Thursday, June 28, 2012

United Art Fair and the Gallery System in India- The Need for Collaboration

(A Gallery Interior)

This question has been around for quite some time; to be precise since the day I joined as the project director and chief curator of United Art Fair- Is United Art Fair going to topple the existing system of galleries? Though in our road show presentations, we have time and again reiterated the fact that we are not against the existing gallery system, gossips have been doing the rounds towards an adverse effect. Those who have attended our road shows know for sure that in capital and bold letters we have stated that we are not here to topple the system. Of course, in my speeches I have time and again spoken of the monopolization of taste and manufacturing of consent in the field of global aesthetics. Also I have said how this monopolization irons out aesthetic varieties. Hence, United Art Fair is a huge attempt to decentralize our art production-dissemination-consumption system. We cannot be such naive art players who would like to do away with a key link in this system- that is, the Gallery.

(JohnyML with Ashna Singh, Ram Rahman, Abul azad, Anoop Mathews Thomas, Sunil gupta, Alex Fernandes, Vinay Lal, Dr.Deepak John Mathew and Manisha Gera Baswani)

Pablo Helguvera, artist and critic from Spain who currently lives in New York, in his book, ‘Manuel of Contemporary Art Style’ speaks of how the art system functions. He considers the whole art scene as a game of chess. In this game, the museum director is the King, collector is the queen, Curators are the rooks, Dealers/galleries are Knights, Critics are Bishops and artists are the Pawns. Pawns are given freedom to move slowly. And the idea of pawn is to reach the King. But there are several hurdles on the way. Hence the Rooks and Knights help him to move further. Not all the pawns reach the King via queen. However, a few who reach there will not be shaken down by any other force. United Art Fair too understands the art making and marketing as a game of chess, but with a difference. What is that difference?

(JohnyML and G.R.Iranna at Sakshi Gallery with Manjunath Kamat's work)

Here United Art Fair has devised a new game of Chess. What we do here is to bring in too many pawns (dear artists, please do not take offence on this expression as I am just following the analogy of Pablo Helguvera) at once on a large game board. And we do let them move in their own ways. The four hundred plus artists who are going to be featured in the first edition of United Art Fair are not in any manner contracted by the company, United Art Logistics Private Limited. Nor have we made them sign any private contract that would bind them with us for the coming editions. They are free to move further. We do seek the protection of the Knights for them. We need more and more galleries to come in and see the young talents and pick them up for further grooming and promotion.

(JohnyML with Renu Modi of Gallery Espace and Babu Eshwar Prasad)

As an art fair, United Art Fair does not attempt to use artists as a projectile so that it could take the artists directly to the Kings. But of course, Untied Art Fair could attract the queens, that is collectors and the knights, rooks and bishops alike. In several ways, United Art Fair is a liberal platform where the rules of the game are slightly bent. United Art Fair, unlike the common belief works in tandem with the galleries. There are several artists in the first edition of United Art Fair, who are working with the galleries. And whichever galleries we have spoken to are only happy to share their artists with us. Besides, galleries should and I am sure they would, welcome United Art Fair as a new model in the Indian contemporary art scene which would bring qualitative changes eventually.

 (JohnyML directing a documentary on Sanjeev Sinha for Religare Arts i)

Practically speaking, let me tell you how United Art Fair would be a one stop shopping centre not only for the collectors but also for the galleries. United Art Fair is instrumental in bringing more than 400 artists from all over India and this number include very fresh artists who work exclusively in digital mediums, installations, videos and photography. At the same time, this number also include several young and unknown artists who have devoted their lives to create painting, sculpture and print making. There are artists with experimental mind set and several others with traditional beliefs. The variety that we see here is fantastic. And there was a time when the market was booming and sky was the only limit for both artists and galleries, many travelled several miles to find out young and upcoming artists. Now with the recession on at least in the art market, none goes around to find young and emerging talents.

(JohnyML and Nidhi Jain of Gallery Ragini)

United Art Fair is a platform with a bunch of people behind it who are driven by wanderlust. This is not a romantic concept. We are realistic about it and our journeys are meant for finding the new artists working in some humble hamlets. Hence, United Art Fair becomes a platform for the galleries to come and see the variety, pick up a few from the bunch, nurture them for the future and take them to the king via queens. United Art Fair welcomes galleries to do so. We have brought our artists for your critical perusal and further appreciation.

 (JohnyML and Annurag Sharma)

But United Art Fair wants more and more galleries with more and more differences, differences in aesthetical attitude and promotion. Recently a visiting gallerist and art collector asked me how as the chief curator of the United Art Fair I was going to assure quality. While travelling all over India promoting United Art Fair, someone else asked me what could be the theme of United Art Fair. Somebody asked me recently, is United Art Fair going to be a cutting edge show? My answer to all these queries is this: United Art Fair is going to be a quality show with a cutting edge attitude. It maintains its quality through positive selection process and it assures thematic through curatorial discretion and it maintains its cutting edge verve through experimental mixing of genres and a cosmopolitan approach to the existing galley/market system.

(Annurag Sharma)

United Art Fair welcomes all the galleries to join us not as booth participants but as active promoters. Galleries could promote this art fair through three different ways: One, by promoting their artists through United Art Fair. We have our declared position on this: United Art Fair is an artists-driven art fair. Hence we will be highlighting the artists than the galleries. Galleries get their mention in the catalogues and tags. But galleries could take equal pride by bringing their audience in a fair context and present their artists. In this world of market economy co-operation offered is profit assured. Two, the galleries could pick up artists from the new bunch of youngsters from United Art Fair platform and promote them further. Three, celebrate United Art Fair as artists fair by creating collateral events, throwing parties for the visiting artists (young artists too deserver parties), engaging them in good conversations, introducing them to your collectors and buyers, and even stocking up something from the United Art Fair for your own inventories.

 (Akshay Naik, JohnyML and Anubhav Nath of Ojas Art Gallery at Dharasana)

Before I close let me dispel some more clouds. I have been in the art scene for the last twenty years. And I have been working with different galleries by curating shows, writing catalogues, attending openings, engaging in talks, devising strategies for them and so on. I am not conceiving an art scene without galleries in any part of the world because galleries have a well defined role in our socio-cultural and economic system. As a critic I have been talking about the pitfalls in the functioning of our gallery system. And I will remain a critic of the same from within or without the United Art Fair. I want to employ a different approach and I want to include a new bunch of people in the whole production of the United Art Fair. And I assure you, you will enjoy it.

