The Turner Prize has something of a reputation for picking up future hotties of the world of art. In the past, winners have included Howard Hodgkin, Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst and Steve McQueen. This year, however, Jonathan Jones of the Guardian is not happy with the Turner Prize nominees and if Runa Islam doesn’t win, it sounds like Jonathan Jones might issue a fatwa against this year’s judges. It’s all “pseudo-intellectual flotsam” wrote Jones in his intro and then went on to rant,
“The question is whether this show reflects poor choices or a poor field to choose from. The unfortunate thing about this shortlist is that it reflects a mentality only too dominant in art magazines and curating right now – a rather overthought, overtalked, pseudo-intellectual culture.”
At which point I was wondering if through some TARDIS-like mechanism, Jones had landed up in the show titled Anxious in Mumbai, instead of the Turner Prize show in London. Anxious is inspired by Peter Handke’s “Offending the Audience” and in an effort to offend the audience, or to make it anxious to see more perhaps, the show attempts to radically change how we in Mumbai see shows. So it has ladders in the middle of the room, fairy lights glimmering from the ceilings, paintings hanging in unexpected corners and angles, and Western classical music as a soundtrack to the viewing experience. I don’t know about other Mumbaikars but me, I’m not particularly offended by ladders or fairy lights. The latter I found pretty actually and sad, in the manner of Christmas decorations that linger after their time. In the quest to seem intelligent and be frightfully cutting edge, Anxious attempted to make seeing the show a chore. This doesn’t seem like a smart idea in a city where galleries throng with people only when free wine is being served. However, if Duchamp could get away tangling people in string and making them dodge a ball game in an effort to see an exhibition, then “ghost curator” Gitanjali Dang can make you peer past ladders and get a crick in the neck trying to see paintings.
Here’s the catch. Call me conservative but if, for all your ladder-based salutes to Marcel Duchamp, someone can see a show more visibly and comprehensibly on a website instead of in the gallery, then the point of having a live show is somewhat lost. Also, was it offensive to see a perfectly decent painting tucked into a corner, hanging bat-like from a ceiling or displayed upside down? For the artist, possibly, but not for the viewer. Most of us will assume that’s how the work is meant to be seen, even though it isn’t. Presumably, if the painting worked better upside down, the artist wouldn’t have decided the other way was the right side up. Also, do I actually understand or appreciate a painting better if it’s shrouded in shadow, or if I have to crouch in front of it or if it is upside down? Not really. All it seems is at best eccentric and at worst pretentiously illogical, which is why it seemed particularly fitting that the tour de force of Anxious is a set of four photographs of Tejal Shah pretending to a patient of hysteria. What makes Jones’ comment about the Turner Prize show particularly pertinent to Anxious, however, is that most of the paintings on display at the show aren’t worth making an effort over. After all that eye-squinting and neck-twisting, what you end up seeing are singularly okay works. These are not examples of the artists like Atul Dodiya and Nalini Malani at the top of their form. Or at least, so we hope because if this show is an example of the best we have to offer, then future auctions of Asian art are going to be much more depressing than the sale Sotheby’s had a few days ago.
The unthinkable happened at this auction – favourites like India’s Damien Hirst Subodh Gupta and Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang were among those who didn’t sell. They weren’t alone. Takeshi Murakami and Nam June Paik also didn’t sell. Exactly 47% of what was displayed remained unsold at the end of the auction. Thukral and Tagra managed to just exceed their estimates, which will make their galleries sigh in relief no doubt. But the chaps who are really exulting are galleries and collectors who had the sense to pick relatively unknown names from un-arty countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. If Gupta and Zhang are into voodoo, they’re making dolls of Indonesian painter I Nyoman Masriadi and Filipino artist Geraldine Javier. If they’d been reading Bloomberg, they’d have started pricking pins into those dolls way before now.
One quick look at the biggest winners at Sotheby’s sale shows a vote for art that is easy on the eye and wall-friendly. By wall-friendly I don’t mean that it should be capable of being hung but that these works are the kind that look good above the sofa. They’re often funny, frequently pretty in the conventional/ popular sense and don’t seem particularly “edgy” or steeped in postmodern theory, which means they can be comprehended without a volume of footnotes that drop names of eminent twentieth-century artists. If anything, these paintings are safely ensconced in old-fashioned painting techniques and neat, simple imagery. Would Fernando Cueto Amorsolo‘s painting have made curators anxious or even curious? Probably not. It’s too conventional, too passé, too predictably pretty. But when stock markets across the world are going to hell, worldwide depression is setting in, the nation of Iceland is on the verge of bankruptcy and America is the new banana republic, it seems buyers spend money on art not as a financial speculation as much as something that they want to live with. Something they won’t regret buying, unlike their shares in Morgan Stanley, because even if it doesn’t meet the approval of snooty curators, it’s beautiful.