In his epic novel Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie writes about the Indian Game as an allegory to the “unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down” (Rushdie 2006: 160) where a host of factors decides the directions taken by a game-player. Rise and fall are intrinsically entangled in a precarious game of risk. Though not with such extreme binaries at play, this ambivalence also impacts the remarkable career of the India Art Fair (IAF). Its biography is nothing but mindboggling. As the IAF is about to open the gates for the seventh time on 29 January 2015, it already looks like a grand dame, elegantly and confidently putting on display once again a remarkable kaleidoscope of art production and consumption, marketing and discussion. One may think of a biotope or Wunderkammer of kinds as one can watch the NSIC exhibition grounds in Okhla Industrial Estate, located at the periphery of Delhi’s art and event-map. It drawsstars and starlets from the regional and global art scene (supported by Absolut India, and Vogue India), national and international galleries and (prospective) collectors, museum directors and curators, as well as intellectuals and scholars, or curious newcomers. Beyond the fairground, the IAF, previously called India Art Summit, has in many ways become a ‘hub’ and a catalyst for multiple agents, media attention, publics and different events in the city and the region. There seems to be something for everybody: galleries offer objects for appreciation and sale, curated artistic projects and walks and the Speaker’s Forum allow for new approaches to and trigger discussions about contemporary art from India and beyond, artists can get in touch with gallerists or curators. In the larger context of the IAF, a narrative of Delhi as a ‘creative’, ‘happening’ and art investment-friendly global city is told. Moreover, a topography of India as an emerging market and promising addressin the ‘Global South’ and on the global art map of fairs and biennales is tailored. It is also a story of a substantial amount of risk: starting off as a philanthropic promise, the IAF must produce profit and a ‘buzz’. This renders it precarious within late capitalist dynamics that reject rather than welcome subversive or provocative potentials. It has to defend its position at a time when the Art Newspaper’s 2015 calendar lists 269 fairs (nine less than 2014) and when the International New York Times proposes an ‘art fatigue’ that triggers further polarization between ‘the best’ (all in Europe, and attracting 1% of the richest collectors in the world) and ‘the rest’ (Reyburn 2015).
To discuss an event like the IAF, one can access different levels of networking. There is, for one, the work of the management company Seventh Plane Networks Private Limited and particularly its director, the strategic and visionary art manager Neha Kirpal. Beyond this, the fair is not located in a neutral space: there is also the aspect of seeing it as a collaborative effort, in which different institutions and agents join hands for this very occasions in order to make it inter/nationally visible and attractive, to generate interest and capital. In this ‘teamwork’ many participants may profit, financially or socially. Besides gaining international visibility and recognition, the IAF has also managed to nurture - or even ‘train’ - a new set of first-time-collectors, as (potential) buyers from the professional classes see art as symbolic and economic investment. Moreover, there are many transnationally and transregionally active players, such as KHOJ International Artists Association, Sarai, SAHMAT, Goethe-Institut or Pro Helvetia, who impact on the ‘charisma’ of the event by supporting collateral events, or the Speaker’s Forum, and with their reputation and potential to challenge self-reflexive debates around contemporary arts and society.
The IAF shows clear signs of a highly heterogeneous and dynamic art scene that taps into global circuits as much as global players as internationally known curators and museums now turn to India to profit from their oeuvres. The event has seen the coming and going of particular audiences, galleries, and art experts. While some have lasted for one season others have become regular guests and customers. Its reputation goes beyond India. 2015, for instance, is a year where, for the first time, a group of young emerging artists from Nepal has decided to travel to Delhi to expose themselves to the challenges, density and riches of something they will most probably never have in their own country. Likewise, many visitors too, often from across India, appreciate the fact that the IAF allows them to encounter art works they may encounter through the internet and glossy magazines. The ‘event’-character of this special ‘mela’ (fair’) attracts many who would normally hesitate to visit the elite spaces of a gallery or a museum. Lastly, the Speaker’s Forum also attracts a smaller, critical crowd curious to get more background information and listen to the observers, makers and shakers of the art world commenting on selected themes.