(at Dandi, trying a Gandhi posture)

In the case of Annurag Sharma, the founder director of United Art Fair, he cannot be against the gallery system at all mainly because as the Managing Director of the United Art Logistics Private Limited he has been instrumental in transporting the high end works of art created by the Indian artists to the international venues. Annurag’s relationship with the galleries is strong and is based on trust and love. Many do not know that Annurag Sharma has been the biggest sponsor of India Art Summit (now India Art Fair) not only as a Logistics Support Partner but also a ‘real’ sponsor of the event. When that is the reality, how can United Art Fair be against the galleries and the existing models?

(Annurag Sharma speaking to media in Mumbai)

So let’s say United Art Fair is here to congregate the artists and the galleries who do not believe in monopolization of power and money in a few hands. I welcome all the galleries in India to join hands with United Art Fair and create a difference in the scene because tomorrow belongs to us. Tomorrow belongs to all those who make a difference.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

United Art Fair: Entry Closed- Real Closure of a Surreal Day

(Jeene Do..A Digital work by Oli Ghosh. A must see work from the United Art Fair)

“Sir, can I take a minute from you?” a sweet but desperate female voice rings in my ears. I have been listening to sweet voices for the last two months. Sweetness in voice has no gender barriers. Artists are sweet talkers. They are polite and pleasing. They are like the followers of Malcolm X; he was non-violent to those people who were non-violent to him and violent to violent ones. Artists are polite and sweet because United Art Fair has been sweet and polite to them. And above all it is always good to recharge yourself with nice sounding voices. Do you feel a sort of power when someone requests something from you? No, we are not that kind of people who throw around our weight. Everyone in United Art Fair is fair enough in dealing with the artists. We don’t let anyone to request or genuflect while seeking a chance for participating in the United Art Fair. When they bend we too bend equally. We are not arrogant people. But look, there is a limit to everything.

What I want to say is this- United Art Fair entry is now officially closed. The word official might give you a hope because in India anything that closes officially will have a side door for unofficial entry. On 2nd October, when we celebrate Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, Government of India tells us not to drink at all in the memory of the one who had fought and died for our independence. But Gandhiji does not know what sun set causes to those tipplers. They go to the nearest private liquor shop. They may drive many kilometres searching for such shops. And there you will find huge shutters down like the guillotine blade in an executioner’s block. But you hang around for a while then you see a couple of bricks being taken away from the wall and a cavity appearing there. You push the money and whisper the brand name into that void of darkness you get your bottle in seconds. That’s how unofficial things work in India.

 (Surprisingly fresh- Work by Karan Uppal- from United Art Fair)

In United Art Fair the bricks are strong. We do not unofficially accept any applications further. I am sure some of you will come to us just to test whether we would accept applications again or not. If at all we do it would be on humanitarian considerations. We cannot see an artist going back hanging his head down with wonderful works tucked under his arm, and sobbing his soul out under the fierce sun of Delhi. We have seen this scene enough. We have gone through this situation enough. If the dust bins of galleries could speak they would tell you the number of compact disks that they have carried to the kooda wallah every morning. United Art Fair does not rubbish art or art works. We respect and appreciate good art works. What would happen if all the mobile handsets start speaking on their own one fine morning? Or all the gallery executives speak their mind to their bosses in a surprising bout of strength and courage? Marriages will collapse and gallery executives will lose their jobs. But still there is hope for the gallery executives. Even if you speak up, gallerists will pretend that they did not hear it because to run a gallery you need at least one efficient and good looking executive, and today their supply is inversely proportionate to the actual demand. One more thing good looking-ness does not assure efficiency. United Art Fair is lucky in that way because we are bunch of beautiful and intelligent people. We take care of artists and their works.

(New ways of approach- work by Marippalli Praveen Goud- from United Art Fair)

The sweet voice in my phone tells me, “Sir, I have sent the application via email.” I will check it tomorrow, I tell her, trying to sound equally polite and sweet. Male voice should be grainy and gruff, that’s the way they like it, or at least that is the way the guys like to believe that they are liked for their gruffy, grainy voice. In mobile phone most of the boys are mimicry artists; girls are not far behind. I remember a friend of mine picking up her phone and responding to the unfamiliar numbers in a very gruff voice. She is a lecturer in a college. So she wants to sound authoritative. But the moment she realizes that it is her friends, the capital HI turns into a sugary syrupy small hiiiiiiiiiiii. We human beings are the most unnatural beings. We pretend to death. But I try to be very natural with the sweet voice in my phone. “Sir, for me it is a great chance sir. I want to participate in the United Art Fair and please appreciate my works, sir.” In the fiery heat of June I melt standing in the middle of the road. I am familiar to such entreating. I keep my calm and fight the heat wave like a power ranger with flash swords.

 (Hybrid Reality by Reji Arakkal- from United Art Fair)

I reassure the lady with some good words. Let me see is a phrase that works as a euphemism for a big NO. But in United Art Fair, if we say ‘Let’s us see’, we do look into it because we are here for you, artists of India. Today with the entries closed, I as the team leader could proudly say that in India now there are two categories of artists; one, who are with United Art Fair and who are not with United Art Fair. Here is an art fair, absolutely free and fair for you. If you are not with it, then obviously there must be some problem with your system of thinking about art and art exhibitions. Today, we are going to see the works and of course we have been seeing each and every work send to us by the artists. Let me tell you, India has got wonderful artists but India do not have wonderful galleries to accommodate all these artists. The works of art that we have received are simply wonderful and they showcase the variety of India’s thinking. The artists who have joined the United Art Fair do not believe in the ironed out global aesthetics of spectacles. They are genuine like pearls and gems.

