Recently, I had to go to the office of the Income Tax department. (Given I’m a print journalist by profession and one who has a track record of securing only underpaid jobs, that line in itself could be the punchline of joke.) The place I went to was one of those typically dreary government offices, with walls painted the shade of milky baby puke and corridors that are aglow with existential angst and the light of neon tubelights. When I finally got to meet the bureaucrat who had summoned me, I entered a room whose cleanest and most organised part looked like this:
By the end of my meeting, I had added to the number of files in the office. Mine is a bright green file, which has no name or number written on it and is under a few dozen other files of various hues. By now, it’s probably being fossilised. The reason I mention the inside of the Income Tax department’s office is that the inside of my head feels a little bit like the above shelf. Thanks to the fact that I’ve finally been able to see some stuff in the city, there’s a proper backlog of things I though I’d blog about. I suppose most organised people would follow some sort of chronological order while clearing backlogs. Me, I’m going to begin by just pulling out the first file that upon which my metaphorical hand has landed — Mumbai Gallery Weekend.
At the end of March, nine well-known and well-respected Mumbai galleries had a show at the Taj Lands End in Bandra. The galleries were Chatterjee & Lal, Chemould Prescott Road, Gallery Maskara, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Project 88, Sakshi, Volte, The Guild and Lakeeren. This was significant for two reasons. One, galleries don’t generally work together much. Two, contemporary art rarely gets out of Colaba. For all these galleries to trek from downtown to the suburb of Bandra was pretty significant. It was a bit like Vasco da Gama heading out from Lisbon towards the continent of Africa. The Taj Lands End had a separate area specially constructed for the exhibition. A lot of people who live north of Mahim were happy that they didn’t have to travel four-odd hours to see art. Gallerists seemed to cheerful about the number of visitors. I’m not sure if they made a killing in terms of sales but initiatives like Mumbai Gallery Weekend should be welcome. Not only does it mean contemporary art being literally more accessible than when it’s in Colaba and behind imposing gallery doors, but also, for the galleries there is the possibility of new buyers. So yes, it was all happy happy joy joy.
Ok, maybe not all.
Mumbai Gallery Weekend was, for most people, a lot of fun. I, on the other hand, found myself getting increasingly annoyed by the exhibition even though I still think it was a great idea and one that will hopefully be reprised many times over. Here’s why I felt all growly by the time I left Taj Lands End. First, while it was nice that the galleries weren’t cordoned into individual spaces, the show’s layout and hanging was awful. Certain pieces were hidden in corners in a way that did them immense disservice — like Sharmila Samant’s four glass hammers which were hidden away as though they were dirty secrets; they were actually more interesting than the single hammer that enjoyed a far more prominent position in the show — and absolutely none of the pieces responded to one another. Why would you have Tanya Goel’s paintings, which had colour bars and looked like television test cards, facing one of Sheba Chhachhi’s LCD panels? A Reena Kallat installation near Tejal Shah’s photographs taken in Australia did nothing for either artist’s work. This thoughtless layout was particularly disappointing because many of the galleries that took part in Mumbai Gallery Weekend do a superb job of hanging shows in their own spaces. The slap-up job at this event showed how little thought had gone into the exhibition. It’s a show in a hotel, in the suburbs; why bother to even try curating it?
The other thing that was a little disheartening was the fact that Mumbai Gallery Weekend was clearly an excuse for most galleries to go through their inventory and put up works that haven’t been sold. This doesn’t mean that all the works were shoddy. Some of them were good (more on that later), but too many were distinctly blah. It was as though the galleries had thought that since there would be non-aficionados coming to visit, this was a chance to see if the ordinary or unsuccessful works in the kitty could be palmed off. Things like the Anish Kapoor, El Anatsui, Ravinder Reddy, Chintan Upadhyay, Damien Hirst, Sadanand pieces (among others) had the word “inventory” written all over them, and in big, neon lettering. That said, I suppose it’s standard practice to bring out unsold works when at fairs and events like this one. However, it would have been nice to see the galleries putting in the effort to set up a solid show with powerful works for an exhibition that was essentially Colaba saying hello to Bandra. Back when I was doing my undergrad, there used to be two kinds of courses you could take. One was called B.A. Pass and the other was B.A. Honours. The latter is the one that, as the name suggests, was harder work and more prestigious. The not-so-bright sparks and slackers sidled their way through college with B.A. Pass. Mumbai Gallery Weekend felt like the art equivalent of a B.A. Pass performance.
The problem with a backlog post is the fact that my memory is like Swiss cheese. The specifics of many of the works I liked and hated have slipped through the holes. Particularly the ones I hated because there really was a lot of crap being shown. Some, however, made deep enough cuts. My heart sank when I saw the huge mound of cow dung patties (a sculptural installation by Shine Shivan, which a passing kid summed up as “a pile of shit”) that sat in a foyer-like space and was among the first things visitors to the exhibition saw. Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s deeply underwhelming photographs were there, which a photographer friend told me were printed ineptly in addition to the banality of their subjects and style. Minam Apang’s “Nothing of Him Doth Fade” looked like a mess. Recently, someone told me that the Herwitzs had a rule: watch an artist over at least 3 years before buying their work. I think it’s good advice when it comes to not just buying but also liking artists. Priyanka Choudhary’s wax and knife sculpture looked like it was made up of the leftover red wax from Anish Kapoor’s Mehboob Studios show. Tejal Shah’s photographs (of Australian sunsets, if I remember correctly) were quite forgettable.
For me, the find was Meenakshi Sengupta, one of Gallery Maskara’s artists who did a beautiful, witty and irreverent work titled “Krishna Paksha”, in which she used the style of miniature painting to show a scene from Raas Lila. According to the myth, Krishna promises Radha and all the other gopinis (girls who were somewhat besotted about Krishna) a dance and miraculously, each of them is convinced that Krishna is indeed dancing with them alone. Raas Lila is often translated to “dance of love”. Sengupta painted an Indian miniature-inspired diptych that showed the gopinis dancing but not around Krishna; at the centre of the painting was a contraceptive pill. The other panel showed a noticeably pregnant gopini. I burst out in laughter when I saw this work the first time and returned to it a twice. It’s such a clever reinterpretation of the randy Krishna’s “dance of love”. Sharmila Samant’s set of four glass hammers were beautiful. Manjunath Kamat’s series of animations was fun. Ranbir Kaleka, as usual, was wonderful. Narendra Yadav had a video installation that was hilarious. When you looked straight ahead, you saw a video projection that is pointed to the ceiling. Look up to the ceiling and you see an image projected above. It’s of a fan that’s gently whirring. It was fun to see the antiquated technology being recreated and in a sense made immortal using advanced technology. Kiran Subbaiah’s sculpture — at least I think it was his — using a shoe and a banana was one of those pieces that makes you want to go up close and examine it. And it didn’t disappoint upon that closer look.
I think I’ve covered everything I wanted to write about. While the bad probably outnumbered the good, Mumbai Gallery Weekend was still a lovely way to spend a weekend. Apparently, Taj Lands End is considering setting up a permanent gallery space that can be rented out and if that happens, then Colaba galleries would have a place where they could have satellite shows, should they be so inclined. So far, the five-star hotel gallery hasn’t been particularly successful at an aesthetic level. For example, the Trident (or is it the Oberoi? I always confuse those two) at Nariman Point has an art gallery that is a showcase for all sorts of boring, amateur art. Hopefully, if Taj Lands End chooses to take an artistic plunge, the space won’t wind downwards similarly.