Thursday, October 29, 2009

London round-up

Having failed to produce a post each day as I'd promised, and with the London trip already a couple of weeks behind me, I've decided to wrap the thing up with a single post consisting of jottings about different exhibitions. Most are still on view as I write, meaning if you're headed for England around now, you can catch them live.

Damien Hirst: After the pasting he's got from critics, it seems appropriate that black and blue are the predominant colours in Hirst's show. Its title, No Love Lost: The Blue Paintings also sounds prescient.

Most of the twenty-five canvases were produced for the billionaire Ukrainian collector Victor Pinchuk between 2006 and 2008, and are being displayed until the end of January 2010 at the Wallace Collection, a museum in central London best known for 17th and 18th century paintings and objets d'art. Hirst has painted every image himself, eschewing his usual practice of outsourcing that side of art creation to employees. The setting inside a grand museum, the reference to Picasso in the title and to Francis Bacon in the imagery, point at hubristic ambition almost impossible to live up to. Outside that context, and the rumoured 50 million dollars paid for the pictures, I liked the work, particularly the two triptychs, of which one, titled The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth is pictured above. The moody blue-black brought to mind a poem by D.H. Lawrence called Bavarian Gentians.

I hadn't been to the Wallace Collection before, and found it an exceptional group of artefacts, the only drawback being its concentration on the 18th century, which in my opinion is a low point in the history of European painting. In delivering lectures summarising the history of art, I'm flummoxed when, after considering Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian; and then 17th century masters like Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Velazquez, I arrive at Watteau and Boucher. I skip quickly past them and neoclassical artists such as David, to find relief in the 19th century, in Gericault, Delacroix and Turner.

The Collection also contains a substantial armoury, which includes Tipu Sultan's sword. But owning Tipu's sword is like owning Sachin Tendulkar's bat. There are so many of them. Vijay Mallya bought one a few years ago, and another was on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as part of:

Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts. The show is high on atmosphere, but low on spectacular or unusual display items. Barely worth the ticket price for anybody familiar with the V&A's collection and those of major British and Indian museums.

Anish Kapoor at Lisson Gallery: A number of shiny pieces crying out to be bought. I saw this show on my first day in London, and was rather irritated by its overt commercialness. After catching the survey at the Royal Academy, I felt more generously towards the Lisson works. Kapoor employs a couple of dozen workers in his studio, and large projects like Svayambh probably don't provide him substantial margins. The man has to make money somewhere, and I'm sure his admirers are eager to acquire easy-to-display items.

N S Harsha at Victoria Miro: Harsha did the sensible thing, showing his new, somewhat expressionist explorations at Sakshi in Bombay, and sticking with the tried and tested -- delicately brushed images using repeated motifs -- for his London exhibition. He created, also, a fine installation on the upper level, though it was overshadowed by Grayson Perry's giant tapestry on the top floor.

Rina Bannerjee and Raqib Shaw at Thomas Gibson Fine Art: The two make a good pairing, since both are interested in decoration. Shaw, in my opinion, really gets it, pushing ornateness to its limits without apology, and combining it with violent, morbid imagery.

Bannerjee, meanwhile, muddies the waters, uncertain of how critical she ought to be about the decorative values she employs. A strong set of paintings nevertheless.

RAQS Media Collective at Tate Britain: This group came to the art world as Amar Kanwar did: through the intervention of Okwui Enwezor, who selected RAQS for Documenta 2002. They produce video and web based pieces that often incorporate historical or other documentary material. The three, Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, are super-intelligent, but I have always found their work visually uninvolving and their texts pretentious. This was certainly true of The Surface of Each Day is a Different Planet (the title itself gives an idea of the preciousness that puts me off) at Tate Britain. I don't have the voice-over from this video to provide as an example of what I mean by pretentious, but here's a randomly selected extract from the texts on their website:
"First, let a map be drawn. Let a cadastral reckoning be inked of who owns what, who owes what to whom. Let empty lots yield. Let letters and numbers do the talking. Let the land be silent.
Who has ever heard the land speak?"
They are fond of using immense rhetorical questions such as, "Who has ever heard the land speak?"
RAQS also featured at Frieze with a sculptural work, a clock containing words instead of numbers, words like epiphany, anxiety, duty, guilt, indifference, and so on. Again, pretentious is the first word that sprang to mind.

But RAQS have featured at some of the most prestigious exhibitions and museums in the world, so maybe there's something in their output that I'm missing.
At Tate Britain, they were provided a prominent room right next to:

Turner and the Masters: The show juxtaposes works by Titian, Rembrandt, Canaletto and others with canvases by Turner. Plenty of seriously good stuff, but my biggest take-away from the show was the ineptness of Turner when it comes to faces. He's Britain's greatest artist, no doubt, matchless when it comes to atmospheric landscapes, but he produced few, if any, memorable portraits.