(The Bengali Bride- by Suparna Dey- From United Art Fair)

United Art Fair does only this much; these precious stones have been lying hidden in the womb of India’s culture. What we do is just pick them up, refresh and present. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

United Art Fair: What Art Collectors Want

(A Souza work from 1961)

The story is from our art market booming years. A young art collector invited me to her home. Security men at the gate looked at me with suspicious eyes as I did not match anywhere with the glamour of their employer. Armed by my proximity with that girl I fought back those hateful gazes and entered that multi floor home where she showed me her collection of art. I was admiring the collection with my curious pair of eyes and a mouth partly opened for sipping a cool glass of fruit juice and remained so for my inexplicable wonderment at the fabulous collection that she had on her walls. She led me through floors after floors where I witnessed the works of Indian masters. The guava juice in my glass tasted several times better when I stood before a Souza nude ogling at the voluptuousness of her body (not of the collector).

Suddenly I felt something strange. A brush stroke was not falling in place. A colour blotch has too much of thickness. A line was finding its way out of its desired course. I looked at the signature. Then at the signatures in all the paintings. They were all done by different people who had carefully followed the style of the masters. Even their signatures resembled the inimitable calligraphy of the masters. I turned at the beautiful art collector who was standing next to me more amused by collection than anybody else in the world. A few minutes before, I too was experiencing the same excitement. Now shocked out of it by the fake signatures I decided to confront her. I asked her why she collected all these ‘imitation’ classics. She told me that she liked them. I queried her regarding the names of these artists. “I don’t care,” said she with a smile dangling in her lips. “I commission them to do these and they do,” she added. What do you do with these works? I wondered. “I live with them and then sell them to other people who like masters’ works but really don’t want to go through the rigour of actual collecting.”

(Scream by Edward Munch)

Before I go into the analysis of this anecdote and explain what makes art collecting so exciting with diversified collectors’ attitudes let me recount one more anecdote; of course from the same boom times. A friend took me to a mall like building in Mumbai. He told me that he wanted to assist his friend’s parents to select a work of art. The building did not look like a gallery but its three storeys had all kinds of art wares and interestingly the building was brimming with people, and the sales were going in full steam. While my friend’s friends’ parents rambled through their kind of art I decided to take a self conducted tour through the display in the shop. The first floor was full of Ganesha idols made out of all conceivable sizes, materials and mediums. The second floor had all paintings; and many looked like copies of masters both Indian and western. A couple came in and went through a series of nudes and they were looking one for their bed room. Sexciting works, I told myself. They finally selected one, a very seductive one three by two feet in size, and asked for the prize to the assistant in a dapper suit. Rs.80,000/- sir, he said. The couple looked at each other and they tallied the money with the kind of pleasures that they are going derive with this painting in their bedroom wall, and finally decided to go for it.

These two anecdotes taught me a lot about art collecting in India. If you look at the percentage of art buying/collecting in India, one could clearly say that the above mentioned kind of collecting overshadows the collecting of ‘art’ from the galleries and other art vending agencies. This also clearly tells us that art collection is not all about art investment. It has got a lot of emotional values attached to it. And remember emotional values are always relative and subjective. One cannot look down upon a person who goes for a Souza look alike than an original Souza. He may be shelling out half the amount of the original but what he holds with him is a sense of Souza; a sort of high related to the idea of having a Souza. It obviously says that he is not ‘investing’ in Souza. He knows for sure that this cannot be passed off as Souza in the secondary market as it is signed by someone else. Also he knows for sure that the signed artist is not made big by anybody so that one day he could be cashed in on just through his signature. So shall we say that this art collector or the couple who bought a nude for Rs.80,000/- (while we all know that a young contemporary art could be collected for half the amount happily) are fools? My answer is a clear ‘NO’.

(One for the bedroom?)

When you invest emotional values with a work of art, money becomes immaterial. Fundamentally there is no difference between a person who pays a bomb for a Tyeb Mehta or an Edward Munch in an auction and the person who buys a souza look alike as both the parties are driven by the same emotional high. For both the parties having that work becomes more important at that point of time than anything else. Millions of dollars/rupees/pounds spent on it become absolutely nothing for them because they know that they are not going to ‘off load’ them soon. While the one who buys a Souza look alike keeps that work in his farmhouse or hotel or even in his living room, the one who explode money into thin air for a Munch might not even wanting the world know who he is. Perhaps, this work would go into a safe deposit locker and will be permanently kept away from the public view. Art collecting is all about passion, emotion and the high that it gives to one in secrecy and silence. It is a spiritual experience.

However, when you invest in art, your emotional attachment with a work of art gets thinner than a silk thread. It is strong and beautiful but you could snap it by pulling hard on it. When you invest in art you are sure that you are going to make money. So you study the art seriously and go by the academic notions of it. Here what I mean by academy is the coterie that develops values around a particular artist and his works. This becomes pure business relationship; the gallery knows that it sells to a seller and the seller knows that he sells it to another seller. It could reach to museums or a good collector who is driven by emotions. That’s where the trajectory of a work of art ends, which it had started at the studio of an artist. Some people buy houses for sheer investment value and they sell them off when they feel they can have profit out of it. But they don’t sell one building which they call it home because they are emotionally attached to it. There are architects who make buildings live in them for some time with a lot of passion and affection and when they get the right client they sell it to him. Real art collectors could be likened with these architects who make their homes, live in it and feel it completely and find the right person to hand it over.

(Mr.Bean as Monalisa)

There is a strange phenomenon going on in Indian art scene. During the boom time the art players did not create art collectors who invested emotional value in art. Instead we developed a set of people who were keen to invest and make profit. If I trace the paths of domestic investors’ arrival in Indian contemporary art market, it would start somewhere in late 1990s. A new rich class was formed thanks to the economic boom in online industry including journalism and business out sourcing. This new rich class, especially the young crowd, after satisfying their materialistic needs such as real estate and vehicle, was asked to invest in art because the consultants told that that the abstract value of art would always appreciate the price. The young investors were asked to put money in paper works by young contemporaries, and on resale they were asked to put the profit in canvases. This was how a new generation of artists got established in the Indian art market who became celebrities during the real boom years between 2006-08.

