Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Subodh Gupta: January 2007

In late 2006, Sangita Jindal, who owns Art India magazine, launched Arre, a peculiarly named publication that lasted just two issues (or was it three?). Though I wasn't keen on the content or design of the journal, my Art India connection meant I could hardly refuse to write for it. Zehra Jumabhoy and I had interviewed Subodh Gupta as part of a project that was later aborted, and I wanted to use the material before it grew dated. I therefore offered Arre a profile of Subodh based on that interview, and I believe it turned out rather well. Since nobody bought the magazine, the article remained unread, but I did manage to use bits of the piece in other writing and in lectures, so the effort wasn't entirely wasted.

Subodh Gupta

Subodh Gupta is 42 and lives in a high rise in Gurgaon with his wife Bharti Kher and their two children, having moved six years ago from a modest flat in Mayur Vihar. Although barely known outside the small art community, he’s an international star, as his recent track record demonstrates. In 2005, he showed at the Venice Biennale and London’s Frieze art fair, and had solos at Sakshi Gallery in Bombay, the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York and Gallery inSITU in Paris. In January 2006, he was among eight nominees for Cardiff’s prestigious Artes Mundi Visual Arts Prize. Three months later, an untitled painting by him sold for 80 lakh rupees at auction. The same Saffronart sale saw a collector pay 60 lakh for Two Cows, an aluminium, bronze and chrome sculpture of bicycles slung with milk pails, one of an edition of three. In June that year Subodh made an impact at the world’s largest art fair, Art Basel, with Across Seven Seas, which consisted of cast aluminium luggage items moving endlessly round an airport carousel. That piece, displayed by the Geneva-based Art & Public, was snapped up for just short of a million dollars. He rounded out a bumper year with showings in Paris and Lille, and at the massive Arario gallery in Beijing.
It is improbable enough that such success would visit a boy from Khagaul in Bihar whose enthusiasm for painting led to a BFA from Patna’s College of Arts and Crafts. The story’s even more unlikely considering that, little over a decade ago, few credited him with being one of Delhi’s outstanding young artists. Subodh admits his beginnings in the art world were not promising. “When I first came to Delhi, I was making some good paintings, but also a lot of crap stuff. But I was selling it. Meeting Bharti changed everything. She told me, ‘Subodh what you’re creating is no good’. I realized that if I continued to do what I was doing, I might sell, maybe even make a name, but I wouldn’t be doing myself justice.” He attempted to change his style and, in the process, lost what patronage he’d enjoyed. “For two years, 1994 and 1995, I put out really bad work. It was a frustrating period. Galleries stopped taking my paintings, I was totally lost.” He eventually found a way out of the slump by creating an installation called 29 Mornings which used low wooden seats, or patlas, with a variety of objects placed or painted on them. These objects, such as a length of folded red cloth, burnt wood, an umbrella, coins and a torch were connected with nostalgic memories or associable with Hindu mourning rituals.
Installation art was a novelty at the time, having sailed in with the tide of globalisation which also brought to India Subodh’s future wife, an artist who’d spent her early years in the UK, and his future dealer Peter Nagy, who had established a name in the New York art scene at a remarkably young age, before briefly losing his groove and deciding to start afresh in Delhi, helping build the nascent market for experimental art. Few Indian collectors were buying installations then, but new avenues had opened up in the form of international biennials, workshops and residencies which favoured explorations outside traditional painting and sculpture. Whereas, in previous decades, Indian representation in shows abroad would be decided by the official state fine arts council, the Lalit Kala Akademi, artists were now contacted directly by independent curators at the helm of international displays.
