made sense because he was then approaching the work as a viewer. In another instance he came up with a solution in an issue that I faced while displaying an artist with a painting and a decorative wooden base that the artist wanted to go with it.
Art hangers are but unceremoniously dismissed once the show is up. They are called again only to bring it down. Perhaps they do not expect more than that. They know their roles and are happy in delivering them successfully. But when I see them marching in and out of galleries in silent files I deeply feel for them as hardly anybody remembers them when they look at an impressive work of art placed perfectly on the wall and lit up correctly. A painting kept leaning a against a wall is a beggar; when it is displayed on an easel, it's a common man; on the wall displayed well and lit up adequately a work of art is a king or a queen. Art hangers are king makers in the art scene.