None of these investors were art lovers per se. They all loved art because it brought them profit. They did not develop an emotional relationship with art. Investment brought money, glamour, proximity with peer group, high end circles and finally with artists. The perpetual parties and carnivals gave them a kick and they enjoyed it to the hilt. Works of art found their grave in the packaging crates itself. Open any warehouse in India, you would find at least ten crates of contemporary art lying their unclaimed by anybody. It happened because art was treated like share market bond papers. A Chartered Accountant could handle your investment in share market. Nobody carries his bonds and flaunts it. Art was only a reason for them. That’s why when a young art dealer walks up to me and tells, look I want that work of art, I want to live with it. Had I been given a revolver I would have shot her down at that moment itself.

(Denzel Washington in Training Day)

Interestingly, in the whole process once again the artists became victims. If you look at the scene, even during these grim days of economic recession you see there are several artists who are not listed as ‘A,B,C’ category artists and who cherish no hope to reach anywhere near to the A-listers, thrive in their creative works (though they choose to be suppliers to certain demands. In that case who was not one during the boom years?) and life because there are art collectors who want to buy look alike and live with them peacefully. They thrive because there are people who would shell out a lakh for a woman with wet clothes showing off her body contours to a pair of horny couple on a bed. Nobody told the art collectors that there are artists who are educated and do intelligent art. None told them that they could create emotional attachment with the young artists and their works. None told them that they could promote them consistently by becoming their permanent patrons.

United Art Fair is going to be a platform where we could tell our Indian art collectors that look here are a variety of artists with intelligent and diversified practices. Pick and choose them, trust in their art and see them growing in the coming years. Invest in them if you want, but primarily invest your emotions into the works of art that they create. Don’t go by the rule books. If you are feeling to buy a Ganesha buy it, if you are feeling to buy a nude painting buy it, if you want to buy a contemporary work buy it but never feel that you are going to triple the profit in the next few days. See the same artist in the coming years, see him/her growing and travel with him/her and their works. You patrons, you have always been the pillars of world culture. Without patrons no art had thrived in any history. Here is the biggest opportunity for you to become the patrons of Indian visual art culture. United Art Fair is not monopolized by ten galleries who imagine that they could dictate the taste of 118 crore people in India. What a foolishness that could be! United Art Fair is for you, dear patrons. If you have love for art, United Art Fair is the right place. You feel like listening to your beloved sufficing her life and relationship to you in three words: ‘I love you.’ 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Biggest Museum of Indian Contemporary Art is Already Here

(The Ramp by K.S.Radhakrishnan)

Art critics loot and they loot absolutely. I am talking about those art critics who charge money and a work of art for their professional services. If an art critic has a heavy load of works of art that goes in the name of a personal collection, be sure that he/she is a pirate. I have been active in our contemporary art scene for the last two decades and many people ask me whether I have a good collection of art. If I tell you the truth you may be shocked: I don’t have any collection of art. But I am the biggest art collector in the world. You may find it very contradictory. On the one hand I say I don’t have a collection and on the other I say I am the biggest collector in the world.

 (Chintan Upadhyay)

Let me start with my collection. In my studio, that is exactly K.S.Radhakrishnan’s studio where he has allotted me a floor for my private use and to develop an archives, I have a ‘Soonya Buddha’ by KSR himself. When I bought my house in 2004, KSR told me to pick a work from his repertoire of works. I told him that I was waiting for the biggest work of KSR so that I can take it as my gift. Now his biggest work is a forty feet long sculptural installation titled, ‘The Ramp’. That’s mine. Only problem is that now my house is not big enough to accommodate that. Hence, with this my aspiration level has gone high. Somewhere I have a feeling that I should have such a huge house so that I can accommodate this Ramp work. That’s how I have come to the conclusion that one day I am going to establish a museum of Indian contemporary art.

 (Manjunath Kamath)

And be sure I am not joking. During the boom days, at his Juhu residence that looks at the sea from the drawing room, Chintan Upadhyay gave me one drawing and one mask. I was crying inside his bathroom because those were the days when the arrogant artists of the Indian scene were trying to hunt me down. When I came out of the bathroom, Chintan gave me two works. I did not know why he gave me those works. They are still with me. Manjunath Kamat always wanted to give me a work. I always told him that one day I would come for his work and I would choose the work that I want. Long back, when I was a student Shibu Natesan had given me four works, which he later took back citing the reason that my mother was not keeping them the way he wanted.

(Balabir Krishan)

Artists offer me works when I write a catalogue for them. But I refuse to take them. Recently I wrote a catalogue for Balbir Krishan, an artist who deals with gay issues. He did not speak of remuneration nor did I do so. Later he sent me a two by two canvas, a very dear work. On my birthday, Garima Jayadevan, a Mumbai based artist sent a portrait of mine made in her own style. Later she brought the original for me; a small paper portrait of mine. On the same birthday my son drew a portrait of mine; but he conceived me as Ninja Hatori, a samurai cartoon character from Japan who is quite popular amongst Indian kids. Shinod Akkaraparambil also sent me a portrait. I am waiting for the original. Somu Desai, with his typical ammonia transfer on silk and canvas, has already created a hall of fame for me in my studio.

 (Manisha Gera Baswani)

One day I got a call from Manisha Gera Baswani. She intended to send something to me. Her driver delivered to me. When I opened the packet, I saw a very good portrait of the veteran artist, A.Ramachandran with his sculpture. If at all anything on my walls other than the scribbling made by my children, this is the only one frame. Recently, art critic and painter Shubhalakshmi Shukla carefully brought one painting for me. I have kept it here and it will have a prominent place in the contemporary museum I am planning to build in future. Then a couple of months before I walked into Chintan’s home at Green Park and while talking he asked me what would I like to take home that day. He showed me a few small sculptures. I chose one, a golden smart alec baby with hands sprouting from different places.

 (Shubhalakshmi Shukla)

You may still wonder why how I could call myself the biggest collector in the world. Yes, I am the biggest collector in the world. But the works are not with me. They are all kept in different studios of different artists. I just need to walk in and pick up my work. Let me tell you with all arrogance and confidence that I could walk into any studio in India and take a work of art for myself. There may be twenty odd artists who would not give their works to me. But when I have my museum in place and all your works are displayed, how can they keep themselves away from such a museum? They too will give their works.

 (Shibu Natesan)

So artists of India, I am going to make a museum for you because you have made me the biggest art collector in the world. The overwhelming response to United Art Fair has made me again confident that we could have the biggest museum of Indian contemporary art. And I am sure one day the Government of India would recognize the need for such a museum.