Subodh flourished on the workshop-residency-biennial circuit dominated by new media art and installation, the latter often site specific and perishable. He set himself apart through a use of organic materials intrinsic to Indian culture, notably cowdung. My Mother and Me, which he constructed in 1997 during a workshop conducted by the Khoj Artists' Association workshop at Modinagar near Delhi, was a cylindrical structure ten feet high made from cowpats. A layer of ash on the floor inside added to the feeling of being in a space connected with ritual. He was painting as well, and his images were now simpler, more direct. Three canvases of cows shown at Bombay’s Gallery Chemould in 1999 had a coating of dung as their background. There was also a self-portrait, underneath which small red lights spelt the word ‘Bihari’ in Devanagari script. If this image ironised the stereotyping of his home state and its citizens, the show’s centrepiece, titled The Way Home, indicated that some of those stereotypes weren’t far off the mark. Consisting of a cow sculpture surrounded by plates and glasses, among which were casually strewn replicas of country made revolvers, the installation suggested that crime and violence had become part of daily life in Bihar.
Looking back on The Way Home, it comes across as an important transitional work. It was composed, perhaps, of too many elements, a contrast with the spareness that Subodh had found in his paintings, and would soon achieve in sculpture. The cow at the centre linked with the artist’s previous output, which evoked an Indianness conceived around tradition, ritual, family and a pre-industrial lifestyle. The Way Home was made, however, from non-organic materials: fibreglass and stainless steel. Over the next few years, he shifted to working with corrosion resistant steel and aluminium rather than cowdung, cloth, ash and wood. In the process, he envisioned a different kind of identity, one that was modern but inflected in distinctively Indian ways, an identity predicated upon class, caste, migration and consumption.
Was The Way Home, then, the first sign of a move away from home as a source of inspiration? Not quite, because the town of his birth contained features relating to Subodh’s early installations as well as his later sculptures. In an otherwise insightful essay in the July 1998 issue of Art India, Roobina Karode referred to Khagaul as “a small remote village”. It isn’t really that. Khagaul and its twin Danapur are a short train ride from Patna. Danapur was one of the earliest British cantonments in the country and is one of the divisional headquarters of Indian Railways. Most of the inhabitants of Khagaul work for the railways, including many of Subodh’s relatives. He says of his home, “Due to the railway, it was more than just any small town. We had two swimming pools, and people used to go to the club, which had a billiards room. The railway cinema screened English movies every morning. And there were lots of art activities; no less than seven theatre groups were based there.” His childhood memories are at least as much about sleek tracks and locomotives as about cows and dung-smeared walls.
In stainless steel, Subodh settled upon a material which evoked a common set of associations across the country. His paintings of shops displaying shiny pots and pans played on these associations. “I use materials that are connected with collective memory”, he explains. “I remember when I was in school, stainless steel was so desirable, to eat on it at an uncle’s house was the height of luxury. It was more expensive than brass at that time.” The alloy has become cheaper and gone down market since then, but also attracts the interest of high end designers, as it has intermittently done since the heyday of art deco. A range of class associations therefore comes into play when responding to one of Subodh’s sculptural pieces or paintings.
The fact that stainless steel in Indian homes relates to cooking, eating and bathing brings in notions of ritual purity and impurity connected with caste. He attempted to explore these concepts through an exhibition titled Jootha in 2005. A row of kitchen sinks stood along a wall accompanied by an audio track of metal dishes being washed. There was also a video of guests at a reception gorging themselves. If Jootha wasn’t entirely successful it could be because it adhered too closely to what it represented. Subodh likes the objects he uses to be “the same, but not the same” when displayed. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and his kitchen sinks looked too much like plain old kitchen sinks to be carriers of any larger idea. A series of wall mounted dish racks titled Curry was better actualized, the gleaming array of thalis seductive enough to entice even the most affluent spectators.
