A shorter version of this article is on The Economist’s Prospero blog
India revels in creating pockets of excellence out of urban noise and muddle and at turning logic on its head, and it also loves creating tamashas. That is what has happened at the four-day India Art Fair that closed on Sunday night in New Delhi. Families and young children mixed with serious art collectors and buyers, and the organisers were pleased that their estimated 80,000 total number of visitors was considerably less than the 128,000 that they claimed last year.
“The mood of excitement to see things and to learn is palpable – there is tremendous spirit,” said Hugo Weihe, Christie’s Asian art director, standing in the middle of Sunday’s crowds that totalled some 20,000. “You can feel the future of the Indian art market here”.
The event, previously called the Art Summit, is unusual on the international art circuit because it aims to introduce and educate the Indian public, as well as providing sales and high-value contacts for some 90 exhibitors. Inevitably, that leads to tensions, especially between some foreign galleries that are eager for quick sales and want the public access reduced, and those who welcome the mix. Some top Indian collectors agree with that line and, along with foreign exhibitors, also want the organisers to tighten the overall standard of works next year.
Others however know that India is a country that needs to be tackled differently from other potential markets. “It’s a great place to be, but not if you want to make money quickly – if you stick around you do well,” said Conor Macklin of London’s Grosvenor Gallery that has a link with Delhi’s Vadehra Gallery.
In past years, the fair has been staged at exhibition grounds in central Delhi, which families frequently visit for a weekend’s entertainment, whereas this time it has been at a south-Delhi location that was difficult to find, adjacent to a chaotically noisy traffic interchange and overhead metro station. In usual Indian style, once one escaped from broken pavements and swirling traffic, the fair was serene and enthusiastic, spread across 12,000 sq metres in three internationally designed tents.
“We are happy with the total of about 80,000 because almost everyone who came was genuinely interested in art, whereas last year there were people who just came to walk around,” said Neha Kirpal, the founder and director of the fair.
Earlier this year Kirpal sold a 49% stake in the fair to two founders of Art Hong Kong, Sandy Angus, chairman of Montgomery Worldwide, and Will Ramsay, founder of the Affordable Art Fair. Together, they are now planning an affordable fair for India in the autumn that might draw away some of the crowds.
Half the 90 or so galleries (selected from over 250 applicants) came from India and the rest were from 20 other countries with names such as Hauser & Wirth, Lisson, White Cube, and Other Criteria, with artists ranging from Pablo Picasso to Marina Abramovic, a New York-based Serbian performance artist, and UK artists Anish Kapoor, Damien Hirst and Martin Creed.
There was not enough buying activity to provide a significant boost for India’s sluggish modern and contemporary art market, but most galleries made sales or began negotiating for later deals that ranged up to Rs60m ($1.2m) for a video installation. Others consoled themselves by making new contacts.
Top Indian collectors made substantial purchases, notably Kiran Nadar who has set up a modern art museum in Delhi. Two of the most popular video installations believed to be targeted by buyers were Lisson’s “Levitation of Saint Teresa” done by Abramovic in 2010 and a 1995 work where the artist cries and moans as she chews an onion (left). Hauser & Wirth are believed to have a sold a small neon sign by Creed saying, “Love” that was priced at $85,000 and a painting by Subodh Gupta, a leading Indian contemporary artist, for Euro 200,000 ($263,000, Rs13m).
The Other Criteria gallery reported several sales of Damien Hirst’s Psalm prints on silkscreen with diamond dust (below right), which come in runs of 50 and are priced at £3,500 (Rs273,000).
Serigraph silkscreen prints of works by well-known modern Indian masters such as M.F.Husain and S.H.Raza, and more recent successes like T.Vaikuntum, were selling well on Ahmedabad’s Archer Gallery stand at about 5% of the price of originals.
A lot of the contemporary Indian exhibits tackled social issues that have had less attention from India’s leading modern painters, with the new artists using installations, photographs and video works.
On the Gallery Espace stand, G.R.Irani had an installation (left) of wooden slippers and a red car roof light like those used by Indian politicians and officials) priced at Rs600,000 ($12,000). He told me it signified “a protest against violence and how we are losing our morals and values, with the flashing light creating tension”.
On a lighter note, Indigo Blue Art from Singapore sold several gaily painted fibreglass cat sculptures (bottom) adapted by Tapas Sarkar from West Bengal’s 19th century Kalighat style and priced at Rs275,000 to Rs375,000 ($5,500-$7,500).
Special exhibitions staged on the fringe (and still open) include works by Yoko Ono (who visited Delhi recently) at the Vadehra Gallery, West Bengal works at the Delhi Art Gallery, and Iranian art at the Devi Art Foundation where the fair’s boisterous closing party continued until the early hours yesterday morning.
The bank has been building a collection of mostly low-priced works since the 1970s, not usually as an investment though the current value is around £200m. Other figures are also impressive – a total of 60,000 works spread around 928 buildings in 45 countries, all organised to decorate offices and involve the staff. Exceptions on price are sometimes made for art to be located in reception areas, which house a Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor.
Explaining why he was in India, Hicks said: “If you are interested in art, you come to the place where change is happening quickest”.