The show demonstrates that the paintings which inspired Turner often contained really interesting countenances, but his own versions relegated these to tertiary status. Even when he did give such figures prominence, he usually did a far better job with the background.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Subodh Gupta at Hauser & Wirth

"Oh no". That was my first reaction on entering Hauser&Wirth's gallery in Old Bond Street and glimpsing Et Tu, Duchamp?, Subodh Gupta's larger-than-life-size bronze sculpture on a marble plinth.

Back in 1919, Marcel Duchamp sketched a mustache and goatee on a cheap reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. He subtitled this new artwork L.H.O.O.Q., a pun on 'Elle a chaud au cul', meaning, literally, "She has a hot ass".

The self-consciously juvenile desecration of the image was part of the artist's questioning of the iconic status accorded to certain artworks.
By casting a monumental version of L.H.O.O.Q., Gupta signals that Duchamp has achieved the sacred reputation he appeared to decry. But Duchamp's art was always double-edged, too deeply ironic to be reducible to a manifesto of anti-art. He made miniaturised editions of his early output, and carefully supervised reproductions of lost works, evidence that he did not view them as throw-away jokes, and that he was not averse to a place in the artists' pantheon.
All this is well-established now. The question is: what has Gupta added to the discourse by creating Et Tu Duchamp?
For a while, I wondered if the Gurgaon-based artist, influenced by Rhonda Shearer's thesis that L.H.O.O.Q. merges Duchamp's self-portrait with La Gioconda, had created a sculpture that borrowed his own features. After looking closely, though, I concluded that the bearded woman's slightly masculine visage was an accident of the transfer to three-dimensions rather than an art historical intervention.
The inspirations behind Gupta's art tend to be very simple; he is instinctive and emotional rather than cerebral. This has served him excellently in the past, but a more intellectual approach was called for when he decided to cite fellow artists. The other such work in the show is Jeff The Koons, and consists of multiple casts of the box in which Koons' puppies are packed and dispatched.

There's an echo of Warhol's Brillo boxes here, but little to keep one looking at the work beyond admiring the way frayed cardboard has been rendered in metal. The same question that sprang to my mind in the Ducamp room was accentuated by the Koons work: What is the point of this?
The point, if there is any, is that Subodh is trying to navigate away from his signature stainless steel pots and pans. There are stainless steel works in Hauser & Wirth's Piccadilly space,

but the show as a whole takes off in far too many different directions. Apart from the Duchamp and Koons strand, there is an axe with a neon tube coiled around its handle; a fibreglass tree breaking through a wall; ; a series of Yves Kleinesque body prints of the artist's genitals, titled Master Bet (not the only bad pun in the show); casts of potatoes and mangoes; and fans with swastika blades.

The black and white pairing indicates the two different meanings of the form: auspicious in India, a symbol of hatred in much of the world. The room with the ceiling fans also has two massive stainless steel spoons nestling on the floor below, and is the most elegant section of the exhibition.
The word 'transitional' kept coming up in conversations about Common Man (that's the show's title), but as one expert (who probably does not want to be named) pointed out, a major solo in one of the world's leading galleries is the worst possible time to produce transitional work.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Anish Kapoor and India

Of the two dozen or so shows, big and small, that I took in during my London stay, the most exhilarating was undoubtedly Anish Kapoor's mid-career retrospective at the Royal Academy. The artist presents visitors to Burlington House with an astonishing play of colour, texture and volume, from the gravity defying metal balloons in the courtyard,

through the illusory optics of his signature mirrored stainless steel, to a room filled with coils of cement placed on wooden pallets, and another occupied by a rusted steel hull.

Among the newest works on view are two that use a mix of wax, red pigment and vaseline. Shooting Into a Corner consists of a cannon that is fired every twenty minutes after being loaded with a cylinder of compacted wax.

The second 'waxwork', titled Svayambh, is a 30-tonne red block on tracks, moving slowly up and down five rooms of the museum, slathering the arches and floor with goop as it goes. It is sculpture reinvented, occupying time as well as space, challenging the attention spans of room-a-minute viewers and rewarding the patience of those who stay through its journey. It is a train, a closing door, an eclipse, a phallus.
This last association is hinted at by the work's title, which calls to mind svayambhu (or self-generated) lingams worshipped in temples across India, and emphasised by the indentations created in the massive block by edges of columns in the Academy's arched doorways.