If the artist’s stainless steel pieces revolved around domesticity, his sculptures in aluminium created in the same period explored the world of commuting and migrant labour. He had casts made of luggage typically carried by workers returning from the Gulf, and placed these on trolleys cast in bronze. A cloth bundle elaborately tied with string came to look like a precious object in its sculptural version. The metamorphosis was appropriate given how much the contents of such packages meant to the owners. As Subodh describes his encounters with these returnees, it is apparent the mid-air meetings made a deep impression on him. “Sometimes I have taken the route via the Gulf on my way back from Europe. The kind of people who sit next to you after you change at Dubai, they are your people – but different. I’d talk to them, tailors, bus-drivers, building workers, cooks. The luggage they’d have, it was so colourful, the suitcases, the bundles tied with string. And when you see that, your emotions get stirred. Come on, they work so hard, and look at the way they tie those bundles! What must they be carrying? Some cash, a radio, some gifts… whatever it is, they tighten it so hard, no normal person can open it.” He made paintings around this theme too, snapshot images of men with their backs to the viewer, or only their torsos visible, loading packed TV sets onto carriers of ambassador taxis. Men whose sense of self-worth was contained in what they had brought back for family and friends from the Emirates, from Oman, from Bahrain. Men who were the lowest of the low where they worked but gained status in their community back home by buying rare branded goods.
While Subodh’s art has always had a political dimension, it has never seemed committed to an ideology. Freedom from dogma was crucial in the creation of his gulf worker series. Politically oriented Indian artists – and there are many of them working in media art and installation – tend to view with suspicion any kind of attraction to commodities, categorising it as a form of false consciousness. When they take up subjects like migrant labour, the result is images of pure victimhood. Subodh focussed on the desires of the subalterns, so to speak, and showed how the poignancy of their lives was most visible precisely in the fulfillment, however partial, of those desires.
The shift in expression seen in his work following The Way Home came at a propitious moment. During the nineties, many among the art world’s intellectual elite had glorified local cultures and traditional ways of living as a profoundly important antithesis of the homogenising impulse of globalisation. After the World Trade Center towers collapsed, this extreme multiculturalist perspective also began to crumble. Curatorial tastes moved away from the previous valorisation of ethnic, organic art to a preference for a less exotic look. Subodh’s work was composed of precisely the right mix of similarity and difference. He made sculptures of Vespa scooters and Ambassador cars, vehicles which, while still common on the roads of twenty-first century India, had acquired a niche, retro-chic quality in Europe. When he turned to the natural world, it was to create ironic transpositions similar to what he did with luggage: making the humble look precious. He placed before viewers an aluminium wicker basket holding bronze cowpats; or ‘Colgate’, a silvery copy of sticks used in Indian villages for cleaning teeth. An additional level of irony was provided by the extraordinary prices at which these sold.
By 2005, even as he was poised for take-off internationally, his work was at a crossroads. The bicycles and scooters, the bartans and dish racks, appeared a little played out. The manner in which he moved to a new stage illustrates very well his mode of imagining. 2004 had begun with a catastrophic tsunami, and 2005 produced the Bombay deluge and the breached levees of New Orleans. He responded by making a dramatic car sculpture, Everything Is Inside. It consisted of a taxi, cast metal luggage on its carrier, its bottom half cut off so it looked as if it had sunk into the ground. Or was being overwhelmed by rising water.
Seized of the flood theme, he created a series titled Hungry God which looked entirely different from anything he’d done before. The stainless steel pots and pans were back, representing not goods to be coveted but possessions washed away. An installation in a church in Lille had vessels pouring into the centre from every surrounding niche, choking off escape routes. Another in the series was installed for twenty-four hours in a Parisian church in October 2006, part of an all-night arts festival called Les Nuits Blanche. It was bought by Francois Pinault, one of France’s richest men and owner of Christie’s auction house. A giant skull made out of utensils, the sculpture related to the venerable Christian tradition of the memento mori, as well as modern special effects extravaganzas like The Mummy. Subodh had managed to take a ubiquitous symbol and make it meaningful anew, an enormously difficult task that could only have been accomplished by a consummate artist.

