A decade in Indian art: The 2010s witnessed biennale fever, some commercial gains, and a moral reckoning

On the surface it may seem like artists have never had it any better as in the last decade, considering there are now more residencies than before, more collectors, institutions, funding agents and curators. From a more moral vantage point, however, a case could be construed that points to the hypocrisy of intent behind many of these gestures | #DecadeInReview

Rosalyn DMello December 31, 2019 11:40:18 IST
A decade in Indian art: The 2010s witnessed biennale fever, some commercial gains, and a moral reckoning
  • The secondary art market had its fair share of advances followed by some retreating in this decade.

  • The 2010s also saw biennale fever take over India, particularly inspired by the success of the artist-driven Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which launched its first edition in 2012.

  • The last two years of this decade were marked by the ascent of marginalised voices under the threatened and threatening guise of anonymity speaking up about and against serious instances of sexual harassment, rape, assault, and molestation by celebrated male “genius” Indian artists.

This is part two of a column on the decade that was in Indian contemporary art. Read part one, on the rise of private collectors and the emergent relationship between between the art sector and CSR, here.

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In 2013, international auction giant Christie’s announced its first-ever live auction in India, in Mumbai, which was repeated for four years until they decided to call it a day. At the time Sonal Singh, Christie’s India director and specialist head, Sonal Singh, said the company would continue to hold three annual live auctions of modern and contemporary South Asian art between London and New York and also have auctions with classical Indian art in four annual auctions between New York, London and Hong Kong while additionally exploring the online space, which continues to be dominated in India by the 20-year-old, home-grown Saffronart, which has successfully branched out into selling property and launched Storyltd, an online portal for limited edition art objects.

In 2018, Sotheby’s held its first live auction in India, but given its unimpressive earnings in 2019, at the second edition during which the auction highlight, a Gaitonde painting, found no takers, one wouldn’t be surprised if they retreated, too, from hosting an auction on Indian soil. Of the 61 pieces of art on sale, 11 failed to find buyers, and the total lot fetched only Rs 23.8 crore as against the expected Rs 37 crore, validating speculations about the impact of the ongoing economic slowdown in the Indian art market.

As these developments indicate, the secondary market had its fair share of advances followed by some retreating in this decade.

A decade in Indian art The 2010s witnessed biennale fever some commercial gains and a moral reckoning

Image via Facebook/@ Kochi-Muziris Biennale

The 2010s also saw biennale fever take over India, particularly inspired by the success of the artist-driven Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which launched its first edition in 2012. Gallery directors in Mumbai and Delhi began to realise the profit potential in collaboration, successfully launching unique events to attract new collectors, such as Mumbai Gallery Weekend and Delhi Contemporary Art Week. Meanwhile, Experimenter in Kolkata just concluded the ninth edition of its fairly established Curator’s Hub.

Many of these initiatives have shown how the Indian art world has definitely become a more dynamic space with artists, gallery directors, curators and collectors gaining from extended exposure to international standards.

In 2011, for the first time in the history of then 115-year-old Venice Biennale, the Indian government facilitated a showcase of contemporary art to the event as an official entrant, selecting Ranjit Hoskote as a curator. Eight years later, thanks to the efforts of Kiran Nadar and Tarana Sawhney, India was represented once again at the 2019 edition, with the cooperation of the Indian government. Whether this time the motivation will be sustained or not remains to be seen, though Nadar and Sawhney are convinced it will.

On the surface it may seem like — from an infrastructural perspective — artists have never had it any better as in the last decade, considering there are now more residencies than before, more collectors, institutions, funding agents and curators. From a more moral vantage point, however, a case could be construed that points to the hypocrisy of intent behind many of these gestures, where many questions of sustainability are being sidestepped because there continues to be a tight-lipped silence around a singular question: where does the money come from?

Such a provocation cannot be understated or even dismissed in the era we refer to as marked by late capitalism and increasingly inundated by fundamentalist and fascist forces. Especially considering that in 2019, it became all the more relevant because of the Warren Kanders protests in America, when, over eight months, the Whitney Museum of American Art saw a wave of demonstrations demanding the resignation of Kanders from the museum board.

Whitney director, Adam Weinberg had made the argument, in Kanders’ defence, that the museum’s reliance on patronage meant it ‘cannot right all the ills of an unjust world. Kanders had served on the board of the Whitney for 13 years, with his total donation to the institution amounting to a sum of 10 million dollars. His resignation was sought after it had come to light that he was the owner of a defense company, Safariland, that produces munitions for police and military forces and had supplied tear gas which was used against migrants on the US/Mexico border.

In July 2017, artists Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson and Tobi Haslett wrote a powerful statement on the subject, titling it “The Tear Gas Biennial” in which, besides calling upon participating artists to boycott the biennial by bringing attention to the hazardous use of tear gas by the state against protestors, they asked provocative questions that were not limited in their ideological scope to the Kanders matter.

“Which is it: that artists are helpless to act politically for fear of losing their livelihoods, or that political commitments among artists are blandly congratulated and even encouraged?” they ask. “Opportunities to collectively refuse are not unfair burdens but continuations of collective resistance. The insistence that artists alone — unlike teachers, incarcerated people, and Uber drivers — are unable to act because of their financial and professional circumstances is a career concern masquerading as class analysis,” they point out. “Among other things, it reflects artists’ fear of being sidelined (cancelled, perhaps?) by the arbiters of art value for having the wrong politics. By refusing to be totally compliant with the demands of the institution, artists are taking a risk. That’s precisely what makes these actions impactful and even inspiring: that they have stakes.”

The last two years of this decade were marked by the ascent of marginalised voices under the threatened and threatening guise of anonymity speaking up about and against serious instances of sexual harassment, rape, assault, and molestation by celebrated male “genius” Indian artists.

But 2019 also demonstrated how easily powerful men with access to inexhaustible resources and the backing of a commercialised art world can punish such outspokenness through legal reprimand in the form of defamation suits. The biggest hope has come in the form of a hastily formed yet devastatingly necessary union of people working in the art industry. It would have been marvellous to seek solace in the numerous signatories to statements condemning the move, if only it wasn’t painfully obvious how many senior artists who added their names have no hesitations in posting on social media about their continuing fraternity with the defendant at private parties and openings, thereby chastising him on paper but not withholding their social intimacy.

Given the existential crisis facing the Indian republic in the form of the discriminatory CAA, and the NRC and NPR exercises, the question begs to be asked about the role and relevance of artists in taking an overt political stance that goes beyond the commerce of art making and selling. “But artists can and do bite the hand that feeds,” write Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson and Tobi Haslett.

Here’s to more biting and subversive feeding in the 2020s.

Read more from our 'Decade in Review' series here.

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