The incursion of the lingam within the negative space of classical arches inside one of Britain's most venerable institutions is an audacious postcolonial gesture, though one that has been entirely ignored by British critics. Svayambh has been displayed before in France and Germany, but it is as if those were just rehearsals for its proper staging at the Royal Academy.
It is unsurprising, perhaps, that the political associations of Svayambh and Shooting into a Corner have been overlooked, because Kapoor is not known as a political artist. Among the most frequently cited quotes by him is, "I have nothing to say". But he also stated, in the same interview and almost in the same breath, "I hate formalism, because formalism implies a death of the subject and the subject is the only reason to be an artist."
With Svayambh, it is as if Kapoor is consciously re-acknowledging the Indian side of him, a side manifest in his early work, later downplayed as he sought to evade the label of 'Indian artist', which can now emerge again in a manner that is not reductive.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Saffronart discussion

Last Thursday, Dinesh Vazirani, Amrita Jhaveri and I were on a panel at Saffronart's London space, talking about 'Junctures and Departures: Locating Modern and Contemporary Indian Art Today'. The hourlong discussion has been uploaded on Saffronart's website, along with a transcript, and can be accessed here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Thoughts on Frieze and the thawing market

The dealers who had rented booths at the Frieze art fair this year played it safe. There were paintings, and more paintings, and yet more paintings. Damien Hirst, showing a suite of canvases elsewhere summed up the mood: "paintings are easier to shift – even in a recession people like paintings". Critics didn't like Hirst's paintings; in fact, it is fair to say they hated them, but I'll leave details of that show for another post.
Frieze is just seven years old, and still fairly small, but appears to have lost its edge. Maybe that is part of the process of growing up, but the link between the recession and conservative choices needs further consideration. Experimental art is supposed to be subversive, to question the established order, yet it flourishes most when the rich are awash with cash. Enron Corporation amassed one of the best collections of ultra-contemporary art in the years it was profiting from deregulation and scamming its way to near the top of the Fortune 500. Many of the financial geniuses who drove the world to the brink of bankruptcy last year are major art collectors. It's about time critics stop pretending that avant-garde-ish art serves some revolutionary political purpose (Indians are particularly prone to this belief).
The only Indian gallery featured at Frieze this year was Project 88, in the 'Frame' section reserved for new spaces. Sree Goswami showcased Sarnath Banerjee's amusing cartoons in her booth, and displayed a cute piece by Neha Choksi in the sculpture park nearby. Choksi's A Child's Grove was given a privileged position, between works by Louise Bourgeois and Paul McCarthy. According to news reports, a number of Sarnath's works were picked up for prices around USD 10,000 - 12,000 each, which is pretty good going.

There were few effects of the recession visible in London in the week I was there. The city seemed as busy as ever, all the restaurants and shops I visited were overflowing, and commuters in the Tube were more smartly dressed than I remember. Friends tell me that March and April were awful months, with 'To Let' signs on every second window and a doom-laden atmosphere. Obviously, a corner has been turned, though too late for Gordon Brown to survive as Prime Minister beyond next year's general election.

A year ago, it seemed that fundamental changes would be necessary to get the global financial house in order. Those hopes (or fears) have faded, and business as usual seems to be the order of the day. But what if the crisis does result in a long term restructuring of priorities in terms of consumption versus saving, and executive compensation? In the US thirty years ago, the average CEO of a large corporation received a wage about 50 times that of the average worker. If that seems high, consider that in 2007 the figure had changed drastically in favour of the rich: the average CEO earned more than 500 times as much as the average worker that year. A similar pattern played out elsewhere, and income inequality showed a significant rise in most regions of the world (It is worth mentioning that income inequality between regions declined in this period, due mainly to the development of China's economy). The growing wealth in the hands of very few was a crucial factor in fuelling the boom in art prices at the high end. If a situation were to arise in which the richest 10% earn a progressively smaller portion of total income, it will probably mean a long term recession in the art market.

Speaking of the Indian scene, I've heard that a couple of art funds are about to reach maturity, and are carrying a large stock of work. I've long believed that the substantial share of total purchases controlled by art funds in India will lead to a greater drop in this country relative to other markets because, unlike individual collectors who tend to hang on to works till prices turn upwards, funds with set redemption dates have to sell at whatever price they can get. Even as supply is constrained in mature markets, it will be unrestricted in India. Among readers of this blog, the very knowledgeable Torntash has suggested that funds will find arrangements outside of conventional direct sales to dispose off their assets. In a few weeks, we should have a hint of how successful such unconventional methods have been.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I'm in London for the Frieze art fair and events surrounding it. The schedule's been so crammed that I haven't had a chance to put down any thoughts about the work I've seen. Once I'm back in Bombay, which will be next Tuesday, I'll publish a post every day to make up for lost time. Loads of artists to write about, Subodh Gupta, Anish Kapoor, N S Harsha, Gyan Panchal, Rina Bannerjee, Raqib Shaw and the Raqs Media Collective prominent among them.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Jawahar and Edwina get

