Tuesday, February 19, 2013

William Kentridge at Volte gallery

The South African artist William Kentridge is showing at Volte gallery in Colaba. Anybody in Bombay between now and March 20 should definitely put the exhibition on their to-do list. Here's a piece by me about the artist and the show, published last weekend in Mint:

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The India Art Fair, 2013

I'm back home after a hectic time in Delhi, and here's my take on the recently concluded India Art Fair.
The 2013 edition of the Fair was a moment of clarity, the year when Indian galleries got real about the purpose of art fairs. That purpose is simple: to sell art, and build new contacts that will generate sales in the future. For some reason, a number of galleries had shied away from this goal in the past, catering instead to the tastes of insiders like myself. So it was last year, when I found a lot of interesting art at the fair, but could see the ticket buying public bemused or turned off by what was on offer. I wrote in the Business Standard at the time: "With the India Art Fair trying to build an international brand, those who come have relatively little easily-accessible, decorative stuff to view, raising the question of whether the Fair will manage to strike a balance between global tastes and local mass appeal."
In a way, that question was settled by international galleries themselves. The top galleries that had rented booths at last year's fair -- White Cube, Hauser & Wirth, Lisson -- found Indian regulations too stringent and the market underdeveloped, and chose not to return. This left open the door for the likes of  Daniel Besseiche, which had, among its offerings, paintings by the Dhaka-born, Paris-based Ahmed Shahabuddin. That's the kind of art lay Indian viewers love.

A broadcast journalist asked me to elaborate upon my statement that the art this year was more accessible. I explained that uninitiated viewers enjoy works with an identifiable subject, bright colours, and visible skill. They are put off by conceptual pieces that require an understanding of art history and contain no obviously dextrous use of form. This year's art fair had plenty of accessible pieces and relatively small doses of conceptual work.
On the evening of the VIP preview, I encountered my friend the architect Ashiesh Shah returning to Le Meridien hotel, exhausted but satisfied. He had done the rounds of the fair with three different clients, seeking work to place in upcoming projects. He said the clients had been very happy with the selection available. What had been achieved in an hour or two here would have taken at least a day if it meant visiting individual galleries in Delhi or Bombay.
The accent on accessibility meant that the fair contained fewer items of interest for me, though there were a number of bright spots, such as the 90 year-old K G Subramanyan's excellent solo booth for Sakshi gallery. I don't have a problem with the paucity of top-quality art. Big art fairs spur the creation of a number of satellite events, and it is those -- shows in museums and alternative spaces -- that provide excitement to specialists. The best show this year was at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Saket; a beautifully-mounted retrospective of Nasreen Mohamedi curated by Roobina Karode and designed by Mark Prime. Alongside it, though put somewhat in the shade by the superlative Nasreen exhibition, was a fine display of seven contemporary women artists.
Apart from this standout exhibition, there were interesting shows in KNMA's Noida space; at the British Council; at IGNCA (Homelands, curated by Latika Gupta from the British Council collection); at the National Gallery of Modern Art (The Skoda Prize Show, which I was involved in organising); at the Khoj Artists' workshop, which opened its newly-designed building in Khirkee Extension; and at Devi Art Foundation (DAF), where the closing party was held. The Khoj and Devi events were insiders' displays par excellence: the latter didn't even have labels to guide viewers on which work was by which artist. Walking around the DAF galleries (which I know pretty well since I curated a show there back in 2011), I felt at times that I'd rather be at the India Art Fair staring at a Shahabuddin canvas. Which is the equivalent of feeling, in the middle of a film by Jean-Marie Straub, that I'd rather be watching Salman Khan (though I can't recall ever having felt I'd rather be watching Salman Khan).
At its extreme, in the last and smallest of the fair's three pavilions, this year's India Art Fair resembled Bombay's India Art Festival, which attracts lesser-known dealers. Cymroza Art Gallery had a wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling grid of relatively cheap canvases, and they were doing excellent business.  In a way this turn isn't surprising, since Will Ramsay, who, along with Sandy Angus, bought a stake in the India Art Fair last year, is associated with London's famous Affordable Art Fair. However, there's a lot of snobbery involved in these displays: galleries are very concerned about who else is showing, and what their booths look like. The India Art Fair can't afford to allow too many Cymroza-style booths, no matter how popular, any more than an upscale mall can place a Levi's store next to Prada and Burberry.
The gallerists I spoke to were, on the whole, a far happier lot than last year. Perhaps it's a sign that the economy as a whole is sailing out of the doldrums. Viewers who had shelled out 200 rupees (or was it 300?) as an entrance fee, seemed content as well. And festival director Neha Kirpal must be super-pleased to have finally snagged a headline sponsor in Yes Bank.
A final evaluation. Win for viewers: check; win for buyers: check; win for exhibitors: check; win for organisers: check. Win for art lovers: check, if one includes satellite events. All in all, the most successful art fair so far. My main objection was the price of the food in the VIP lounge. 350 rupees for an ordinary cup of coffee: daylight robbery.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Curatorism: In Praise of Folly

