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September 24, 2020

Delhi’s Nature Morte And Vadehra Art Gallery Joined Hands For An Ambitious Virtual Show

Text by Kastoori Barua

As the unyielding COVID-19 crisis pushes the art world to redirect its creative vision, galleries are addressing the magnitude of the shift and staving off extinction by introducing sweeping changes to the viewing experience while many artists have found a new muse in their altered environments

With the onset of the pandemic, the world has expanded and shrunk in unforeseen ways; the Internet is our modern pill to combat the perilous ennui that has all of us manacled for an undisclosed amount of time. As the virus polices our bodies, our minds search for greener pastures, undeterred yet desperate. The year 2020 has ushered in a new reality that we can all partake in from the safety of our homes. Delhi’s Nature Morte and Vadehra Art Gallery came together to bring The Future Is Not Fixed, an online show that illustrates and decodes the chaotic proliferation of new philosophies and lifestyles complete with the coping mechanisms of each searching mind that comprises this collaboration.

Staying true to our singular times, Vibha Galhotra’s photograph titled In…Times… is drenched with a cool radioactive blue tint that portrays a complete lack of warmth, much like the colour palette of the movie Children of Men, and invokes a clinical sterility, which plays on the emotional trope of feeling blue. The morbid title of the book which is In Dark Times and the PPE kit worn by the subject reading the book, as props in the drawing room are indicative of the pandemic seeping into an individual’s private space, slowly yet menacingly, with no intention of stopping.

And yet, Thukral and Tagra’s oil on canvas Dominus Aeris Coleus XIV is replete with millennial shades of pink and blue, constantly aestheticising our postmodern world saturated with images, which draw us further and further away from the truth. The sheer saturation and beauty of images resplendent with exciting colours creates an overwhelming virtual world that is not only far removed from what is real and material, but also dangerously simulates reality as the latter slowly decomposes under the weight of everything virtual. The online markets and Internet consumption are expanding at an exponential rate. The abundant effluence of waste decorating and competing with organic green blurbs in the artwork shows the chaotic ways of nature trying to recuperate, despite its steady and inevitable deterioration.

With all the capitalist consumptions, humans have suffered in both extrinsic and intrinsic ways as they adapt to the new realities. In Untitled (Bindis, Map—framed), Bharti Kher works on an interesting concept of layering maps and familiar spaces with a superimposition of a series of coloured dots that preface the fractured realities we are all collectively living in. This work, though seemingly inspired by cubism, is nonetheless an interesting departure from its historic predecessor. With the onset of the pandemic, the familiar spaces represented by the maps as well as our destinations of desire all become unfamiliar, defaced spaces, unattainable and riddled with countless socio-political barricades, which are made visible by the relentless linearity of the dots. Much like Galhotra’s photo, this work augurs a time when our objective reality has fractioned itself to multiple realities that all focus inwards, and the interiority that has taken centrestage is at the point of implosion.

In a similar vein, one encounters a rather Dali-esque rendition of the modernist spatio-temporal distortion in Ranbir Kaleka’s Quixotic Corridor Version 3 of the Great Topiarist’s Astonishing Dilemma (archival inks and oil). The sheer strangeness and whimsicality, the quasi-magical realist elements along with the explosion of colour and disparate ideas reflecting in the mirror make up a telling narration of a mind that has been burdened with an imaginary overload rather than the proverbial sensory stimuli. Is 2020 the start of a new One Hundred Years of Solitude?

The Future Is Not Fixed has successfully portrayed as many individual as well as collective perspectives as possible. It is interesting to note that even though there are direct correlations between the paintings and the theme of the show, there are a few disparate pieces that, in my opinion, only serve to highlight the dissonance that our minds encounter daily. The aberrance is artistic, and the show lives up to its name.

But more importantly, is it acceptable for gallerists to navigate between the moral grounds of showcasing the works of those accused in the #MeToo movement that had taken the Internet, and the art world by the horns when it first surged on social media? The work of art by these artists might be a timely addition to this show, or any other one for that matter, but is this not an oblique, if not direct exoneration of artists like Subodh Gupta and Riyaz Komu by the galleries they are represented by? Is the art produced so important that it can tread over the safe, creative spaces and dreams of those who are still aspiring? An insight on this would be very valuable while maneuvering around such contested moral grounds would be indicative of an art world that perpetuates the circulation and exhibition of works that are backed by seemingly hallowed names.

In times of such uncertainty, being presented with carefully organised and curated shows genuinely piques an interest about how the aforementioned galleries and their gallerists, Aparajita Jain and Roshni Vadehra, have adapted to manage the logistics of an increasingly virtual reality. What is it about today’s time that captures the essence of what it means to be in the business of art in the present moment?

Both Vadehra and Jain walk us through the behind-the-scenes of their latest online collaboration, The Future Is Not Fixed, and talk about their truths and realities that scaffold the business of art.

Could you tell us about how this show was conceived?
Roshni Vadehra (RV): When Arjun (Sahwney) approached me with the idea, I immediately found it exciting. It’s a concept that would resonate with everyone who is living through these challenging times. The gallery has continued to show all of our artists and their works during the pandemic, but this is a show that rounded up recent works by the artists quite nicely, and the collaboration with Nature Morte also juxtaposed a wide range of artists and mediums successfully.