Come, let me tell you how to become an art collector. United Art Fair is the best platform for this. Tomorrow I am going to talk about it. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

United Art Fair is FREE, Why?

(Slavoj Zizek)

“We should fight for a society where charity is not needed”- Slavoj Zizek

United Art Fair is now free. And many ask, why? Are you going to do some charity work? Both Annurag Sharma and myself say that we don’t believe in charity because we are looking for a situation where the notion of charity no longer exists. When you hand down things, for the time being everyone respects you but in the long run the receiver of charity tends to hate you. So United Art Fair, now free for artists from all over the world, is not a platform that heralds the arrival of a few messiahs with a mission of charity. Here we are with a vision and a mission. And we are here to tell the world that this model is workable and feasible. And what is this model?

After travelling thirteen cities in India, which no other art fair has ever thought of doing, and meeting the artists and other art related people, after sharing dinners and cocktail with them in star hotels which were the venues of our artists’ meet, we realized one thing: Economic recession has frightened the artists community in India. It is not that artists do not have money at all. Amongst the artists most of them have a decent income but that income is not decent enough to invest in promoting oneself either through solo or group shows or through participating in art fairs like United Art Fairs. What we deduce from the conversations with the artists is this that they are frightened by the kind of economic ups and downs happening in our art scene. They want dignity today, not money.

Many asked us, why do you throw cocktail-dinner parties in the high end hotels when you know clearly that it might make artists feel that you are showing off? Annurag Sharma told them succinctly, “Artists are the people who command respect through their creative works. I believe that it is my duty to give them the best treatment.” We can proudly say that we did not discriminate artists at all according to their status. All the cocktail-dinner parties were thrown for the young and upcoming artists. Our documentation of artists’ meets stands evidence to our claims. In fact, each time we visited a city or an artists’ hub, we made it a point to meet and invite the young talents than the established ones with enough stardom.

United Art Fair started off as a space selling model. In all our thirteen artists meet we propagated the idea of selling space. We told the artists that the money (Rs.35000) that they invest in the United Art Fair could be a passport that ensured future presence and success for them. Many believed in our arguments and many took it with fair amount of scepticism. After our road trip, we made some reality checks and found out that there was a general hesitation with the projected amount. Then we got down to reduce the booking amount in three different slabs with affordable riders (25000/-, 20000/- and 15000/- with different commission and contribution slabs). We propagated this idea through our website and many were happy. Most of them went for the last slab of Rs.15000/-.

(Annurag Sharma)

United Art Fair salutes all those artists who got together as they did not have sufficient funds, made groups and paid for joint stalls/booths. We respect them because they were the ones despite their financial problems responded to the calls. Someone said they even pawned some jewellery to raise funds for participating in the United Art Fair. And on 15th June 2012, after a day of deadline, we huddled up in the conference room of the United Art Fair office. The clock in the office always runs fifteen minutes ahead. Perhaps this is one way that Annurag Sharma tells his team, better hurry up. We sat in silence with Shreya Magon, Nita Dutta and Kamini Sharma, three vibrant young ladies who have been speaking to artists all these while over phone. None wanted to look into anybody’s eyes.

Time ticked away. We checked the facts. We found the response quite encouraging. Around 200 applications were already in; half had paid and half had promised to pay. Gaurav Deep Singh, General Manager and head of Productions presented the actual financial status. The office clock showed 6.10 pm. Against the huge amounts going into the production of the United Art Fair, the money that had come in was a paltry amount. And most of the applications had smell of sweat, tears and dreams.

At sharp 6.00 pm (now the office clock showed 6.15), Annurag Sharma looked through everyone and said, “We are making United Art Fair FREE. And RETURN the money to all those who have applied.” Then he looked at me. I knew what had been going on in his mind for the last few months. He was taking a huge burden on his shoulders. There was a sense of relief in the conference room as the girls had been having a harrowing time with the artists. When you don’t have money to pay, you compensate it with arrogance. Our girls had faced it several times. Some artists feigned ignorance about United Art Fair, some said they were having solo shows at the same time, some said they just HATED United Art Fair. Our team members had taken everything with a smile. We have a bowl of candies in our office. When you feel really bitter you pick up a candy and eat. Our three ladies had a lot of candies all these days.


Now United Art Fair is free. That does not mean that it is free for all. We still insist on quality control. We now handpick the artists from the vast pool of artists’ data that we have. The moment we declared it free, phone calls and emails started flooding in. Now they all want to participate. I am taking the whole responsibility of handpicking the artists out of the applications. And I am pretty sure that I do not choose bad art. My approach on behalf of United Art Fair is democratic and transparent. I am not looking for that kind of works of art that as a curator would launch me to a different league so that people could say, “Look, JohnyML has produced an international show.” Mark my words, my friends, I am not here to produce an international show. I am here to produce a show of Indian contemporary art which would be strong enough to stand at par with any international shows. I don’t believe in ironed out Internationalism and I don’t believe in hegemonic aesthetic homogeneity. I believe in our countries cultural variety and United Art Fair is going to be a platform that showcases this cultural variety.

Three hundred and fifty artists from all over India, most of them handpicked by me or suggested by trustworthy friends and team members will present their works and they would stand proudly with fifty established contemporary artists whose works will be presented in a special show titled ‘Mind the Gap Now’ within the United Art Fair, curated by myself. There would be a Masters Hall with fifty works from the Indian modern masters, a Tribute Hall where we would present Tyeb Mehta and M.F.Husain. Sculpture Park with fifteen huge sculptures is going to be another attraction. Video lounge will get you the best videos produced in India in the past years. And the 28th September 2012 is going to be ‘Dissenters Day’ in the United Art Fair; anybody who has a different idea and even a critique on the very working of the United Art Fair could come and speak to the public from our seminar platform. United Art Fair offers these and many more. In the second edition we are going to focus on South East Asian and European art along with the Indian contemporary art, and Annurag Sharma adds, “And it is the same model, FREE.”

