Boon Hui Tan On India’s Developing Creative Community
A prolific figure in the art world and the driving force behind the Singapore Biennale, he is currently director and vice president for global arts and cultural programmes at the Asia Society Museum. In conversation at the inaugural Asia Art Awards India ceremony that took place on the cusp of the India Art Fair at Delhi’s Taj Mansingh Hotel, he shared his views on the subcontinent with Verve.
What are your impressions of our local art scene?
I have been coming to India for the art fair and have seen it evolve, even in this short time. I strongly believe contemporary art transcends boundaries and must be evaluated in global terms. It’s not nation specific. Where one is located is only important in terms of original work — that speaks to everyone.
What do you think Indian artists bring to the table that’s unique?
I think the capacity is, really, still to be discovered. Post the recession seven or eight years ago, there was a lot of speculative buying, and since then there has been a perceptible shift. Art is never separate from politics and history. India is in a constant period of churn and so many new contemporary artists are finding their unique voices to reflect that. Like Bharti (Kher) and Subodh (Gupta) — their imaginations are limitless. I also love the work of Abir (Karmakar).
It is a difficult time to be an artist. Any advice?
I would advise artists to focus and not to lose sight of their individuality. Decide what kind of creator you want to be and identify the exemplary in your medium, the heroes of your genre. Benchmarking is very important. For example, Japan has developed a mesmerising tradition of video art. Go to Japan! See and learn what is happening. For Indians, it’s not a matter of capacity, more about broadening the frame of what you see as possible. If you look at it, all over the world, the best art is created when a society’s values are in transition. This can be seen as an opportunity.
What do you think our artists need to really improve on?
I think with the actual physical production of art, especially installations, there is a lot to be learnt from Asia. For example, the Chinese are able to create these incredibly complex, technically sound sculptures and installations. That kind of knowledge and access to resources is very important. Indian artists need more technical guidance. I also feel that younger ones here tend to dabble in too many mediums simultaneously. Pick a medium that speaks to you, go deep into it and master it completely. Make sure you know the global benchmarks and conceptual limits of it before moving on to something new. This is also encouraging for collectors who need reassurance that the artist really knows what he’s doing.
What is the role of a collector in an artist’s journey?
What is a collector? You become a collector when there is no more room on your walls, and you still continue to crave art. Then you reach a stage when you stop thinking of it as an asset and you think more about building a legacy. Collectors are absolutely vital, and from what I’ve seen, Indian collectors are very passionate and appreciate new kinds of eclectic art, but there is a lot of room to grow. People are conservative in their tastes here, but it’s very personal. Someone who likes video may not like painting or sculpture. Someone who collects installation may not collect two-dimensional work. I hope, eventually, when the market matures, people will invest in the next generation. The litmus test is to reach a point when collectors get together to support an artist, whether in a museum or fair.
What is the role of social media in this context?
It is a vital platform to connect with an audience. For every artist, building as wide a collector base as possible is crucial. Social media helps you reach out. It’s a great tool with which to connect, or to even get people interested in what you’re doing. Remember, collectors themselves are constantly evolving. An artist has a market not because he sells at galleries but because he has built a secondary base where his works are traded. The danger is if you have just three or four collectors in the scene. Similarly, I tell artists in New York, for example, that Saturday afternoon is when people go to galleries. Be at the space during an exhibition. People want to know what you’re like and ask questions. It makes a big difference.