15th India Art Fair: The eyes have it

The 15th edition of the India Art Fair had a few moments of fresh awe, but almost all of them sought to challenge perceptions—of both the medium and the message
People Who Do Not Exist by Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya
People Who Do Not Exist by Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya

"Do You Get What You Want or What You Need.” The neon-lit letters glowed on a two-way mirror in a work by artist Jeppe Hein, exhibited at this year’s India Art Fair. In the context of the annual art event, what one wants and needs is pretty much the same: art that evokes, provokes and draws you in.

One of the perennial joys of walking aimlessly through the makeshift corridors at the fair is having stellar artworks pop out from different booths. This year, the participation went up to 108 exhibitors from 85 in the previous edition.

There were exalted visitors too, like Kumar Mangalam Birla, who is a regular at art fairs. “The attitude of big buyers to collecting art seems to have changed,” says a prominent gallerist, adding, “At previous fairs, they would simply point at virtually everything and buy. This time, they are more prudent.” But, art hasn’t lost its lustre, going by the sale and size. The fair was sold out on the penultimate day. Besides, the optics was not just the visual insides. The place itself looked like a work of art. Attention was the mot juste of the fair: artist Tito Stanley breathed life into his self-portrait as he walked around wearing golden schmutter and sneakers, like the one in his painting.

The downside, however, was galleries showing familiar works by established artists, leaving little chance for newcomers. Even if moments evoking fresh awe were few, the works that made the visit worthwhile were those that challenged perceptions, through both the medium and the message.

Depopulate-1 by Martand Khosla

Vantage Point

Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya’s People Who Do Not Exist had visitors storm the PhotoInk booth. The large-scale (7x5 ft) work features 1,000 portraits of people, except as the title suggests, they do not exist. The objective is to reflect on the impact of AI on the field of photography. “These Al-generated portraits, while devoid of

a physical subject, bear an uncanny resemblance to real people, complete with distinct facial features, expressions and even emotions. This development raises profound questions about the nature of portraiture in photography,” the artists explain through a ChatGPT-generated message accompanying the piece.

They add, “Traditionally, a portrait is more than just a visual representation of an individual. It is a reflection of the subject’s identity, personality, and even their state of mind at the moment the photograph is taken. The photographer, through their skill and artistry, is able to capture these nuances in the portrait. However, Al-generated portraits challenge this concept.”

The act of questioning the perception continues in Martand Khosla’s 2023 work, Depopulate -1. The piece created by laser etching on paint showcases an aerial view of the rapidly expanding urban infrastructures, vis-a-vis the shrinking space for free existence. Khosla says, “We come to art with our own readings of it.

I had another person who thought about cities being destroyed and bombed.” “My practice is about urbanism. This work talks about the cyclical moment that our cities have— how they are constantly collapsing and how they reemerge. You can look at it at a larger scale, or at a slum level, or a more overt form of islands like Gaza,” he adds.

The latest piece in Ayesha Sultana’s Nodules series seems to challenge the perception of what is considered as art. The 2024 work—a white blob of plaster-of-paris made stationary on an invisible wire mesh—occupied an unassuming space in the Kolkata and Mumbai-based Experimenter’s booth. Those familiar with the abstract artist’s practice, will know that she likes to explore “the depth of meaning of the medium itself”. This artwork, combined with its placement on a slab close to the ground, seemed to allude to building blocks of life, or perhaps the artificial world that encapsulates it.

Dare to Deceive

Pune-based Vida Heydari Contemporary brought a stellar show to the fair, considering it is barely four years old in the business. The Skin of Truth-India 1 by Zhang Ji was particularly striking in how it deceived the viewer to believe the medium was some kind of fabric. It is safe to say that the mind was boggled on learning that the work that recreate a toran—

a decorative string spotted on temple entrances—was in fact made with oil on pastel. “Created using a syringe by applying 120 tubes onto the canvas, Zhang’s works resemble bas-relief sculptures, modulating between composition and decomposition, sturdiness and ephemerality,” says the gallery.

Often artists choose mediums based on their texture. Ironically, with Skin of Truth, Ji challenges that very notion, as does Nilesh Kumavat in Heavenscape, brought by Rukshaan gallery. The piece revels in its simplistic rendition of nostalgia. The flatness of the white canvas rendered by layers of white leaves is broken by the brownness of the tree trunks. A closer inspection reveals impressions of all things past—keys, cassettes, CDs and more. The gasp-inducing moment occurs on learning that the leaves are not made of paper but acrylic.

Then, there’s ‘In’ Congruous by Shalina Vichitra represented by Delhi-based Latitude 28. The installation has small house-shaped blocks mounted on the wall. For Vichitra, it is an attempt to understand how communities interact with the dynamics of the space they occupy. “The work chronicles a dwelling, its layers of history and its connection with the overall fabric of the earth,” she explains.

From a distance, the brown of the blocks gives the impression that the material is wood, a medium that seems appropriate in the context of the piece. The accompanying wall text, however, clarifies that it is mild steel, and the patches that could be confused as fading of the wood is in fact rusting—“an organic transformation akin to the layers of embedded history of porous spaces”. Ask the artist if she intended to create the impression of wood using steel; she refuses. Beauty after all lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Crowd Pullers

Rhythmic Resonance: A Visual Raga

Presented by Delhi’s Art Alive gallery, the 16-foot-long mridangam by artist Paresh Maity celebrates the harmonious coexistence that is at the core of Indian heritage in today’s technology-driven world. “Just like a musical instrument is incapable of producing music without a player, peace and harmony ceases to exist without the synergy of diverse people,” the artist says.

Walls have ears too

A literal visual interpretation of the Hindi idiom, deewaron ke bhi kaan hote hain, the installation by Sajid Wajid Sheikh comprises multiple rows of antenna-equipped ears that move from side to side as visitors walk by. It is a remark on the pervasive surveillance that is increasingly becoming a way of life.

Elevator from the Subcontinent

The immersive installation by Gigi Scaria was brought to the fair by the KNMA. As one steps into the elevator, they move through levels, but not of a building, but socio-economic layers that have come to define urban Indian society. “It takes you through the city, its hurried transformations and its stratified living spaces, highlighting a social mapping,” the artist says.

StarStruck Besides the who’s who of the art world, the art fair also got a visit by its Bollywood regular, Sonam Kapoor, whose art collection, boasting works by the likes of Rana Begum, Shezad Dawood and Lubna Chowdhary, is more impressive than her acting career. Also spotted were Masaba Gupta, Arjun Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor.

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