(These huge Baby Heads by Chintan Upadhyay will be in the UAF sculpture Park)

Forget arithmetic. Let the UAF management do that and make it a sustainable model and of course a worthy business model also. We have plans, very transparent and democratic plans that would bring both the public and private agencies in one platform called the United Art Fair. And we still dream an artists’ society that thrives on the notion of NO charity. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Caste System in Our Art Scene- Thoughts in the Times of United Art Fair


Artists act and react. When they act they are called artists and when they react, then also they are called artists. When they act against a system that oppresses them or that denies them due visibility then they are called reactionaries. They are called reactionaries not by their friends and well wishers but those people who belong to the other system of hegemony. As you know hegemony needs reactionaries because reactionaries make ‘different’ art and ‘different’ voice. And it is in this ‘difference’ that mainstream culture thrives. Take music, cinema, fashion or food, anything that has once been against the hegemonic system is now a part of it. Difference invariably gets co-opted by the mainstream.

Somehow it does not happen in India. Our country and its art scene seem to be thriving in the ordinary and it is more than complacent. It is lethargic to a certain extent and cynical completely. When it comes to the making of money from the regular everyone jumps into the same bandwagon. That’s why if you go to the history of Mumbai based main galleries during the 1990s, you could see all the galleries promoting the same set of ten artists and the same curator curating or writing all the shows/catalogues. We have to deduce two facts from this phenomenon: one, in Mumbai during the 1990s galleries were not just thinking about promoting art but were inclined to making money from the same set of artists. These galleries were once dealing with the masters, those artists who came into prominence immediately after our independence. Two, Mumbai during 90s had not produced any good artists than these ten odd artists.

(Logo of Stuckism International)

I don’t think any self respecting artist in this country would agree with the second part of the conclusion. These self respecting artists include the ones who were part of that group of ten. That means our galleries of that time were not looking at the artists who were working from the same city. For them those artists just did not exist. They existed as viewers. They existed as group show artists in the Jehangir Art Gallery. We created a caste system in this way. Mumbai started it, Delhi replicated it. Today Delhi leads it. However, I would say the birth of new galleries by the mid 90s and their maturing by the new millennium helped new artists who were lying outside the selected ten establish in a different way. If you look at the history of Bombay Boys or the moving and shaking after that you could feel that. New galleries were trying to formulate new ideas with new curators, artists and writers.

By the new millennium, as we are into the second decade of it, we have a new trend. Every year, we have a new set of artists as stars. Had those galleries in Mumbai in 90s were promoting only ten, today all the galleries irrespective of their geographical location aspire for the same trendy artists. When they do not find trendy artists for their own activities they create a few. Hence we have trendy artists doing trendy shows and participating in trendy fairs and becoming short lived stars. A couple of years back every gallery in India was talking about cutting edge art. Many gallerists who did not know what is the meaning of cutting edge jumped into the bandwagon and got their edges cut. A few galleries downed the shutters. Many surreptitiously went back to their original position. This failure was covered by saying that the young art is yet to be matured and it is time of the masters. Auctions results substantiated this unhealthy argument. For the time being the faces of the galleries were saved. But the losers were those artists who started off with cutting edge art. Today I see them in many camps.

(Bra-hminical Art? From Gagawaka by Vivan Sundaram)

What has gone wrong in our system of art and aesthetics? First of all we should accept that there is a caste system in Indian contemporary art scene. Brahmins are those who move along with the cash rich and visible galleries. They are considered as the trendiest and happening artists at the same time they are treated as ‘intellectual artists’. Young but foolish young art scholars from reputed academies refuse to see a studio based work because they are brainwashed to believe that trendy art is the best and intellectual art. So even amongst the art appreciators we have a caste system. Those who go to Khoj will not go to Lalit Kala Akademy. They all go to Palette because their booze is abundant. Those who got to Nature Morte and Talwar will not go to Kumar Gallery. Those who go to Neb Sarai for a happening art will not step into NIV Art centre that shares a common wall with the above mentioned project space.

So we have Brahmins. Then we have kshatriyas. They are the artists and art operators who get occasional chances to be with the Brahmins in art scene. They get respect and they are Kshatriyas because they fight for the Brahmins when it comes to public debates. Then there are Vaishyas. They do good art and aspire to become Kshatriyas if not Brahmins. They often get shows and success but never considered as intellectuals. Interestingly, most of the Brahmin galleries operate by selling the Vaishya art. Then there are Shoodras. Last in the hierarchy they make good, bad and ugly art. But they have all the potential to grown and topple the system. But they are often denied visibility and success. They move around as viewers. And interestingly, the first section of this hierarchy is the one that makes art against the general caste system, very vocal against it but perpetuate the same beautifully in their own field of operations. Such an irony.

(Bra- clinically analysed)

Why does it happen? In an ideal situation a gallery is supposed to cultivate a limited set of artists and see them through their highs and lows and take them to the museums. That means make them really interesting and relevant artists through devoted promotional activities. Seen against this backdrop, if galleries in India promote a set of artists only, it should be appreciated. But here it does not happen in that way. Here one set of galleries promote the same set of galleries with the same verve, direction and monetary aims. If you look at the major art fairs in India, you could even see that five prominent galleries, sharing adjacent spaces in the very visible fairs and flaunting the same set of artists without much qualms. Another set of artists is promoted by the second rung of galleries almost replicating the first model. This goes on like.

Then the problem lies in the lack of vision of the galleries and their operational formats. When everyone wants the same thing there occurs monopoly. If each gallery promote a set of artists and if they don’t poach each other and if we have enough number of galleries in this country, and above all if we have enough number of patrons, then there would be a different cultural ethos taking place in this country. Now in the name of art business we are not doing business. What we do is monopolizing markets. If a country produces reactionary artists then the reason should be sought in the very ethics and ethos of culture production itself. If you look at the history of the Stuckists in London you will come to know how monopoly gives birth to reactionary art.

(JML- Hyper Masculine Radical Imposture Turned into a Marketing Middleman- Picture by Somu Desai-2009)

United Art Fair 2012 is an attempt to set a few parameters where the caste system could be beautifully represented and collapsed at the same time. We would like to highlight the fact that there should be more and more galleries in this country catering to different tastes. As one of my artist friends says, it is not that with recession all the liquidity of this country has drained itself into the Arabian Sea. It is still there. People are still enjoying money and the comforts that it brings. But the patrons with money have lost trust in art because art market during the boom years has shown the worst form of greed and gluttony.’ We shall overcome this situation by highlighting the need for more visibility for artists and demanding the need for more galleries with multifarious aesthetic approaches and their determination to promote their artists to both the national and international art platforms. United Art Fair 2012 aspires to create this situation because we believe in god but not in caste system.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Raja Ravi Varma and United Art Fair 2012 or What Happens in a Hotel Room?