(The interview with Subodh Gupta was conducted in conjunction with Zehra Jumabhoy, who also transcribed it)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Jitish Kallat, January 1998

I've written more articles about Jitish Kallat than about any other artist, and this was the first, a profile that appeared in Art India in 1998. It might well be the first thing published about Jitish, though maybe a couple of papers had carried short reviews of his maiden solo.
At the time, it seemed Jitish's success was a harbinger of a new era in which a number of very young artists would break into the big league. Recent graduates did receive more opportunities to exhibit in the noughties, but I suspect this remains the only profile of a twenty-three year old in an Indian art journal.
When Jitish read the draft I sent across, he expressed discomfort with the quote about feminism and my focus on phallic imagery. I don't recall if the quote was changed in the published version, and can't find that issue of Art India to check. If the line was retained, it's the only politically incorrect public pronouncement Jitish has made. But he has deniability, since I've lost the tape of our interview.
The Web was a novelty at the time, and required explanations that appear redundant today. The document on my computer begins ATTENTION ANUPA, NALINI, meaning it was faxed to the magazine office and re-typed, rather than emailed. I've altered some of the really clumsy phrases in the draft, but there are too many of those to rework without changing what character the piece has.

The Profile
Jitish Kallat’s debut solo exhibition, P.T.O., displayed recently in two Bombay galleries, was also placed on the Internet. The virtual paintings had a washed-out feel, retaining little of the quality of the originals. Perhaps this was a deliberate effort to save on downloading time by lowering the resolution of the images; but it seemed like proof, if yet more proof were required, that Walter Benjamin was misguided in contending that mechanical (and, by extension, digital) reproduction would efface the ‘aura’ which original works of art traditionally possessed.
Paradoxically, the twenty-three year old Kallat’s work also reveals the continuing relevance (fallacious futurology apart) of Benjamin’s essay on the impact of technologies of image reproduction. His paintings freely use these, notably the camera and the photocopy machine. Running a sheet of paper repeatedly through a copier, he achieves an over-inked reproduction of the image he needs, usually a photograph of himself or a picture of an Indian monument. This copy is then rubbed onto the canvas, where it leaves an impression. “When I need an image of myself in perspective the process is lengthier”, he says. “In this case I take a photograph, photocopy and enlarge it, place it on the wall and shoot that from the required angle, then make a photocopy of this”, before transferring the image to canvas.
To add irony to paradox, while the canvases on the Net seem impoverished, the paintings themselves have a bruised and blistered, patched and peeled feel, very much like the walls and buildings of his city, Bombay. Kallat explains his journey to grittiness: “I use a lot of mixed materials – binders, textile powders – so my paint is always a little tacky. From early on I used glycerin and starch mixed with acrylic, and rubbed the paint off the surface with cloth. Now I use a blade or a knife for the thicker canvas surface.”
“From early on” may seem like a strange phrase in the mouth of such a young artist, but his work does reveal, very ‘early on’, a remarkable control over the material at hand. A little over four years ago he painted, for the first time, a self-portrait. It was accompanied by the slogan, ‘I am a potato’. The potato was a personal emblem, soon to be joined by the pedestal, the elephant, and the coconut tree. “By saying I was a potato I meant that I had eyes, and could see what others couldn’t.” Here, then, was an artist confident of his particular vision, but diffident enough, or aware enough of our unheroic age, to ironise his own ambition by encoding it within the bathetic symbol of a potato.
Donning the armour of self-deprecation, Kallat can venture into the most dangerous battlefields. Paintings like I Wish It Came with the Food I Eat and Believer Picture literally idolise the phallus. As he puts it, “the whole feminist retaliation against men has produced a kind of counter-retaliation in my mind.” Irony also allows for theatricality, allows the self to adopt the grandest of roles, to appear in the robes of the Buddha, or posterised like Che Guevara.
In a painting from P.T.O. called Guardian Column, “where the painter is a sort of protector of a whole tradition”, we see the same two sided, ironic vision of the artist, a phallic pillar juxtaposed with a photocopied temple. Invoking Benjamin once more, Kallat’s view of his cultural tradition, like that of many of his peers is derived almost entirely from books, from mechanical reproductions of the original cultural artefacts. Kallat’s achievement is that he has found a formal solution to this strange intellectual condition. His pilgrims carry haversacks, but their journeys lead them mainly through a jungle of art publications. Ajanta and Ellora, the palaces of Mysore, the gopuras of Tamil Nadu, the artist has never seen any of these. They are all part of an abstract tradition and receive correspondingly abstract representation in his work.
The elephant, native of Kallat’s home state Kerala, is, like temples and palaces, a symbol of tradition that the artist uses repeatedly, or, as he prefers to put it, “recycles”. In Son, You Can Always Feel Young, the protagonist holds an elephant on a string, but tradition turns out to be less a puppet than a hypnotic pendulum (Rather than depict the pendulum swing in a Futurist manner, the picture shows the protagonist being swayed). The title of the painting brings into the equation a more modern form of brain-washing – that of American pop psychology, the cult of the do-it-yourself book.
Opposed to the gullible figure of Son, You Can Always Feel Young is the bespectacled self-portrait, May What Is Threatened Not Become Fact. The presence of spectacles is a sign, in Kallat’s lexicon, of “the wise, viewing, non-blind self”. The monumental head at the centre of May What Is Threatened Not Become Fact strikes a more sombre note than most of the other paintings in P.T.O. But the canvas also recycles a couple of the artist’s favourite motifs, such as the elephant who, in this case, is toppled from his pedestal. Well-worn phrases such as ‘toppled from his pedestal’ and ‘expanding the mind’ are often evoked by Kallat’s work, and he admits that many of his images “are guided by texts and captions: well-known phrases, song-titles, which, if proclaimed, would be too direct. These are very simplistic, dry, dehydrated thoughts. I maintain them like that for convenience, like a store of canned ideas. They only come alive when I use them as images.” To put it another way, “I think images, but I store words.”
The close relationship of words, ideas and images is central to Kallat’s work. His titles, usually written on the canvas along with other stray phrases, tend to include playful puns (‘Bulb Fiction: Strange Enlightenments’, ‘When So Many Spectacles Happen I See-Saw’). It is hardly surprising, then, that the painter’s first models were advertisements, which traditionally combine clever copy with striking images. The sleight of hand performed by commercials is that they sell you a brand, while you have to buy the product. The brand is the fantasy, the product is banal and real. Jitish Kallat’s paintings, too, have a few tricks up their sleeve. They combine, within the same cluster of images, promise and denial, proclamations and recantations. But if you choose to buy the paintings, you can be certain that what you see is what you get.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Minal and Dinesh Vazirani

