If you tell anyone at Live ’08 that the performances at the galleries feel a bit like they are hired spectacles, like jesters at medieval European courts or Shah Rukh Khan at the Mittal wedding, it’s most likely that you’ll get a spontaneous lecture on the politics of being a performer and how interesting it is to see the gallery as a performance space subverting traditional roles of the viewer and the object being viewed. The fact is when you have poshly-dressed people wafting around, getting drunk while watching “performance art”, this is more of a party than a performance piece. Because Rahul Khanna, owner of Palette Art Gallery and not the son of Vinod Khanna, didn’t order crates of Teacher’s whiskey to make a point about perspectives and the dynamics of identity; he got the booze so that people who come to his gallery have a good time. And they did. Perhaps it made them more forgiving about what art was performed for their viewing pleasure.
Day Four of Live ’08
Palette Art Gallery is in a lovely little bungalow in the posh neighbourhood of Golf Links. It’s a gorgeous road to walk down during the day, despite the pavement that looks like it’s just survived an earthquake. Low bungalows, flowering trees and a gorgeous little tower from Mughal Dilli – it’s just charming. Walk down that road at 6.45 in the evening, when darkness has fallen, and there’s not a single street light to slice the dense darkness that makes you feel like you’re in the sets of “From Hell”, minus the Depp. Sickly light sighs its way out of the windows of the houses and the clusters of gossiping men all seem to first cousins of Jack the Ripper.
When you finally find the gallery and walk past the gates into a normal looking house, you look up to see a wide ledge on the other side of a window with tall candles glowing warmly and someone sitting on a stool. You think at first it’s a woman because the figure is clearly wearing a corset. You realise within half a second that it isn’t a woman because there’s nothing filling the cups of the corset. The reason you don’t look to the face for a clue is that it is covered by a mask of a cow’s head. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Fred Koenig.
Darkness and possible rape or a cow-man wearing a corset? If you selected cow-man, read on.
Of course it was bizarre, but having Fred Koenig on that ledge was a lovely gimmick to lure in the folks. Unlike a lot of what I’ve seen since at Live ’08, Koenig’s was a performance, and a pretty darn arresting one at that. We went up one flight of stairs to find a large window which had this instruction written below it – “Don’t spit anywhere but here.” Koenig sat seductively on the other side of the glass, like a zoo animal or a European prostitute, and held up a metal bowl (like the ones pets have for their meals) begging for your spit. He posed for cameras, alluring peeled down one bra cup to show you a nipple, crossed and uncrossed his legs while taking the fluid in the bowl (presumably spit?) and drawing tear stains down the eyes of his cow mask.
I wasn’t late for the show at Palette but it was way too crowded to see most of what was happening in the performances. The gallery is, predictably enough, not designed as an amphitheatre for 80-odd people which meant poor me got a great view of many people’s elbows for most of the evening. The first thing I saw upon walking in, however, was Sushil Kumar sitting cross legged, back facing the entrance to the gallery, completely naked. A camera projected a blown up image of what he looked like from the front – remember the whole thing about the politics of performance where the viewer becomes the viewed? – and a woman went about scrawling things on the wall with the projected image. I turned around to say hi to someone and suddenly Kumar started wearing his clothes. He didn’t stop at covering his body up – a plastic bag went around his head and he started mingling in the crowd. Then there was the sound of a plastic bag bursting and Kumar emerged, minus his head covering, and bowed signalling the end of his performance.
Boris Nieslony is one person I really had wanted to see but it was a case of elbow-watching that forced me to leave the room where he was performing and instead go out on to the terrace to make the most of the excellent bar. This was where I heard about Mehr Javed’s supposedly riveting performance using a pair of real goat’s lungs and how entirely fabulous everything was, darling. The who’s who of New Delhi’s culturati were here – Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy, documentary film maker Sanjay Kak, artist Vivan Sundaram… and I’m not the one familiar with the swish set in any city so I’m certain someone more conversant with the celebrity section in the Times of India would have more names to rattle off.
