When the year began, people were still walking through knee-deep water to experience the rippling sea and the woes of the Syrian refugees, in Raul Zurita’s Sea of Pain, on display at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Soon, the crowds moved to the India Art Fair (IAF) in Delhi, where demonetisation seemed to have affected the market as well as the enthusiasm. There were some celebrated works though — including Sudarshan Shetty’s Taj Mahal, and Reena Kallat’s Woven Chronicle, a global tapestry with a giant world map made with multi-coloured wires, tracing the movement of migrants across the world. Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum made her debut in India with All The Flowers Are For Me, an installation with elaborate laser cut-outs in steel. The first quarter also saw several major solos — Jitish Kallat, Atul Dodiya, Thukral and Tagra and Ranjani Shettar in Delhi, Ayesha Sultana in Kolkata and Gieve Patel in Mumbai.
The summer was uneventful, but with the onset of monsoons, new exhibitions were held inside the white cube. Delhi saw a powerful retrospective of Manu Parekh, Samit Das’ explorations of the Santiniketan archives, Jatin Das’ portraits of friends and acquaintances, and the late artist-pedagogue KG Subramanyan’s seminal political works. In Mumbai, the year ended with Sudhir Patwardhan’s meditations on aging and a retrospective of Sakti Burman. The year 2017 also saw one of the most innovative museum shows in the world — the landmark exhibition “India and the World: A History in Nine Stories”, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai. Even as painted elephants are stopping by at numerous cities in India as part of Elephant Parade, we also have what is being touted as India’s first Sculpture Park at Nahargarh Fort in Rajasthan.
When Art Offends
The burning question in the global art market this year was whether “offensive art” should be pulled from display. It started at the Whitney Biennial in New York, with Open Casket by Dana Schutz, a painting of Emmett Till, the 15-year-old who was accused of harassing a white woman and was brutally murdered in 1955. Protesters objected to what they saw as racial insensitivity of a white artist turning the tragic event into a “spectacle”, and demanded the painting be taken down. Schutz said she made the painting as an expression of solidarity with Till’s mother Mamie, who had famously insisted on an open casket so that the world could see the evidence of the horrific attack on her son, while others argued that removing the work would amount to censorship. Eventually, though, the work had to be taken down.
The Guggenheim in New York also removed three works from the highly anticipated show “Art and China after 1989: Theatre of the World”, after animal-rights activists protested the use of actual animals in them. The video work Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other showed pit bulls tied to treadmills, getting exhausted as they try to reach each other; A Case Study of Transference showed two pigs copulating; while the Theatre of the World installation showed a variety of insects and reptiles kept inside a caged arena where they battled each other to death. While the public and activists were offended by the “cruelty” in these works, others like PEN America and artist Ai Weiwei defended the works and the decision to display them. Meanwhile, back home, strong resentment from artists prevented the dismantling of Ramkinkar Baij’s 1970 sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi installed in Guwahati.
Indian art was conspicuously missing from the Venice Biennale this year as well, but we did manage to make an impact at the other major prestigious event of the year, Documenta. With parallel exhibitions in Kassel and Athens, the event saw its largest contingent from the Indian subcontinent, with more than 16 artists, including Nilima Sheikh, Ganesh Haloi, Amar Kanwar, Gauri Gill and Nikhil Chopra. After Subodh Gupta served his guests a seven-course Bihari meal as part of a performative piece at Art Basel, he travelled to Galleria Continua in San Gimignano for In This Vessel Lies the Philosopher’s Stone, where he has once again rearranged kitchen objects in his work.
Nalini Malini became the first Indian artist to have a retrospective at the prestigious Centre Pompidou in Paris, while Jayashree Chakravarty is also in Paris for a solo at Musée National Des Arts Asiatiques. The Whitworth in Manchester is presenting the first major UK exhibition by Raqs Media Collective and the city is also hosting solos by Neha Choksi and Reena Saini Kallat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is celebrating India’s dense milieu in the exhibition “Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs” and at the Science Museum in London, the series of exhibitions “Illuminating India” is marking the country’s contribution to science, technology and mathematics through two key shows. Showing “The Lightning Testimonies” with installations by Nigeria’s Emeka Ogboh at Tate Modern, Amar Kanwar was recently awarded the Prince Claus Awards, and Dayanita Singh’s Museum Bhavan won Book of the Year 2017 at Paris Photo Fair.
The art market in India was still reeling under demonetisation when the government announced that art will now come under the 12 per cent tax slab after the GST was rolled in. Till then, in a few states, including West Bengal, art was exempted from tax. “Additional tax has been levied on art material as well as the final artwork. We are now required to do so much paperwork. If we are feeling the burden, it will be worse for young artists. The market has been down for long now,” says artist Arpana Caur. Though artists sent out letters to the Ministry of Culture for reconsideration, and Trinamool MP and eminent artist Jogen Chowdhury raised the matter in the Parliament, there has been no amendment. Through the year, therefore, sales in the primary market were more cautioned, the secondary market though saw a couple of highs. In May, Tyeb Mehta’s Untitled (Woman On Rickshaw) sold for Rs 22.9 crore at Christie’s sale in London, setting a new world auction record for the artist. A new record was also set for Bhupen Khakhar as his work De-Luxe Tailors sold for Rs 9.5 crore at a Sotheby’s auction. Meanwhile, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi — the long-lost painting of Jesus Christ — set a world record with a $450.3 million sale at Christie’s in New York.