February 11, 2019
New Delhi •
THE MOST LAVISH PARTIES coinciding with India Art Fair are the midday brunches: As the sun pelts in though the now characteristically hazardous air pollution, attendees reach for the Bloody Marys. At one such event, hosted at the home of Shalini Passi, founder of the Shalini Passi Art Foundation, banners shifted in the wind, declaring: Lunch is Cancelled. In an eponymous performance, artist Mithu Sen paraded out of the house followed by a marching band, and servers were wearing those anti-lick recovery cones for pets around their necks. Sen wore a cone with a special blonde frill. Passi’s black pug, dressed in a large heirloom gold necklace decorated with teardrop emeralds, was guided around in a baby stroller. The procession then sat down at a table and ate with their hands, aiming food (sometimes unsuccessfully) into their mouths. The artist took to gibberish mutterings that are typical of her performances, in which she investigates what she calls a “radical hospitality.” “The only radical part,” a friend remarked dryly as a group of us looked through Instagram footage of the performance, “is that the servers ate before the guests.”
Thus began IAF 2019, flushed with irony. “He’s being sued for this, actually,” I heard someone proclaim loudly at the opening preview of the fair, pointing to Ai Weiwei’s Porcelain Vase (Journey), 2017, at neugerriemschneider’s booth. “By an Iranian artist for copying his design…or maybe for cultural appropriation?” While I can’t corroborate this story, I did enjoy it, partaking as it does in one of the few joys one finds while being at an art fair: the cheap thrills.
The Indian art scene has not been shy of scandal over the past six months: After a series of #MeToo accusations and a joint statement condemning sexual harassment—and the use of defamation as a manner by which to silence those coming out with their stories—the status quo has been shaken, and rightly so. The fair, taking cognizance, issued a policy stating that it reserves the right to take work down in the event of an accusation of misconduct. “In light of recent events and debates, we took the proactive step this year of updating our agreements to include clauses relating to harassment in the workplace,” said a spokesperson for the fair, “We have a duty of care to all employees and contractors.” There were no works to be seen by Riyaz Komu or Subodh Gupta, for instance, although the latter was spotted at several private parties.
“What I am most impressed by is how this fair does not feel like an imported model from the West—it’s refreshing somehow, quite different,” said curator Adam Szymczyk over a charcoal lemonade on the third day of the fair. Director Jagdip Jagpal and her smart team of young staff led a fair that seemed to be more like a festival, with a dense packet of programming, collateral events, performances, and talks. Despite MCH’s financial pull out from IAF (the Art Basel parent company had bought 65 percent of the fair in 2016) this edition was sharper than years previous. This was certainly true of the GALLERYSKE and Photoink booths: Joined together by a stylish seating lounge, artworks were hung as though in a home. A gesso panel by Bangalore-based artist Prabhavathi Meppayil was a delightfully serendipitous offering. The fair was full of quiet and unassuming works: A pair of sepia-toned gelatin photographs of sharp-jawed young men by Sri Lankan critic and photographer Lionel Wendt, at the Jhaveri Contemporary booth, were a personal highlight. As were seven small watercolor paintings by Pakistani artist Bani Abidi at Experimenter’s booth, each a portrait of a person caught in an animated laugh, darkly titled And They Died Laughing, 2016. In the sparsely hung Project 88 booth (which returned to the fair after a six-year hiatus), two large prints by artist Prajakta Potnis were hauntingly dystopian: mushroom clouds glowing inside of a refrigerator interior.
In the projects section, works stood out for their brazen critique of the state and its violence, such as Sohrab Hura’s The Lost Head & The Bird, 2016–, a film that splices together Hura’s photography with found WhatsApp propaganda footage popular with the far right. “Yes, there are some things that might get me into trouble, but let’s just see what happens,” Jagpal said during her opening speech. “I know, I know, I don’t want to go to prison either,” she added. The fair also absorbed its own critique: artist Sajan Mani walked the venue’s expanse on all fours, dressed as a cow/human hybrid tied to a long yellow noose, as a comment on how most art spaces in the country are sanitized of any political commentary, while artist Amol K Patil filled the venue with gently buoyant water bubbles, inviting young backstage staff from the local Delhi theater circuit to walk alongside him. Patil’s performance, which in previous iterations has included street sweepers from Dalit communities, was soft and whimsical. “People just enjoy the bubbles without actually paying attention to who is blowing them,” he said, eyes twinkling.
The fair drew to a close with a dance party—and an excellent Punjabi music and A. R. Rahman playlist—at the atelier of fashion brand Raw Mango, in a garden decorated with over 650 pounds of rose petals. Their heady scent were a sweet respite from New Delhi’s worsening and unrelenting smog, which even seeps into the art fair tents, washing out the colors and blurring the eyes.
— Skye Arundhati Thomas