India Art Fair: Beyond the Subcontinent   

Through a diverse collection of paintings, sculptures, installations and mixed media works, marked by remarkable innovations in each of these mediums, the relatively smaller but significant crop of international galleries at the 11th India Art Fair (IAF) showcased artworks that are a rare sighting in the country.

While contemporary art heavyweights such as Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei, Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, German photographers Thomas Ruff and Wolfgang Tillmans, and British artist Idris Khan headlined the international presence at the IAF, an equally diverse selection from the South Asian region was also seen at the fair.

Astonishing in its powerful imagination and artistic vision, the work of Ai, represented by Berlin-based gallery neugerriemschneider (both exhibiting in India for the first time), reflected upon the “tension” between manufactured and organic materials in his art through a gnarled tree trunk (Iron Root, 2015). Another exhibit by him, a porcelain vase in the Ming blue-and-white pottery tradition, mirrored the artist’s long-time preoccupation with the refugee crisis. At the gallery’s booth was also an installation by Eliasson, ‘Continued Infinite Conversation’, which comprised of 31 spheres of crystal glass, each flush with bright red and green. Representing the figure 8, the wall-work can be seen as exploring spiritual themes, creating an artistic ‘energy’ form, while pondering over ideas of spatial realities. Remarkable in both depth and design, the German gallery also brought to India an intimate monotype by American painter Elizabeth Peyton, Polish artist Pawel Althamer’s show-stopping sculpture resembling a reclining Buddha, though in a corrupted form, and American Pae White’s exquisite jacquard-woven tapestries, amongst others.

Ai Wei Wei. Photo: neugerriemschneider

Among the international newcomers this time at the fair, Arario Gallery based in China and South Korea, and Sokyo Gallery from Kyoto, showed an interesting line-up of artworks being collected in Asia. Monumental in form and rich in local and cultural iconographies, the bronze and industrial paint works of L N Tallur seen at Arario Gallery, drew upon the internal and external world struggles faced by human beings—in his quintessential practice of marrying “saturated” ideas of Indian art with contemporary techniques. Tallur’s spiritual quest, so to speak, extended into the acrylic painting of Korean artist KIM Taeho, which is aptly called ‘Internal Rhythm’. In the same presentation, Nalini Malini’s animated iPad sketches titled ‘Can you hear me?’, investigated how memories operate, as she centered her work on the politics of being heard or ignored, possibly from a woman’s point of view.

‘Internal Rhythm’, KIM Taeho. Photo: Arario Gallery

Visiting the Sokyo Gallery booth was a beguiling experience as one looked at the works of Japanese artist Kimiyo Mishima, who uses ceramic to masterfully re-create trash materials and other everyday objects. On the face of it, however, they appeared to be salvaged objects. In the same presentation, we not only saw ceramic-based abstract and figurative sculptures by Shozo Michikawa, Masatoma Toi and Satoru Hoshino, but also the use of ceramic powder in Heechang Yoon’s minimalist painting representing a multi-faceted engagement with the materiality of the ancient medium. A delicious addition to the ceramic works were Jae Yong Kim’s array of colourful confections mounted on a wall, represented by New York’s Aicon Gallery.

Berlin/London-based gallery Blain | Southern exhibited highly evocative watercolours by American-Italian artist Francesco Clemente, whose magical brushstrokes have been inspired by Indian traditional art. Through the use of Arabic calligraphy, water colours, acrylics and paper cut-outs, Italian artist Pietro Ruffo’s circular, intricate mixed-media works (Asian Spring, North American Spring) are centered on contemporary issues as he explores themes of freedom. One of the highlights of the Blain | Southern presentation is a set of sculptures by post-war Britain artist Lynn Chadwick, part of a generation of British sculptors who moved away from dominant traditions and materials within the medium to adopting newer materials. Jagged, conical and demonstrating a vigorous emphasis on the density of materials he used, his sculptures are known to shift between abstractions and figurations.

Thematically, Eliasson’s installation exploring ideas of space can be likened to some exhibits in David Zwirner’s (New York) presentation, which seem to delve into similar concepts through works of Dan Flavin’s multi-colour fluorescent light, Fred Sandback’s brilliant minimalist gold acrylic yarn and Carol Bove’s equally frugal installation of stainless steel with urethane paint.

‘Continued Infinite Conversation’, Olafur Eliasson. Photo: neugerriemschneider

Juxtaposed with these cutting-edge innovations, the presentation by Bruno Art Group, which has exhibited previously at IAF, put the spotlight on Israeli Roy Yariv’s intensely colourful, ebullient and multi-dimensional paintings, wall installations and sculptures—a milestone in the genre of op art and abstractions.

A stopover at Dhaka’s Britto Art Trust booth, showed conceptual explorations with sculptures, wall works and paper drawings that touched upon universal themes of war, political corruption, local issues and human consciousness. They revealed the breadth of artistic skill being represented by South Asian artists at IAF. In the sculptures of Aminul Islam Ashik, we see how power corrupts as he distorts faces of Aung San Suu Kyi, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, where he populates the facial fractures with empty chairs (and also what appear to be Rohingya refugees, in Suu Kyi’s case). Other standouts included Promotesh Das Pulak’s wall installation that shows an AK-47 rifle adorned with flowers made from ‘shola plant’- a combination of war equipment and traditional art (such as the use of flowers as craft material) that is often seen in his work. Ashim Halder Sagor’s sculptures brought raku pottery to the fair as he studies human faces and heads in quasi-skeletal depictions.

Some of the paintings and other exhibits by Nepal-born Youdhisthir Maharjan, Bangladeshi artists Ayesha Sultana and Rana Begum, and Lahore’s Aisha Khalid, all represented by different galleries at the fair, showed fine works steeped in complex, illusory, geometric patterns. In the midst of these, New York-based and Lahore-born Salman Toor’s paintings brought by Aicon Gallery, drew our attention to scenes of queer intimacy among men of colour.

L N Tallur. Photo: Arario Gallery

Speaking more about IAF’s South Asia focus and the factors behind picking the galleries, its Director Jagdip Jagpal said: “We select international galleries that are looking to make a long-term commitment to the region. Many artists reflect the culture of South Asia and broader ideas such as feminism, equality and our relationship to the past. Someone like (performance and mixed media artist) Mithu Sen really stands out for me. Her use of mixed-media allows her to explore ideas of sexuality, language, the value of art and objects, and experiences of marginalisation.”

In the process of traversing a long journey with the change of guard at the top and recent news that MCH Group will sell its majority stake once a new buyer is announced, the IAF has completed 11 editions and is known as the subcontinent’s largest modern and contemporary art fair. Even as the art market awaits an update about the new buyer, triggering conversations around the fair’s future, another question with respect to the trends seen in the larger sector is worth asking: is IAF planning a strategy focusing on online sales of art?

“There has been a steady rise in online sales in the last few years. However, this is still a small part of the market. One has to remember that it’s possible to discover artists online and see virtual museums, but that doesn’t stop people from actually visiting museum and gallery spaces. The two experiences are not interchangeable,” the IAF said.

Blain | Southern. Photo: India Art Fair

Cover image: Ashim Halder Sagor, Britto Arts Trust. Photo: India Art Fair.
All images used with permission.