(Raja Ravi Varma)

There is a parallel between Raja Ravi Varma and United Art Fair. Raja Ravi Varma wanted all the Indian households to have his works at least in the form of oleographs, which were affordable compared to the oil paintings that he used to do under the patronage of royals. United Art Fair also wants each household in India to have at least one work of art. Raja Ravi Varma operated from a proto-nationalistic template, says art historians. They say, that’s why Ravi Varma chose to paint the images of the gods and goddesses. United Art Fair operates from a Pro-democratic template. The directors of the United Art Fair, Annurag Sharma and myself say that we want to create a pro-democratic template for Indian art scene because any good artist working from any part of India could reach out to the patrons through the platform of United Art Fair. We say, artists are the real gods and goddesses in the scene of Indian visual culture. Why don’t you have these gods and goddesses in your homes?

The rhetorical question is to the high net worth individuals in this country. I should add that this question is to all those people who think about buying a house near around a minimum amount of Rs.1 crore. Don’t you know that when you buy a well furnished house for that kind of money or several times more than that in fact you pay through your nose? May be you are rich enough that you don’t know that through which holes the money is flowing out. You just don’t care. You look at the western commodes, the bidets, the sea faces, the garden views, the hillocks, the terraces, platforms, the split air conditioners, the fake oak wood shelves which will be the play ground of the white ants in a year or two, the town ships nearby, the malls in the vicinity, the schools, security, availability of water, playground for children and so on. You can drive your mercs and audis and park them without the fear of car-jackers. But what about your mind? Do you live only in your body?

(United Art Fair banner)

You satisfy your carnal feelings by splurging on material comforts. And what about your aesthetics? When you spend a crore why don’t you think of having a few good original works on your walls? I remember a story recounted to me by an architect friend. A person spent Rs.35 lakhs (this thirty five is a magic number- at the age of thirty five you are sexually very active and are prone to all consumerist desires, you need to pay Rs.35000 for taking a stall in the United Art Fair, 35 per cent is the commission that we are going to take from those artists who are taking stalls on Rs.35000/- Thirty five the average age of the people who are behind the United Art Fair, Thirty five is the age when you look mature enough and adequately playful so that you get a lot of friends to trudge along. Thirty five is a magic number) to refurbish the kitchen in his new apartment. Rs.35 lakhs alone for a kitchen (again it is the same amount that the planning commission spend on developing a few toilets in its offices). The architect asked him why didn't he spend a few lakhs to buy some original works for the drawing room?

Original works? No man. We get good prints from Khan Market or from some galleries or from the National Gallery of Modern Art. But each time you buy a print, you are killing a young artist. That does not mean that I am propagating ideas against prints. Prints should be a souvenir and it cannot be taken as a substitute to the original work of art. Now I am playing against Walter Benjamin. He debated the relevance of original works of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Where can we have originals when the originals could be reproduced through polished technologies? But half a century after Walter Benjamin’s departure, still artists paint and even we have made Banksy, a super star. In that sense original work of art remains so are the artists. So who are going to support them if you are going to buy only prints? As Annurag Sharma, the founder director of the United Art Fair puts it, let United Art Fair be a platform where you find original works of art for affordable prices.

(Walter Benjamin)

Annurag Sharma also adds that original works of art are not just about aesthetic pleasure but also they are about appreciating values. One could always anticipate a thirty per cent growth in every ten years on an original work of art, he adds. But why we are still reluctant to buy original works of art?  Have we become addicted to copies and the so called ‘beautiful’ pictures? If you travel regularly you find the hotels rooms (of course the high end ones) that you live in have works of art. As art people we always look at those works and try to find out who have done those works? I have never found a good piece of work in any of these hotels. I don’t think the hotel owners have bad aesthetic sense. They are rich enough to have rich sense of aesthetics though money is not something that decides one’s aesthetic discretion. But the advisors who consult the interiors for them always misguide them.

I remember travelling in Switzerland, where even the metro trains have simulated cow mooing that makes you constantly think that you are in a meadow where cows graze and you can just have a fresh pot of milk from a village belle’s work worn yet still beautiful hands. I was living in a small room in a small hotel. I could listen to a couple making love in the adjacent room (that’s one feature I have been given free in all the hotel rooms. When I was staying in London in a hotel room, invariably around six thirty in the morning I used to listen the girl screaming and the man exhorting her from the paper thin wall of my room against which I lean my head hoping to read a book or listen the sound track clearly). Right in front of me there was this wall which if I got up with a jerk would come and hit my nose. But I always sensed that I was in the middle of a meadow perhaps under a plum tree like Omar Khayam having a good epicurean time. Reason was the wall paper. The wall paper had a long view of a meadow; cool green space a mild sun and fluffy white clouds for company.

(Annurag Sharma)

Wall papers could help you find some sense of space. So are the works of art on the walls where you live. Basically in no Indian hotels you have good works of art. So better look at the menu cards, massage services and look out for other facilities that would quench your secret thirsts. This is in this context that we prod on the rich people in this country to buy art; not all those hugely priced works of art. Annurag Sharma says, “We welcome the collectors to buy masters, modernists and the contemporaries. But our humble request is to buy the low priced works of the young and emerging artists also. This is your turn to help the Indian art scene to grow. While China has a thirty per cent share in the culture capital of the world, India is yet to grow beyond a poor one per cent. Why? Because our potential artists are not even helped by our own people. If all these young artists are supported by the patrons more than fifty per cent of these artists would grow up as potential investment points. So I urge all the potential buyers to collect at least one work of art from the young artists who are featured in the United Art Fair.”