This interview appeared in Take on Art magazine in October 2011.

Dinesh and Minal Vazirani founded Saffronart during the dotcom boom, and have guided it through a number of peaks and troughs since then. They envisioned Saffronart as a Web-based vendor, retooled the business model to focus on auctions, and expanded to include physical exhibitions. They have recently diversified into auctioning real estate and jewellery. They answered my questions with candour and insight.

Girish: It is eleven years since Saffronart was founded. Could you mark the main stages of its development?

Minal: The first phase was about building awareness. Conducting transactions for art online was something new not only for India but anywhere in the world. We also reached out to the Indian diaspora, which didn’t have access to Indian art. There were very few good publications or curated exhibitions exhibited internationally at that time.

Dinesh: The next stage, I’d say, was just survival. We seriously considered shutting down Saffronart around 2003, because building awareness had entailed mounting big shows in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, New York and London, and that almost broke our back. Venture capital had pulled out after the dotcom bust, so there was no additional funding available. We took loans from my father, from banks, sold a substantial part of our personal collection, in order to stay afloat. But this was also an inflection point when the market as a whole started growing rapidly.

Minal: Yes, 2004 and 2005 were very important years for our growth. Saffronart had over 35% of the auction market at that time. Then, from 2006, there was a great deal more investment, more players came in, there was more interest from international auction houses, and it felt like the market was getting its own legs. It turned out to be short-lived, of course.

Dinesh: Interestingly, our most successful auction in these 11 years was in December 2006, when we garnered about 17 million dollars in one sale. So if you look at the market size, it was probably at its largest at that point. The following year, the market carried on at the same kind of level but there was no dramatic growth.

Girish: Prices for contemporary art rose substantially in the final phase of the boom, didn’t they?

Dinesh: That’s true. I think, though, that Indian galleries representing contemporary artists were too enamoured with the West. A lot of Indians wanting to buy art in those days would be told, Oh, the piece is going to this collection in Europe, or that museum. Gallerists sold to foreigners who posed as museum collectors but were actually dealers and traders. Whether it was Charles Saatchi, Frank Cohen or anyone else, their collections would all come back to the market at some point. When foreigners pulled out after the financial crisis, there was no Indian collector base left behind, which is why contemporary art has taken the biggest hit.

Girish: To continue with the phases, the third one was the boom…

Dinesh: For us, that was a period of consolidation. We expanded quite dramatically, established a space in London, a larger space in New York, planned one in Delhi. Of course, nobody expected what happened after the financial crisis, and since then we’ve been back to the survival stage again.

