Friday, September 26, 2008

Exemplary Existential Executives

I have a few ‘first readers’ of my blog. Though they do not post comments directly in the blog, they speak to me either in terms of appreciation or in terms of criticism. Mumbai based Kanchi Mehta, who is currently working as an Event, Artists, Public and Client Relation Manager of Bodhi Art Gallery, Mumbai is one of them who does not mince any words when it comes to my writings. Yesterday, when I posted a review kind of write up on the recently opened show at Gallery Maskara, Mumbai, she asked me why it shouldn’t have gone into, which I edit. Her argument was this: If a personal blog is for publishing/sharing the (unpalatable) views, then why should I publish a ‘pretty pleasing’ review in it? I could get her point for the same opinion had come from couple of other friends.

“Johny was in London, Johny was in Zurich, Johny was in Thailand and he wants more. Isn’t it the attitude, Johny?” Kanchi asked me. I said I understood her point. There must be an indirect psychological pressure on me to be ‘pretty pleasing’ in my writing these days. When I talked a gallerist friend of mine in Mumbai, she told me, “You have made enough enemies through your writings. Now please don’t make any more enemies.” Another friend from the Jawaharlal Nehru University had told me once, “Where has that Johny gone?” When I was in Paris to attend a show opening, a Paris based Indian artist (quite senior) patting on my shoulders commented, “Finally, you too became a darling of the system.” I smiled.

Looking back, I could see my writings had (I believe, at times it still has) some kind of arrogance and forthrightness. Then I was not particularly catering to any reading public. I was expressing what I used to feel about art and what I used to see. I had a nebulous audience, who enjoyed the kind of arrogance and energy my writings used to emanate. That defined ‘JohnyML’ as a writer. And nobody had asked me then the system of economics in which I used to function from. Today, with the flourishing of art market, I am clear about my audience, the consumers of my writings and the kind of expectations that they have in my writings. I was in a Chaplinesque phase. When the unexploded bomb shell has to be defused, Chaplin looks on to his right side for handing over the responsibility to his subordinate and finds that he is the last one in the row. So he has to go and face the bomb. I was the last one in the row and I never thought twice before making a comment in my writings. Now the scene has changed. But I look at my right side, there are many but all of them are looking at their right side and it is an infinite chain. None wants to commit.

Kanchi’s comment reverberates in my mind as I sit to write this piece. I have always liked this girl, one of the few girls who addresses me ‘tu’ (a too familiar term of addressing someone in Hindi). I met Kanchi first time over emails. She asked me whether she could write in I welcomed her and she did a couple of pieces. Once she sent me an article with a claim that she had done a good study using the theories of Clement Greenberg. She pronounced the name, Clement Greenberg in such way that she was sure that I wouldn’t be knowing who this person was. I told her politely that I had gone through Clement Greenberg at least twelve years back. In her mails she always qualified herself as an ‘expert’ in Indian Modern and Contemporary Art, Curator, Writer, Artist etc etc. One day I told her that Kanchi Mehta should be known as Kanchi Mehta and the people should recognize her name through her works not through a chain of qualifications fitted behind the name. She found sense in my comment and next moment she removed all those baggage from her tag line. Then onwards we are friends, though I don’t believe in friendship. In art field, there is no friendship, there are only ‘interests’ and ‘relationships’. It is like war and diplomacy. Everything is strategic here.

I don’t know whether there is a strategic relationship between myself and Kanchi, but ever since we met we have some kind of understanding between each other. I would qualify Kanchi as one of the ‘new existential youths’. Obviously she is not a confused and dazed Desi as she has definite opinion on Indian contemporary art scene as an insider. Two glasses of red wine would make her unwind in a group but she has tremendous control over what she says, may be a trait she picked up from being a professional working with many galleries as a consultant and manager.

I call Kanchi a contemporary existential person because I have seen many young girls working in galleries in managerial posts going through the same existential dilemma. Like many of them Kanchi too is an academically trained artist (Sir JJ School of Art- 2000-04) and she holds a Certificate from Christie’s Art History and History of Art Market. So she is caught up between two things- creativity and market. She knows how the market functions and how an artist works. The dilemma then is an artist cannot work like a market professional. If at all he/she works, it would be after gaining considerable acclamation and success in the market a la Damien Hirst or Subodh Gupta. Kanchi is existential because she does not want to do any job other than making art and curating shows. But somehow the need for financial independence makes her to join the bandwagon of gallery professionals (or existentialists looking good in their executive outfits).

Somehow I always fail to fathom the depth of their existentialism. Belonging to an older generation, we had different existential problems. Job related existential problems were not featured in our minds as there were no jobs to hold or aspire for. Our existential enemy was society and we had been fighting against this so called society. With the flourishing of the market, the society has now got a concrete shape and for us fight has become a some kind of spiritual compromise, which we call in different terms like, ‘maturing’, ‘having a philosophical outlook,’ ‘being professional’ etc. Kanchi’s existentialism is unfathomable as it is a fight against the dynamics of market and economy. They are very much inside, they can spend Rs.70 for a cup of coffee in the cool climes of Barrista or Café Coffee Day and talk endlessly on alleviating the poverty of this country or the disparities and injustice existing in this society. This existentialism is spectacular and Kanchi belongs to this spectacular existential generation.

Kanchi falls back on to my past writings and its (by now) ‘imagined’ verve because it is there she finds the angst which is similar to her own. “May be it is easy to preach, I also go soft on many issues as I need to be here,” she says at the end of the chat and I could see she is tired. I look at Kanchi’s bio-data, which is quite impressive and showing this to any agency she would be absorbed easily. But scrolling down the Microsoft word page, I see her profile ‘as an artist’. She has done sculptures, installations, photography and has participated in a few shows including the Kala Ghoda Art Festival, to which she was one of the organizers in 2007. I believe, the existential Kanchi (or the existential girls in the art scene) comes from this part of the bio-data. Inside her she is always an artist. But she wears the mantle of an art administrator and public/client relation executive in her working hours. She is also a teacher of art history in Rachna Sansad Institute of Fine Arts. Besides, she holds a part time assistant director’s post at the APT Global Artists Pension Fund. In the carnival of spectacles, she is a consumer who has too many choices to make. But it is not easy to leave the carnival and go in recluse. Mumbai is a maze and it is difficult to get out of its festivities.

I have come across girls chucking their cushy jobs as gallery managers and going to ‘do full time art’. There is a tremendous struggle out there. Stepping out of the carnival is a difficult choice to make. “I want to quit,” says Kanchi. I could hear hundreds of girls like her saying the same thing. After quitting what are they going to do? Another gallery? Another cushy job with a huge pay packet? Or another fathomless pit of struggle and masochism? Kanchi exemplifies a time and space; perhaps she represents the unseen side of Indian contemporary art scene; the green room agonies before flickering plasma computer monitors.