“Come September, in Pragati Maidan you hold your Remi Martin and walk before the young artists and their works, and if you feel the urge that it is in your hands the future of Indian culture lies, then definitely you are going to contribute to the growth of India’s economy .  My motto is simple, let us buy a good work of art irrespective of its small price, let us live with it for a long time and see the growth of the artists whom we buy from. Let us enjoy the creativity of our country. If we have this vision, I am sure every household in this country would have a few original works of art. And there would be a great boom in the Indian art scene again. I anticipate slow but steady growth. That’s why once I wrote in my networking site, I am a tortoise in race with a rabbit. But history says tortoise wins,” Annurag Sharma is positive about the growth of Indian art market.

(JohnyML with Prof.R.Sivakumar)

We want everyone in this country buy a good work of art. And United Art Fair is the right platform to do so. We are sure it is going to happen. You buy gold or diamond. You keep it in the safe lockers. But buy art and flaunt it. Say proudly that I have one young artist. United Art Fair opens a huge platform for new works of art from all over India. And now it is your turn to support the artists by buying them and promoting them.

Friday, June 8, 2012

From a F**king Critic to a Marketing Curator- To My Young Artist Friends

(Promoting Untied Art Fair in Bangalore with Annurag Sharma and Frank Barthelemy)

In Indian contemporary art scene (or should I say, in our general art scene) there are two types of artists; one, those who create art, exhibit art and live in art. Second type, those who see art, discuss art, debate art, admire art and successful artists and position themselves permanent artist viewers. This second lot live in permanent depression. And interestingly, the first lot of artists needs the second lot to be permanently there. The relationship is viciously mutual. The second lot is like a hireable crowd that goes anywhere for Rs.100 per head and a quarter bottle of wine, irrespective of the colour of flags. They are bound to create an ambience for the successful artists and fight for flimsy causes that would results into larger effects.

My trip to eight cities in India, in order to promote the concept of United Art Fair underlined this belief of mine further. One more stroke of a strong graphite piece along the virtual space of my beliefs. Sitting along with Annurag Sharma, the founder director of the United Art Fair and addressing hundreds of young artists in Baroda, Bombay and elsewhere, I saw this second lot of artists. Their eyes shine when they see people like us; not because we are great people or celebrities, but because we are the people from the zone of art movers and shakers whom they could see from close quarters. The sparkles in their eyes are not of compassion or love. The sparkle is that of vengeance. Let me tell you given a chance, these friends would pounce on us and kill us.

(In Bangalore)

Even if they do, I don’t blame them. I can understand their frustration and angst. Their frustration comes from the fact that they are always forced to sit at the sidelines. Somebody lectures them down. Somebody gives them advices. Somebody gives them dinners for free so that he/she could take out the worldly wisdom she/he has earned so far in due course of a successful artistic career. They put up a show and the successful ones come there. They don’t suggest these artists’ names to a gallery. Instead, they get a shoulder pat and few good words and probably an invitation to a house party. Nothing more nothing less. The next day you find yourself sitting at your studio or the dingy rooms where you live and work and dream about that day when you could lecture them back, you could advice them in turn and you could invite them for a house party.

If a young artist walks up to me and slaps me I will not slap him back. I may not show my other cheek to him. I will ask him, even if I know why he slapped me, for a reason. And I am sure he would say I was not slapping you but the system that you represent, a system that makes artists just cannon fodders. I will embrace him and walk off. Why? I know he was not slapping me. He was slapping a person who at least partially representing an unkind system. But I would walk in the opposite direction with a smile because at least I would be happy that I was the one who was going near to them in a slappable distance. I have been at least making that effort to get slapped by the young artists. But mind you, if you slap me without a reason you may not use your hands again to do your art.

Every day I look at my inbox and see a number of mails basically telling me the same; we don’t have money. We want to participate in the United Art Fair. Some plainly say that they cannot even think of sparing that last slab of fifteen thousand rupees because that money would support them through a month in some dingy little studio somewhere in India. I understand them. I try to put some logic into their minds. If you want to shape your career you can take two paths: one make works and wait for a messiah to come and save you. It could take four years to fourteen years to forty years. I have seen people like that waiting endlessly for that day of redemption. Second option is investing for your career. I cannot tell you how you are going to raise that money. But to make something you need to invest somewhere.

(A few young artists in one of the United Art Fair artists meets)

Don’t think that I am talking only to the suffering and the complaining. I am talking to the successful and the rich. I am like water, I can flow freely. And remember water flows downhill. Water waters the thirsty in the valleys. But water originates at the hill top. And it ends in the eternity of ocean. Be like water, says Bruce Lee. So what do these rich and successful tell me:  A few of them tell me that please don’t waste your time for the suffering and the complaining. They are going to be like that. They will see art, discuss art, appreciate art and die in their own frustration. So just forget them. Many others keep silence. Many benevolent ones tell me that someone should do something for these artists. I have been asking the local governments to create funding system for the artists. Democracy is deaf.

Some of my friends, who are successful and rich behave as if they have just come out of heaven after their breakfast. They just don’t understand what is going on in this lowly earth. They look at the artists who go to the exhibitions and never get a chance to exhibit, and say, oh artists, let them do their works man. The successful ones are in search of their peace and they don’t want dirt like suffering artists. And the irony is most of the rich artists have come from lowly situations. They had been there for some time. They know the pain of being there. I am not saying that the artists should suffer in order to make it in their lives. But suffering should not be a prolonged factor and one should not be kept a permanent spectator.

(With Jeevan Thomas)

So my young friends, brace up and wake up. No god is coming to save you from the sky. Neither Annurag Sharma nor I are messiahs. We are here with a business plan for you. We are not saying that after participating in the United Art Fair you are going to be rich, famous and much sought after on the next day onwards. We are not selling any dreams here. We are just creating a platform for you so that you can stop complaining and participate. You can feel that you are an artist and you get a lot of dignity from us. Galleries cannot run behind you. They need such platforms to identify you. It is not the boom time that you just sit and work so that angels would fly down from Delhi and Mumbai to pick up you to the heaven of success. It is time for you to work towards your future.

And one more thing. If you are not interested in market and selling of your works, please do not exhibit in any commercial situations. And do not go for any commercial exhibitions. You all should strive for creating a situation where an artist could live without the support of the existing market. But remember we are here to make not one market but many markets. The beauty of our country lies in many markets. When a set of players hijack heterogeneity of this country we call it monopoly. Don’t you want to join hands against all monopolies? Then come with us. I will show you how to cross a desert without a camel.