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July 24, 2014

Lost in Contemplation

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper

It might be more to the point and worth your while to study the expressions of those looking at the works of art (in a gallery) rather than attempt to fathom the installations, videos, recycled trash, soundscapes, quick-fire instagrams and whatever else is the trend du jour, says Madhu Jain

“I think you are too old-fashioned, so outdated,” sniffed the high-profile, nattily constructed (sartorially and otherwise) dominatrix in the world of art who has risen in this increasingly rarified world by leaps and bounds, her voice trailing off dismissively. Actually, please delete the cliché I just proffered lazily on a Sunday afternoon as I sit down to write this column. Make that: by stepping on or leapfrogging over art writers, critics, curators, academics and gallerists.

“Painting is dead. So yesterday. It’s over, globally,” the aspirant to the high priestess-hood in the domain of contemporary art continues, rather smugly, on seeing my look of utter amazement. I had merely commented on the virus of installations and amateurish, ill-conceived video art which I was beginning to find rather tedious and tired and derivative.

Perhaps it’s time for full discloser: maybe I just didn’t get it. Time to go back to school and attend courses in contemporary art in Europe or in the States in search of new jargon to replace my dated one which is well past its sell-by date according to the prima dons and donnas of the art world. To attend some power-point lectures by grand auction houses where svelte young ladies in black tell you in their clipped accents about what’s in, what’s out; and most importantly: what’s worth what today and what it was yesterday. And, by inference, what it will be tomorrow. Well, it could be.

But I am not alone. Next time you venture into an exhibition of what’s being branded as cutting-edge art it might be more to the point and worth your while to study the expressions of those looking at the works of art rather than attempt to fathom the installations, videos, recycled trash, soundscapes, quick-fire instagrams and whatever else is the trend du jour. Mouths slightly open, heads tilted to the side, hands propping up chins with a few lines gently creasing their foreheads as if they were lost in contemplation – that is what you are likely to see. They, too, are as clueless as us. Well, I exaggerate; most of them at any rate are faking it.

Is this art?
Let’s try and get into their minds. In an imagined scenario, loosely based on what I really did see…. Take the lady in a startling black and white sari with a tribal print at an avant-garde gallery in Colaba, the burgeoning art district in Mumbai. She has a stuck-on bindi as large as the Ritz on her rather narrow forehead, rings on almost all her fingers and a huge silver necklace that resembles an assemblage of spears, which appears to be nearly choking her. She appears lost in contemplation
in front of a sculpture constructed from millions of nails. What might she actually be thinking: ‘what the hell is this ugly thing? Is this art? My son can make better sculptures with his Lego set.’ I can almost read those lines on the forehead like an ECG graph.

But do you think she would ever reveal what she really thinks of the work of the artist the critics have been raving about? Never! Just like the gentleman in slim fit jeans with the well-groomed silver hair that could rival Richard Gere’s.

Another day, another vernissage in the Visual Arts Gallery in New Delhi: Our desi Richard Gere lookalike stares at an abstract painting with a few punctuation-mark-looking squiggles in black intermittently scattered on the bold colours, for a good five minutes. Is he thinking that his daughter could do a better job? Perhaps. More likely, he is wondering if he can now slip out and go to the bar in the India Habitat Centre. Openings provide opportunities for networking, and he’s done his bit, circulating and giving the impression that he is a man of culture. Why, cruising the art scene is almost as good as playing golf to create an impression on the people who matter.

I could go on. But I want to get on with the original point. Is painting dead as Ms know-it-all would have me believe? Painting is alive, well and kicking. It never died, so it is not even making a comeback. If our art impresarios stepped out of their closed circuits – in which they all tend to echo one another – they would realise that canvases hang proudly on the walls in thousands of galleries the world over. People are buying them, all painters aren’t exactly starving. Why are people falling over each other to buy works of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat?

In a recent Christie’s sale Andy Warhol’s white Marilyn Monroe had the hammer come down on $41 million. The prices of the works of contemporary Chinese painters are also stratospheric. Closer to home, the new paintings of SH Raza, which I must add are not well-realised and more often than not are clumsily executed, have his dealers roaring all the way to the bank. Young painters in India whose works are priced this side of a couple of lakhs are doing reasonably well: there are more walls to hang paintings because of the recent construction boom.

Replica of an ear
Galleries, however, are not doing well. Auction houses have muscled into their territory: some of them have begun to sell privately. Works are also being bought in the proliferating art fairs, over 200 and counting. Independent curators are also selecting work for biennales, further shrinking the domain of the galleries.

The question of what is art still looms large. Frankly, I am confused. Last month a replica was created of Van Gogh’s severed ‘ear’ made from living cells developed from samples given by the great-great-grandson of the painter’s brother. This work of art is being exhibited in the Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. The brain behind this one is the German artist, Diemut Strebe who plans to show the work in New York. (I will never forget the chilling scene in the film Lust for Life in which Kirk Douglas playing Van Gogh cuts off his ear).

Not too long ago the then enfant terrible of British art exhibited a shark preserved in formaldehyde, titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind. Well, if this is cutting-edge art it’s time to call a spade a spade. Better still say out loud the Emperor is not wearing any clothes – even at the risk of being called plebs.

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