Aparajita Jain (AJ): The show was conceived by Arjun Sahwney, as a response to our current realities. I can’t say that our ethos towards the artists is different now than it was earlier, but I think our joint experience of this new reality is what has been reflected.

As a gallerist, how do you justify showing a work of art through a virtual medium, especially when we know that observing art in person is fundamentally different than viewing it on the Google Arts and Culture app? Did the show’s design and execution help overcome any of those challenges? What sets it apart?
RV: Though the physical experience of viewing artworks cannot be replaced, the art world has adapted quickly and successfully to the virtual platforms. There have been a plethora of online exhibitions, art fairs and art events and audiences, old and new, have engaged happily on the virtual platform. This exhibition through the galleries’ websites and social media has had a great response as well!

AJ: Most of our existences are now being replicated or conceived virtually; even before COVID-19, we were seeing relationships, for instance, move to online exchanges. Art viewing for the last few years has happened virtually…. Let’s say, I open a large show in Delhi, I get a certain number of people physically viewing it, however, the number becomes many “x” when its shown virtually as well. Honestly, while we miss the experience of physical shows, the virtual space has added a beautiful dimension to work. The PDF and the online site of the show are so precise. It really represents the data effectively. I think there isn’t another collaborative show which has worked so well in India in the last six months.

It’s encouraging to see that this show has a curator who doesn’t come from a mainstream fine-arts background. How did his architectural know-how play into the virtual space of the current show?
RV: It’s interesting to work with someone who is not directly a part of the art industry. However, Arjun knows the industry intimately enough to be able to come up with a concept that would click with galleries, artists, and collectors. Also, through his own career, he has a wide network of people who he is able to reach out to, and as a collector of many years, he has the credibility for people to get his advice on buying artworks.

AJ: I think Arjun has a great relationship with the artists as well, and his ability to understand art at many levels really supported the aesthetic and wireframe of the show.

It is evident that galleries are undergoing innovative processes to keep up with these new times. How do you find your approach to the art world – in terms of encouraging your artists and reaching out to an ostensibly larger and newer audience – changing in the time of the pandemic?
RV: Fortunately, the art world was able to adapt to the new normal very quickly. Artists have produced brilliant work (many of them used to the idea of working in isolation), and collectors have been engaging consistently through online exhibitions and events on the virtual platform.

AJ: I think the massive change has already taken place around April. I urge you to visit our online viewing rooms so you see how hard we have worked on them. They are small format solos which are both intimate and yet explore scale. Our next thought show is Possible Worlds by Martand Khosla, who is working with artists and his own architectural practice to imagine new spaces in the virtual world. It’s an intense series which we are incredibly proud of.

Because the galleries have moved to a virtual platform, are they being driven towards discovering new artists who may or may not be from a fine-arts background and more digitally reliant artworks that can be showcased without the conventional logistical expenses?
RV: The idea remains to promote good quality work – it could be from the digital space or not, but quality remains of key importance. We are continuing to promote the artists who we represent. Alongside those, we have launched a new initiative called FRESH by VAG, to promote the work of emerging artists. We feel that now, more than ever, is a time to support young artists.

AJ: Not really, our programme and roster are defined by artists who are spectacular in thought and their visual representation. I don’t go by what looks good on the web….

It’s heartening to see that two of the biggest art galleries of New Delhi came together to collaborate and create The Future Is Not Fixed. Can you tell us more about the collaborative synergy that this show aimed to achieve and how much of it was realised?

RV: Early on in the lockdown, 12 galleries from India and Dubai came together to create a virtual platform called In Touch, where we collectively promoted contemporary art exhibitions in an unprecedented manner. This exhibition similarly has had a successful collaboration with two galleries showing work together in a single PDF and on both galleries’ websites. Collectors appreciate this collaborative effort during these times, and the exhibition has had a great response.

AJ: The show was a great experiment, and one that we would like to explore further. However, we have worked on other projects together like “artintouch” etc.

The art world has now entered another epoch of historicism because of the pandemic. How do you see the art world shaping up in the upcoming years? Staying true to the title of the show, The Future is Not Fixed, but will there be some permanent changes that you are intuiting by the current series of progressions?
RV: The world has realised the value of the virtual platform. Even though the physical and social experience of viewing art in exhibitions and art fairs cannot be replaced, I imagine that the virtual platform will continue to be used for galleries and institutions to reach out to larger and newer audiences.

AJ: The one thing the current pandemic has highlighted is that nothing is fixed, that planning can come to a grinding halt and that life is unpredictable. Permanence is to be questioned. The next age is that of collaboration and creative pivoting. I am enjoying the challenges and finding ways of addressing them. What remains is yet to be seen.

While this interview was illuminating in many ways, one can still hope to be privy to a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that currently govern the art world, with more concrete details that flesh out ideas and give them definitive forms. As the show title goes, the future is indeed not fixed, and we can hope to expect a more elaborate and lucid breakdown of the slew of questions that all of us end up wondering about from time to time.

Kastoori Barua is a former art curator currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Western Ontario. She also is a peer reviewer of TBA: Journal of Art, Media, and Visual Culture. She specializes in migration studies and hospitality ethics. Her other interests are skincare and Far East pop culture.

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