There's been speculation about why Quentin Tarantino chose to mis-spell the two words in the title Inglourious Basterds. I'm in the camp that believes it was a way to get past publishing regulations. Every newspaper in Bombay has carried large advertisements for the movie, which would've been impossible had the 'e' in 'Basterds' been an 'a'.
A couple of decades ago, the second collaboration between Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi was called Sammy and Rosie get laid. A number of newspapers, including the New York Times, refused to carry publicity material for it, until the producers opted for the toned down Sammy and Rosie.
The Brits didn't have as many problems with Sammy and Rosie getting laid as the Americans did. In Bombay, there was a screening at the British Council, for which Kureishi was present. The head of the Council, Clive Brasnett I think it was, mentioned the title in his introduction without a hint of a chuckle: "We are very pleased to have Hanif with us to present his film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.." What annoyed the Brits in the audience that evening was the impression the film created that riots between whites and Asians were an everyday occurence. One rather worked-up man asked Kureishi during the session after the film, "Why do the characters have to shop in the bombed out supermarket the day after the riot? Couldn't they just go to the nearest intact one?" Kureishi looked abashed, and admitted the film probably exaggerated Britain's racial conflicts a tad.
As an aside, for any trivia buffs reading this, if you're asked, "In which film can you see Shashi Kapoor's bare butt?", the answer is not Siddharth or Heat and Dust, but Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. It is a Shashi Kapoor well past his prime, unfortunately.
Right now, our government is getting worked up over possible moral transgressions in the film Indian Summer, which concerns the relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, wife of India's last viceroy. Location shoots in India are imperative for a film like this, but the administration has put a spoke in the wheel by disallowing any intimacy between Nehru and Edwina. Even holding hands is beyond the pale, apparently. Deputed officials will ensure that everything is shot according to the approved script.
What the Delhi babus don't appear to have grasped is that sex generally takes place indoors, and location is irrelevant to an indoor shoot. What is to stop director Joe Wright (Atonement) from filming a Jawahar-Edwina romp in London after wrapping the location schedule? All we can do if that happens is to ban the film here, which will probably happen no matter how decorously the film depicts its central relationship.
Finally, another bit of unrelated trivia. The phrase 'Indian summer' has nothing to do with India. It refers to a period of warm weather that sometimes occurs in North America in late October. The confusion is all the fault of Columbus, of course.

Update, 23 October: The film shoot has been postponed because of an irreconcilable conflict between producers who want to focus on the Nehru-Edwina romance, and Indian authorities who are allergic to any hint of impropriety. I'm quite happy about the postponement, because the casting of Irrfan Khan as Nehru strikes me as disastrous.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds: a return to form

Orson Welles' self-description, "I started at the top and worked my way down", was beginning to fit Quentin Tarantino's career graph. Tarantino's debut, Reservoir Dogs, was electrifying; his next film, Pulp Fiction, a masterpiece. Jackie Brown, was pretty darn good, Kill Bill passable, and Death Proof pointless if occasionally amusing.
Now, with Inglourious Basterds, the man has resurrected his sagging reputation. Basterds is a self-indulgent movie that will appeal most to cinephiles, but possesses enough action, plot and character to keep wider audiences happy. I rate it above all but the first two of Tarantino's directorial efforts. Jackie Brown may be a better paced, better plotted film, but has none of the scope and lushness of Basterds (besides, audibility was an issue throughout the Pam Grier starrer).

The Basterds of the title are a group of Jewish, mainly American, soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who operate behind enemy lines during WWII, killing Nazis with notable brutality. Assisted by a German actress and a British film critic, they plot to eliminate the Nazi leadership during the premiere in Paris of a movie about a German war hero. The premiere is held in a theatre owned by a woman whose parents were killed under orders of the notorious 'Jew hunter' Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz), and who is plotting a massacre of her own.

From its opening shot, Basterds seeks to create apotheoses of movie stereotypes: the broken-nosed French peasant, the sophisticated but cruel Nazi, the blunt American and the plummy-accented Brit. We feel at each moment the presence of past WWII films, particularly those made in the sixties like The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, and The Battle of the Bulge.
As indicated by virtually everybody who has written about the film, Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa steals the show. The polyglot actor is the film's greatest asset, but also its greatest flaw, insofar as there is no performance to balance his. Pitt has some very good moments and some indifferent ones; his effort at a Tennessee accent becomes too apparent in the odd scene.
The climactic conflagration in the theatre is meant to be a huge catharsis, a film-maker's revenge on history as it were. I'd rate it seven on ten. It was satisfying enough, but didn't give me goose flesh.