An essay I wrote about the rise of curators, published in the latest issue of Art India magazine, is now online. Those interested in contemporary art can read it here.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Jesus, money changers and money lenders

The Vatican has been barred by Italy from accepting credit and debit cards, because the Italians feel the city state does not have a proper legal framework to prevent fraud. This means visitors can pay only cash for souvenirs, and will put a major dent in the Vatican's tourism revenues. The Italians were sensible enough to let the Christmas high season pass before clamping down. Presumably the matter will be sorted out before Easter.
In covering the issue, reporters have reached for a Biblical analogy that seems most apt: the cleansing of the temple by Jesus. Reuters, for example, went with, "... the move has nothing to do with throwing money lenders from the Temple or concerns about usury." Which gives me an opportunity to segue into an issue that really interests me, misreadings of canonical texts (I'm not particularly concerned about sales of postcards in the Vatican).
Pretty much every Christian who goes regularly to church has been told about the story of Jesus whipping the money lenders and chasing them out of Jerusalem's great temple. It's the standard text to bring up in discussions about Christianity, usury and the history of anti-Semitism.

Yet, the actual incident has nothing whatsoever to do with money lending. Christian boys and girls have for centuries been fed a lie by their parents and priests (who, to be fair, probably act out of ignorance). By the time they mature, they cannot read what's before their eyes without substituting it with the incorrect interpretation they've been brought up to believe.
Here's the incident as told in the English Standard version of the Bible:
Matthew 21:12
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.
John 2:13-16
The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.”

The phrase used is unambiguous: money changers, not money lenders.

When you think about it, Jerusalem's temple, where most visitors were pilgrims, would have been the last place where money lenders would've plied their trade. Lending to people you barely know, who are in town for just a couple of days, and who live in distant lands, is the equivalent of giving money away.
Money changing was a different trade altogether. It involved providing local currency to those who came in with Roman or Greek coin. It required experts who could tell counterfeit metal from the real stuff, who could gauge whether any corners had been cut (the phrase originating from the practice of physically slicing off slivers of precious metal from coins), and who were familiar with a variety of currencies. The money changers were the equivalent of today's shops with signage exclaiming EXCHANGE WECHSEL CAMBIO BUREAU DE CHANGE. They performed a necessary service, helping pilgrims, local traders and the temple. They kept the entire economy of the locality going, and took a cut for doing so.

Jesus wasn't against any one type of business; he was against the idea that any business at all should be conducted within a holy site. Of course, if priests and parents told children this, they might get asked whether Jesus really did the right thing. Did those petty traders deserve to be whipped and have their little work counters turned upside down? Presumably, if Jesus had gone in alone, the money changers would've banded together and kicked him out. It stands to reason that he was accompanied by a group of followers, though this isn't mentioned in the Bible, and is not how the scene is depicted in the paintings of Giotto and El Greco accompanying this post.

There's another question kids might ask, if told the truth about Jesus's action: since Jesus was so firmly against any connection between places of worship and any kind of commerce, why does virtually every famous church, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, contain a shop selling souvenirs? Why is the Vatican hawking postcards in the first place?