Summoning the Summit

Bringing art to the people implies democracy and that the fair ain’t, not yet, not anytime soon

A viewer is reflected in a work by artist Anish Kapoor on the last day of the India Art Summit 2011 in New Delhi. GURINDER OSAN / AP PHOTO
01 March, 2011

IN EARLY 2007, a couple of representatives of Hanmer & Partners (now, Hanmer MSL) visited me; at the time, I was the art critic at the Hindustan Times, Mumbai. I was informed that they were doing recon for an art project, the nature of which was made as unclear to me as possible by the garbling duo. And, what was a PR company—I had known of Hanmer as a PR firm, their present-day website, however, states that they are ‘a multi-disciplinary communications firm’—doing with art anyway, I had muttered under my breath. When I was asked if I’d be in a position to contribute to their processes, I had muttered over my breath, a polite we’ll-cross-that-bridge-when-you-get-to-it.

A year later, the India Art Summit was inaugurated. Post-event, there was substantial talk, although doubts were still rife. In 2009, I attended the second edition. I bit my lower lip and acquiesced; to my surprise, Hanmer MSL had managed to pull off a vibrant and streamlined event that would eventually become an international player in its own right. The recently concluded third edition managed by Fourth Dimension—Hanmer’s spin off company—with Neha Kirpal as its new director has impelled the Summit further in that direction.

Eighty-four galleries, of which 34 came from overseas, set up their booths at Pragati Maidan. The Summit drew in a footfall of 128,000, up from the 40,000 visitors from the last edition. And most significantly, it successfully managed to pull in buyers and collectors. To ignore what the fair has done—for one, it has managed to take truckloads of (reluctant) Mumbai art peeps to Delhi—would be foolhardy. However, stating the obvious was not one of my principal motivations when I agreed to write about the Summit. Rather, it was one of the queries posed to me before I began writing that got my interest: “Did the Summit ‘bring art to the people’?”

A tall claim this would be if ever it were made. Unfortunately, it has been made variously. Members of the press, in particular, have been enamoured of the striking increase in the number of visitors. Impressive as these numbers are, ‘bringing art to the people’ implies democracy and that the fair ain’t, not yet, not anytime soon. To begin with, you had to pay your way in. One isn’t accusing the Summit of wrongdoing; it isn’t the job of the art fair to take art to the people. The art fair is not a philanthropic enterprise; promoters have every right to charge for entry.

The art fair is for buying and selling. Money attracts money. A fair is often the playground for moneybags who fancy art as luxury product. The publics are collateral target, if at all; and such an attitude is A-okay. We need summits, auctions and what have you. We need them to keep the wheel well-greased. The viewership for fairs in general is high because at a fair, or indeed at an art auction, you are not burdened with the weight of interacting with the artist’s catalogue raisonné or the implications of context. You’re interacting with individual artworks, glamorous icons and the ka-ching of lucre. One has overheard even artists stating their preference for fairs over say biennales. At a fair you can do a quick roundup of art from everywhere without necessarily being up to speed with backstories. At a biennale or any such similar fora, where the emphasis is in equal parts on curatorial vision and networks of propositions, alertness is required of the viewer.

Another argument readily trotted out in favour of the taking-art-to-the-people line of thought, is that of access. In that, the Summit, has created an event wherein people who don’t ordinarily have access to artworks on display in metropolises such as Delhi and Mumbai can experience just that and more. Having recently worked on a curatorial project in a Delhi mall, a public space—albeit, of rather provocative nature—I realised that so as to value the idea of taking art to the people and thereby creating access, one must value even more the notion of art being a conduit whereby publics can be engaged.

The calibre of art on display at the third edition was markedly better than the second. That said, easy to consume one-liners and tried and tested formulae were—as is the norm at fairs—the mainstay, but there were plenty of arresting works as well. Shilpa Gupta’s ‘Singing Cloud’, 2008-09 and ‘Untitled’, Motion Flapboard, 2008-09 at Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi; Raqs Media Collective’s ‘Premonition’, 2011 at Experimenter, Kolkata; Sudarshan Shetty’s ‘Untitled’, 2010, a wooden bench with a plaque that read ‘God envies my mortality’, at GallerySKE, Bengaluru; Shreyas Karle’s ‘Trapped Light’, 2011 at Project 88; and Prajakta Potnis’ ‘Untitled’, 2010, photographs of eerie but subtle transformations, at Guild Art Gallery, Mumbai, were among the noteworthy works on display.

Stellar art could also be found at exhibitions across the city, including Ramkinkar Baij at Time Unfolded curated by Roobina Karode, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA); Amar Kanwar at Against All Odds curated by Arshiya Lokhandwala, Lalit Kala Akademi; Anish Kapoor’s Delhi Mumbai, NGMA and Raja Deen Dayal: The Studio Archives, curated by Jyotindra Jain and Pramod Kumar KG, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

In addition, there were some big fat collateral events, with the Škoda Art Prize 2011, the opening of KNMA, and the KHOJ Marathon with Hans Ulrich Obrist ruling the roster. If one were to gauge the clout of the Summit by the farrago of collateral events it spawned, or the exhibitions that had a wider viewership from having dovetailed with the Summit, then it must be said that the Summit has arrived.

On day two of the Summit a woman in her 60s, accosted and quizzed me about the fragrance the organisers had used in the fair enclosure. I have a lazy nose, more or less incapable of picking up any subtle smells, so I can’t comment on the fragrance. Truth be told, I can’t be sure if there was any. Be that as it may, the woman’s query called to mind Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, 1985, and consequently the hold fragrances and smells have on the human psyche.

I wondered how much control the fragrance exercised on the minds of the Summit visitors? How much did it contribute to the Summit’s buoyant atmosphere? And would it

ever be possible to create a smell that could democratise visual art?