After Boris Nieslony, crafty positioning got me a good seat for Inder Salim’s performance but before him, it was Monali Meher’s turn. She lives in the Netherlands, has performed in Beijing and the Tate Modern, and I haven’t the faintest what the devil she was doing. She wore a tunic that looked a bit like the aprons worn by blacksmiths in Robin Hood-type films, except that it was shiny black with words like “violence”, “evidence” and “proof” written on it. There were also panels of red fabric, presumably driving home the point about violence. First she spent about fifteen minutes, taking bubble wrap off her props. It’s an exercise that lots of performance artists like doing and I don’t get. Do I need to see your bubble wrap peeling techniques? No. Move on already! After doing her unpeeling, she unravelled a ball of red wool and passed it on to people in the audience. The idea was quite clearly to wind this red thread around all the members of the audience, literally tying them into the performance and also perhaps making sure they can’t leave because each person is tied to the next. Indian audiences, however, ain’t so gullible. Most people simply ignored the wool. Meher also took about 8 minutes to wear a shoe, which I’m certain wasn’t supposed to be such a trial.
The only point at which it really felt as though there was a performance was when she stood in front of a camera which again projected images on to a wall and used it to create images that seemed violent when you saw the projection but oddly erotic and sensual when you saw her caressing her own face and hair with her props. About one and a half hours after she started and when I was going to leave the gallery after the end of Inder Salim’s performance, Ms. Meher was roaming around wearing a kaftan that I swear I’ve seen my mother wear. She stood in front of a mirror and stuck silver paper on her face and looked remarkably like the Punjabi aunties one sees in Delhi beauty salons, getting their exotic facials et al.
Inder Salim was definitely the pick of the evening. He organised an impromptu auction of photographs taken by him of a cobbler who works near Salim’s house. The proceeds from the auction would go to the cobbler, who sat with his wife on two golden thrones, watching the audience watch Salim auction photographs of their lives. Prices began at Rs. 5, 000 and within seconds, the atmosphere was electric. Salim was cheeky and irreverent as the auctioneer who is as indiscreet as can be. His bidders included Rashmi Kalika, Vivan Sundaram, Savi Savarkar and a humorous Japanese man called something like Takahiro. Salim wasn’t able to guilt people into buying every photograph (which came out of a white box, a pointed reference to the gallery being a white box) but he did pretty well. The highest price was Rs. 20, 000 for a great picture of a potter’s wheel and a series of pots surrounding it. The next prize (Rs. 16, 000) went to another wonderful photograph of the cobbler’s tool kit being held by his wife (see pic).
Some Inder Salim quotes –
“We’re starting at Rs. 5,000 but I will be personally signing every print and I assure you, it will go for a million dollars by next year.”
“Who will begin? Perhaps Anupam Poddar (one of the biggest collectors of Indian art with a reputation of buying pretty everything he can get his hands on, including a replica a dinosaur skeleton in metal, provided he likes the artist) can begin it.”
“For me, this is really a master’s work.” (Salim showing a pretty average photograph.)
“I thought art critics have no soul but you have proved me wrong. Bravo!” (when Rahul Bhattacharya, obviously an art critic, bought a photograph)
“This is India. Take one. It will look great in the living room.”
“There’s a little hope in the middle where you see the leaves. You must look for these things in a work of art. It’s like poetry. Those who love trees, bid for this picture. (no bids) No one loves trees. It’s very sad.”
“This is real archival ink on enhanced something paper. You have to say these things because it’s what they say at auctions.”
“Those who love the love must get this. Romance in front of mochi ki dukaan (cobbler’s shop). It is purely Bollywood and full of all the melodrama that we all love. (no bids) Romance is dead.”
A lot of Salim’s pictures were really good – rich colours, emotion-filled moments, good framing – and the fact that he was making fun of the art market was quite obvious but decently done. He raised questions about how art was valued and sold, what is used to quantify art, how much distance there generally is between the subject and the world which art works inhabit and so on. What I wasn’t so comfortable with was how he made a spectacle of the cobbler and his wife by seating them as objects who were to be seen and evaluated by us. They had very little idea, if any at all, of what was happening. Their lives had been turned into objects and being priced, albeit with the honourable purpose of raising money to get them a house, but it’s still objectification. Of the people who were being made into exhibits by being made to sit there, watching us watch them, unaware that they have every right to judge us, unaware that our attention is not on them but on how Inder Salim has made their poverty beautiful enough to decorate our walls.
(to be continued…)