Girish: It’s been that bad?

Dinesh: It has, yes. If you look at the peak auction of 17 million in December 2006, and then at March 2009 which was a million and a half, that’s one tenth of the sale amount. We had the same overheads, we didn’t cut down our staff, we didn’t close our spaces. We were hopeful that the market would come back. But because so much buying was for investment, it’s been difficult to get buyers back, and have them collect for the right reason, which is to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the art and hang it on walls rather than store it in garages.

Minal: I think one dramatic change, which hasn’t had an effect on the value of the market yet but is very important, has been the rise of Indians who are collecting with a view to institutionalise their collection. The museum Kiran Nadar has set up is a great example. Unfortunately, there’s no government incentive associated with arts-related philanthropy, no tax benefit or anything of that kind.

Girish: Since you mention government regulation, could you spell out for me what changes you’d like to see in that area?

Minal: One of the good things that’s happened is the reduction in sales tax for art transactions in West Bengal; it’s now 1%. I hope other states follow.

Dinesh: Import duty is an important concern. If a canvas is painted in India, acquired by somebody outside the country and then bought by an Indian, why should the duty be 17%? I think people should be encouraged to get cultural products back into India. If we have import duty, let’s have a nominal rate like in the UK and other nations.
The third thing I’d look at is changing the Antiquities Act. It’s killed trade, and because trade’s been killed, so has education and expertise. Today, most experts in Indian antiquities are in London or New York, there are hardly any left in India.

Minal: If you drive business underground, there’s no way you can build infrastructure. Unfortunately, the Direct Tax Code that’s coming in has a 1% annual wealth tax on the market value of one’s art collection.

Girish: You just criticised galleries for their Western fixation, but I’ve heard gallerists criticising you for undercutting prices. You began with a model where you worked through partner galleries, and then you became in a sense a competitor to galleries. Is there a lot of friction in the relationship currently?

Minal: We still work very closely with galleries and dealers, I don’t think that’s changed much. Even the exhibition spaces we have were conceived mainly to provide a plaform for galleries to showcase their artists through us.

Dinesh: There’s been some friction with a few galleries, for a simple reason. As an auction platform, our prices are dependent on the dynamic between buyer and seller. Whatever the price settles at is what it settles at. It’s fine when the market’s going up, because galleries keep marking their prices higher whenever the hammer price for an artist’s work rises in the secondary market. But when hammer prices fall below primary prices, galleries find it difficult to handle artists they represent. Artists ask, ‘How could Saffronart sell a painting at this price?’ And the gallerists accuse us of lowering prices. But we don’t raise or lower prices, the market does. I think perceptions have changed as the same thing has happened at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Girish: Would you say a bit about the role art funds played in the downturn? Obviously we couldn’t have avoided the crash, but Europe and the United States, which have such dreadful economies, have healthier art markets than we do today. Is the Indian market doing as badly as it is because art funds encouraged investors over collectors?

Dinesh: Every market needs different constituents. We need a strong base of collectors, and people with capital who will build the market, and also institutional buyers. So art funds are a legitimate constituent of the art market. I think what became detrimental was the volume of capital that they controlled in a small market. The auction market peaked at about 140 million dollars in annual sales. In that year, art funds raised 60 million dollars, which was too large a quantum of capital given the market size as a whole.
I think two things really hurt the market. First, it was Amit Judge’s decision to shut down Bodhi. We all tried convincing him not to, but it was purely a business decision for him. He really raised the bar in the years he operated, but when Bodhi closed, international collectors lost a lot of confidence. If the biggest player in a market goes under, it sends a strong negative signal. Then there was the Osian’s crisis. Neville Tuli built the organisation with a lot of passion, but when he got into a mess with his fund, it reduced confidence in the market. Between Bodhi and Osian’s, I think they touched pretty much every important buyer in the world.

Girish: Finally, what’s with all these Nandis by H G Arunkumar you feature in your auctions? Is it a mascot of some sort? I see you’ve got an astroturf one here.

Dinesh: (laughs) Any colour, any material, any size, we’ll sell them. They’re actually pretty tough to source.