People and shifts behind IAF
Since the IAF was initiated in 2008 by Neha Kirpal, who has a background in creative industries, marketing and event management from the UK, the event witnessed steady growth: hosting 50 galleries (incl. 3 international galleries) and attracting roughly 10,000 visitors in 2009 it expanded to 98 galleries (incl. 43 international galleries) and over 100,000 visitors in 2014. The event features international blue-chip artists such as Anish Kapoor and Damien Hirst, modernists such as Pablo Picasso. M.F. Husain and Tyeb Mehta, and South Asian stars such as Bharti Kher, Tayeba Begum Lipi or Rasheed Rana. Director and ownerKirpal describes the art fair as ‘catching up’ to other global and premium Art Fairs (such as the ART Basel) or Biennales. But according to her, the IAF is not envisaged as a ‘destination fair’ (e.g., Art Basel) to which the local milieu does not particularly matter. Instead, it was framed as an event for the local public, triggering and reflecting challenging debates about contemporary art in India and the region. Thereby, inner-Asian connectivities increasingly matter and indicate a shifting landscape of market, art institutions and art-related networks (e.g., KHOJ International Artists Association). It operates as nodal point of connectivity across a host of sites that are often still reduced to the over-simplistic binary of ‘local’ and ‘global’, ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’. As both forum and market-space, the IAF has the potential to further diversify and connect the intellectual and infrastructural landscapes of art production, collection, and exhibition in India, with Europe, the USA and Asia.
Interestingly, the early years of the IAF are marked by a communitarian and utopian rhetoric. Reads the first report by event producers Hanmer MS&L, part of the Publicis Groupe and responsible for the India Art Summits in 2008 and 2009: “The art fraternity in India has for long felt a gap and the need for a collaborative industry platform in the country owing to the phenomenal growth and global interest in Indian art. While the art fraternity the world over gets numerous opportunities to interact and collaborate through various art fairs, biennales and expos, there was no such platform in India” (Hanmer MS&L Communications Pvt. Limited 2009).Yet, Kirpal’s intention distinguishes aspiration from reality. Instead of an already existing ‘art fraternity’ she highlights the pioneering force of the IAF to tap into the largely fragmented and less visible art scene and to create an “involved community” (private conversation 2011). Educat ional verve is central too. It underlines the interest to bring contemporary art from the elitist white cube to a larger audience, to sensitize publics for art appreciation. And, less altruistic, to shape future generations of potential buyers. The claim to connect is tied to the desire to brand a unique event. From the outset, an accompanying aim was to make the then IAS a “one stop destination for art in India” (ibid.). It can be argued that for several years, the IAF has provided a platform for contemporary art from India and the region, one that no other institution had before. Over the past decade, the local art scene too has changed, with local and yet internationally visible players such as KHOJ (1997), the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA, 2010), or the Devi Art Foundation (2008). In 2012, the India Art Summit was renamed, and changed location along with the name. From the large and centrally located grounds of Pragati Maidan, it came with its own corporate look and design. In the same year, IAF responded global market challenges and Kirpal roped in two stakeholders with experience in the global art fair management: Sandy Angus (founder Art Hong Kong, Art International Istanbul)and Will Ramsay (founder Affordable Art Fair). Meanwhile, the IAF’s monopoly position has been challenged by the Dhaka Art Summit and a sustained and dynamic landscape of mega-art events in Asia. While it retained the monopoly in terms of size and number of artists present on one site, it has witnessed the rise of Kochi-Muziris-Biennale. From 2012-14, a direct competitor, the United Art Fair, held on Pragati Maidan emerged, but will not enter another round. Interestingly, this event was based on a critique of the IAF, arguing that it was too obedient to the global art market instead of aiming at an artist- and issue-driven speed.The IAF, too, faced flaws: in 2013, the absence of previously present international bluechip galleries such as Lisson from London, were feared to indicate a decline of interest from a global art market that moves ‘carelessly’ from one ‘promising’ market to another emerging economy. While panels at the Speaker’s Forum welcomed and even request further inner-Asian collaboration and synergies, the market dynamics may well work against such connectivities at times. Snakes for one may well turn out to be ladders for another.
