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Indian art goes global

Paint, performance, passports

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Contemporary Indian art, like the itinerant Indian, has been seen everywhere this last year. But so has Chinese, Brazilian and Mexican art.

A hushed silence fills the air as a file of men and women stride up the dark and seemingly endless Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. Quite without warning, a man detaches himself from the group, comes up to us, and starts talking about his old mother who is suffering from dementia. We listen to him, deeply moved. Suddenly, he returns quietly to join his group. The lights dim, and another person detaches herself and talks about how her mother was a great support to her despite their differences. Her mother's continued understanding and patience have made the young woman what she is today. What we have just experienced is the performing art of Tino Sehgal, a Pakistani-German artist who lives in Berlin. Performance art may be the new buzzword in India, but compared to Sehgal's grand operatic movements of the night, the events in Delhi and other centres seem like hollow shells without a kernel.

Sub-continental art went globe-trotting this year. It's difficult to imagine a major international art exhibition or art-related event today without an Indian artist or an artist of Indian origin present. Take the Olympics, for example. The architectural showpiece was the 35-storey-high Arcelor-Mittal Orbit tower in London. Financed by Britain's richest man Lakshmi Mittal, it was designed by sculptor Anish Kapoor (whose shifting identity has at last made him identify with India) and the Sri Lankan architect Cecil Balmond. Although the structure may not have been aesthetically Indian, its tangled steel reminded a passerby of a woman draped in a sari - albeit a very tall woman in a very tangled sari.

The Olympics also saw billboards splashed across the city bearing the work of graphic artist Sarnath Banerjee. Commissioned by Frieze East, these artworks attempted to revise the discourse on winning and losing by celebrating the loser. Banerjee created characters like the boxer who is forever thinking of dodging punches and a polevaulter who, just before a jump, realises that he has chosen the wrong sport. To coincide with the London Olympics, the Grosvenor Vadehra gallery hosted a show called Further Global Encounters in which contemporary artists incorporated multicultural realities to find new ways of looking at the 'other'. The show had artists like Hema Upadhyay, Gigi Scaria, T V Santhosh, Atul Dodiya, Anju Dodiya, Shilpa Gupta and Jagannath Panda. A little later, the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art in London held Bharti Kher's first public art exhibition which included significant recent works, with a strong emphasis on her sculptures, many of them hybridised mythological forms.

The real bonanza for Indian art occurred at the doyen of art fairs, The Frieze, London, this October. It was here that the Mumbai gallery Chatterjee and Lal sponsored the performance art of Nikhil Chopra and Hetain Patel, and where another gallery, Project 88, exhibited the works of Sarnath Banerjee, Neha Choksi, Hema Mulji and the Raqs Media Collective. Elsewhere, the Pakistani artist Bani Abidi presented her solo show alongside Adip Dutta's Nested, a large work that explored the patient act of building a nest to protect and preserve. Hemali Bhuta's large-scale installation Speed Breakers was installed at Regent's Park.

The five-yearly heavyweight Documenta (13) held in the German city of Kassel showcased Nalini Malani's video/shadow play, In Search of Vanished Blood. It involved a massive installation consisting of painted mylar cylinders that created a narrative video frieze. The work drew inspiration from a variety of sources - Christian Wolf's novel Cassandra, Mahasweta Devi's Draupadi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz's poetry - to make a strong comment on communalism and gender violence.

Earlier in July in San Francisco, the enticingly titled show Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past opened at the Asian Art Museum. The large-scale exhibition of contemporary art provided a provocative interplay of 150 artworks from the pastand present, including paintings, sculptures, photographs, site-specific creations and more by artists from all over Asia, including Adeela Suleman, Jagannath Panda, Adrian Wong, Fuyuko Matsui, Hyon Gyon, Raqib Shaw, Motohiko Odani and others. The London-based Raqib Shaw's jewel-like depictions of humanity's lusts and loves were straight out of Milton and Bosch. Panda's art reflected his observations of Gurgaon, a quickly developing suburb of New Delhi where the ancient is being overrun by new housing developments, warehouses and air-conditioned shopping malls. 

The long and winding Indian Highway show which has been travelling since 2009 from London to Lyon to Oslo and to Rome finally wound its way to Beijing. However, one exhibit was missing. Tejal Shah's video work I Love My India where people talk about the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat was removed from the show at the behest of the Indian External Affairs Ministry. The surprised artist wondered why the government had woken up so late and why it found the work offensive in the first place. It's a pity the government does not do more to project the good work being done by Indian artists nationally and internationally instead of being so touchy about its own image.

Interestingly, the most daring of recent exhibitions has been from another emerging economy - Brazil. From the Margin to the Edge, Brazilian art and design in the 21st century ran at London's Embankment Galleries through August this year. It was a group exhibition that presented the best of contemporary visual culture in Brazil. The three large thematic rooms revolved around dualities and aimed to break stereotypes held by Europeans about Brazil. The room Preserve/Transform, for instance, had art objects pointing towards the environmental crisis and globalization and questioned the delicate relation between preservation and transformation.

Another show which got a lot of attention was the Mexican show, Resisting the Present, held at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, earlier in the year. Spread across the expansive space of the historical site, it had a number of ambitious installations referencing the volatile situation in the country as well as the world. The drug wars, lawlessness and kidnapping, corruption and immigration were dealt with in a manner that evoked the universal dilemma of societies striving to cope with globalisation.

Neither as technologically sophisticated as Chinese art nor as cutting-edge as South American, contemporary Indian art is yet ubiquitous and sought after. What is the reason for this? Perhaps it is the fact that it remains, ingeniously enough, rooted yet global. A good example was Jitish Kallat's masterful re-creation of Swami Vivekananda's thoughts on the marble staircase of the Art Institute of Chicago in September 2011. By coding Vivekananda's message with the colours of the terrorism alert system used by the US Department of Homeland Security after September 11, Kallat had taken something uniquely Indian and applied it to a contemporary global issue.

In January next year, the Susan S Beancurated show Indian art from Midnight to Boom will open at the Peabody Essex museum. Many of the works will be drawn from the famous Herwitz collection, including choice works from artists like M F Husain, S H Raza and the moderns as well as works of later artists like Bhupen Khakhar, Sudhir Patwardhan and Gieve Patel.

Perhaps the most endearing India-centric show was that of the famous American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976 ) in London. In 1954, Calder and his wife stayed for three weeks at the Le Corbusier-designed building of the Sarabhai family in Ahmedabad. The sculptor felt very much at home in the company of visiting artists like Isamu Noguchi, John Cage, Charles Eames, Merce Cunningham, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Rauchenberg, and the salon of talent added fuel to his creativity. It was here that he made nine of his finest sculptures as well as some exquisite pieces of jewellery. In June this year, these were shown at the Mayfair gallery of Pilar Ordovas, at a display simply titled Calder in India. The slight breeze that blew into the gallery each time the door opened set the delicate structures dancing. Calder's hallmark of airiness combined with solidity made for a stunning exhibition.

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