The word on the street is that India is witnessing a “financial meltdown” (tell that to the 1,200 people rumoured to have lost their jobs at the Times of India) but one look at Mumbai’s art district this past month, and you can tell recession is here. The openings are dismal with the galleries serving terrible red wine; if the white wine is palatable, it runs out within an hour; instead of snacks, it’s come down to potato chips and dip (dodgy dip, at that), and there are no post-opening dinners. (Insert gasp here) This would be ok if the shows themselves were excellent but sadly, the recession was also seen in the quality of the art works on display.
The only fun show in recent times – and this is the “season”, if you please – has been “Travelling by Telephone” by Franco and Eva Mattes. It takes images from Second Life and video games and refashion them so that they seem to belong in the canon of high art. There are no aliens and cannibals visible, only dim rooms with faint sunshine, crouched bodies and dense shadows. The portraits are of characters from Second Life and while Rembrandt and gang may well whirlwind in their graves at the thought of these anime-inspired faces being considered as much a portrait as their works, the avatars offer an interesting look at the development of portraiture. Instead of an artist deciding how they will draw their subject and what hints to personalities will be embedded in the details and props surrounding the subjects, avatars are self-portraiture. Whether it is a realistic avatar or a fantastical one or even one of a constructed identity, the person making the avatar is also the person being depicted through it. And even if you’re not even remotely interested in the history of art, how can you resist the sight of a bobbing Hello Kitty squeezing past a door guarded by two naked figures or the heckler who carries a sign that reads, “You wouldn’t know art if it slapped you in the ****”? Not to mention the green alien who contemplatively tweaks the male figure’s nipple before moving away. All this is also part of a deep philosophical treatise on the nature of performance art but hey, when there’s a guy with a lion’s head in the video, I think I’m allowed to not take the Synthetic Performances too seriously. “Travelling by Telephone” is almost over but at least two of the shows that have opened in the past couple of weeks have good, unhackneyed work. The fun stuff by debutants like T. Venkanna and Mahesh Baliga make the trek downtown worthwhile.
For most of us, though, it is not the appearance of promising young artists that’s making us chirpy. It’s not enough to distract most of us from watching unemployment inch up to us or witness how something you’ve built gets torn down because of papery stuff you played Monopoly with as a kid (ok, maybe it’s not quite as frivolous but whatever). What has managed to distract us, however, is the fact that Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” has earned itself 10 Oscar nominations. It’s almost as though all billion of us made the film (while the truth of the matter is that those of us who aren’t into torrential downloading haven’t the faintest idea what the film looks or sounds like). Personally, I’m devastated that Anil Kapoor didn’t win a nomination for being the Best Supporting Actor. Being a horrible person, I’m also left musing whether Slumdog Millionaire would have got all 10 nominations (including 2 entries for the Best Song) if the terror attacks of November ’08 hadn’t happened. Though if some sort of ambiguous sympathy wave will get documentaries like “Smile Pinki” a wider audience, who’s complaining?
But however unpatriotic it may sound, 30 days from now, I’m going to be raising my pom-poms for “Milk” rather than “Slumdog Millionaire”. And Manish, my money’s on “Wall-E” even though Po from “Kung-Fu Panda” could easily pass off as me in this life and Second Life.
P.S. On a completely unrelated note, the band Little Joy is highly recommended. For the artistically-inclined, they have a song called “How to hang a Warhol” and it’s a love song.