Last year, Mumbai Gallery Weekend (hosted by the nine participating galleries, Chatterjee & Lal, Chemould Prescott Road, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Gallery Maskara, The Guild, Lakeeren, Project 88, Sakshi Gallery and Volte Gallery) took art from the art district stronghold of Colaba to the suburbs. Converting a banquet room into a white cube at the Taj Lands End hotel in Bandra, artworks were showcased to a newer audience. Was that audience converted? Did the gamble bring in new buyers or engage more deeply with the interested ones? A vexed enterprise for today's gallery owner as the contemporary art market lags behind a recovering "modern art" market.
â€œLast year helped in the general awareness of the South Bombay art scene and what we do as gallerists says Abhay Maskara of Gallery Maskara. 'This year the idea was to do something different yet connected. The forum for sharing knowledge was born from the notion that thought precedes action. So, if we want more people to be engaged with art, collect, write, etc., then we need to inspire them to do so.'
Contemporary art exists, as yet, in quiet, hallowed white cubes in South Bombay; œeighty percent of show viewings happen on opening night, gallerist Ranjana Steinruecke has astutely observed. This intimidating incomprehension of contemporary art in the general public that leaves galleries with a negligible footfall during most days of a show, is what the galleries are trying to address. The recent Kochi-Muziris biennale in Kochi was a triumph as one of the most democratic gestures of bringing art to a new public, but as private galleries strive, as they have admirably done so far,“ to place Indian contemporary art on the world stage despite apathetic institutional support, inspired moves, as Maskara says, are needed.
That inspiration, for Mumbai Gallery Weekend, was in the form of an import - Matthew Collings, an art critic, broadcaster, writer and artist, flown in from London. He shepherded two days of discussion among a cross-section of the art world - artists, collectors, gallerists, writers, curators, auction house representatives, art dealers, fair directors, art historians and museum directors. Having observed and commented on the YBA (the famous/infamous Young British Artists group in the late 80s, early 90s) years, his was a laid back yet informed style, which made one realize midway through Saturday that one needed more than a weekend to prise out his experience spread over decades in the international art world. Moderating the sessions was art writer and curator, Maya Kovskaya.
Collings is well known for his books This is Modern Art and Blimey! From Bohemia to Britpop: The London Artworld from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst, and as art critic for the BBC's "The Late Show" from 1989-1995. At the keynote address, Collings spoke about the â€œphilosophical aspect of contemporary art even when it presents itself as something else, even as a one-liner or something comic, there's always more to it than the seemingly shallow first impression. Sometimes hysterical about establishing its contemporaneity, interrogating the present to face the future 'it has some vestige of tradition in it.'
The sessions covered a gamut of concerns in contemporary art, opening up a plethora of questions. What was interesting was seeing the largely Western perspective that Collings put forth engage with India-specific concerns. This brought the issue of "global" home: what is global; how much of global is now local; how is global integrated with economics, or viewed through a Western art education and hegemony and how do Indian artists respond to this larger audience and placements in museums in the current scenario. Threshed out in this diverse audience, artist Shreyas Karle talked of experimentation at a biennale, and that "failing" on an international public platform was a far greater learning experience than playing safe , one has to risk to grow.
Mumbai Gallery Weekend panelists and Matthew Collings.
The session entitled "Lots of Installations and Videos" had questions from a collector, who though widely travelled, is perhaps not too familiar with Western art. Her buying has been, so far, mainly within the indigenous market. How does she cope then, she asked, on seeing something abroad that makes her Indian buy seem "derivative"? Collings was gentle in reply, though that answer seemed obvious â€“ even as "global" influences the art market and production, a buyer must now be globally well informed in art practices that are varied , from South America to China. If you want to be a serious buyer and stop the post-buy "conned" feeling, read, see more, or get advisors who do that for you.
A young lawyer posed the classic, cliched, questions most neophytes do - what is art? (as a slide played showing Rirkrit Tiravanija's meal remnants in his Art Basel booth), and how does one attach value to art? Gallerist Abhay Maskara pitched in with the serial ways value is added, through shows in galleries, important buyers buying it, the art work being written about, the artwork being included in museum shows, and then reaching auction houses, the badge of affirmation that the artist had arrived in today's contemporary world.
It seemed to miss out on the simple "demand and supply" that has commodified contemporary art. As the artist takes the critical route of gallery shows and biennales and museum inclusions, today's markets in emerging economies like China, Brazil and India have a new affluent audience, for whom art is this indecipherable trophy that must be obtained , they far exceed the collectors who buy with knowledge and deliberation.
At the end of the weekend, the nine gallerists seemed a happy bunch posing for post talk pictures. Yet there were some who were dissatisfied and puzzled among the majority who enjoyed the weekend's engagement. When addressing a diverse audience, from neophyte to art regular, it oft becomes difficult for the presenter to pitch a perfect starting point. With a bit of assumption, a bit of the new, Collings did manage to bring to the table current contemporary thought and dissent, it was up to the disgruntled and the puzzled to draw him out further. Perhaps there could have been a bit more of the familiar as examples, drawn from Indian contemporary art, to hone in on a point. In that, Collings seemed out of his depth. Collings will have to be invited back to view contemporary art in India , a blockbuster book may be in the offing. And a weekend in Mumbai would have started it all off.
While it was a weekend of bonhomie, did Collings inspire new audiences? That new audience the gallerists were hoping to address in larger numbers unfortunately did not seem to be there. There was a disjuncture in what the sessions were aiming at and what was needed perhaps for the new collectors. Education seems the need of the hourÂ â€“ it was apparent in the young lawyerâ€™s inability to make out what constituted a worthy work of art for her money, and she was disarmingly honest about it. Perhaps starting with a brief history of art, its diversification into forms other than painting, ways of seeing, looking beyond mere prettiness into the inherent politics that every artwork is imbibed with by its creator â€“ these are basics that need to be spelt out before showcasing cutting edge art. Only by knowing and understanding a bit of the art of the past, technique and intent, will the young lawyer be able to put her bucks confidently on â€œa picture of a dirty kitchenâ€, which was her reading of the slide of Rirkrit Tiravanija's booth at Art Basel.
It was a well meant strategy that brought to the fore problems that beset the art world , how to foster art appreciation, how to make the art viewing experience less intimidating, the efficacy of a seasoned commentator versus a teacher of the rudimentaries, the structure of a program, the difficulty in attracting buyers to sit down at the table over two days to understand that there is more to art than just numbers. Targeting an audience of just collectors would have given direction to the programme and the speaker. It was a lively weekend and a commendable effort, but one could not help being frustrated that perhaps it missed the point, at the end, the hurdle of increasing the pool of informed art buyers still remains high.
(Image on top: Sahej Rahal, Princeling , 2012 , Wood, plastic, coated iron, condensed PVC, acrylic paint , 20 x 8 x 8 in.; Courtesy: The artist and Chatterjee & Lal.)