This emphasis on critical discussion and connectivity also underlines the relevance of the Speaker’s Forum that has accompanied the IAF since its beginning. Art critic and curator Gayatri Sinha, the organizing force behind this ambitious platform proposes that it was to “make sense of how the region relates to the world” (IAF SF Program 2013, p. 2).Partly in collaboration with faculty and junior researchers from the School of Arts and Aesthetics (JNU), panels have been choreographed on themes such as “The Rise of the Rest: The View from Asia”, on the effect of globalisation on art, the emerging markets in the context of the global financial crisis (all 2009) and the role of the curatorial and regional engagement or the involvement of the corporate world (2012-13). Other debates touch upon an Asian critique of the global contemporary and of Asia as a critical space -highlighting the need for infrastructural as well as intellectual decentralization and the remapping of highly transcultural and asymmetrical fields of production and power. Outside the structured discussions, debates around censorship and public sensitivity emerged over three editions of IAF. This was the case with self-exiled M. F. Husain’s work that allegedly ‘hurt’ the ‘Hindu sentiment’, as repeatedly claimed by extremist Hindu right speakers who demanded the removal of his works from various IAFs. This case raised questions as to what extent an art fair must stand behind an art community, defending an ethical and political role.
In 2015, following Gayatri Sinha’s drive in profiling several editions of the Speaker’s Forum, Girish Shahane, former Director of the discontinued Skoda Prize for Indian Contemporary Art that was presented during the IAF, has been appointed artistic director, signing responsible for the Speaker’s Forum and Artistic Projects.
According the logic of high capitalism, the IAF produces - and succumbs to - a market-driven hegemony that is very much based on metropolitan centres, bourgeois cosmopolitanism and the Global North. It excludes galleries that lack the financial capital to participate. Thus, less known and financially potent contemporary art galleries located at the margins of the A-tier cities or neighboring countries in South Asia might never fulfill the (undefined) criteria, and fees, of the art market and ‘fall off the map’. This includes the respective local artist communities they represent and who, as is the case of the mentioned young artists from Nepal visiting the IAF for the first time this year, will possibly remain spectators. This example underlines that the possibility to form lateral connections across Asia, and to adequately challenge ‘western’ stereotypes of the divide between ‘East’ and ‘West’ falls short of articulation, and realisation. What started off as inclusive has exclusive tendencies.
Meanwhile, the growing critique of IAF’s preference over ‘blue-chip’ marketing, for a certain VIP culture and for ‘footfalls’ (quantification of mall customers) rather than for content and critical self-reflection, has initiated debates about how else a ‘healthy’ art scene and event could sustain itself. One may argue that an Art Fair can simply not be all that seems to be desired and lacking in terms of a productive and fair infrastructure for art collection, exhibition, education and self-reflexive critique. Returning to Rushdie’s remarks on the exhausting and inspiring ambivalence underlining Snakes and Ladders in the game’s unforeseeable dynamics of rise and fall, in and out, accompanied by the New York Times prognosis of Art Fair struggles, the IAF is a case in point to follow such meanderings and aspirations.
Hanmer MS&L Communications Pvt. Limited. 2009. Grand Success of India's First International Art Fair, Mumbai, September 9, accessed on 22.1.2015)
Reyburn, Scott. 2015. “Art fair ‘fatigue’ may resolve itself”. International New York Times, 26.1.: 7
Rushdie, Salman (2006). Midnight's Children. Random House. p. 160