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Monday, January 10, 2011

No Gates, Please

The Sunday Times of India
January 9, 2011

Nina Martyris

In all the excitement over British sculptor Anish Kapoor’s maiden India outing, a singular lapse has been overlooked. And that is that both exhibition spaces – the NGMA in Delhi and the Mehboob Studios in Mumbai – are behind gates. This would have been perfectly all right if one or two sculptures had been placed in the public domain.

Gates are undemocratic, especially in a country where people are so easily intimidated by the structures of elitism. A whole population of workers, taxi drivers and ordinary folk outside the tiny art gallery world will never think of registering on the website as is required to visit the Mumbai show or dare step through the NGMA’s forbidding portals.

One understands that a closed space is necessary to protect some of the works and provide a meaningful viewing experience. It is also commendable that the organizers have not charged an entry fee in Mumbai and only a nominal one in Delhi. But despite this and the huge publicity, only 20,000 people have been to the two shows so far. By Indian museum-going standards this is an impressive figure but one doubts very much whether by the end of February, when the Delhi show closes, 2.75 lakh people will have trooped through. This was the record-breaking number of visitors to Kapoor’s 2009 retrospective at London's Royal Academy, and one which the organizers were hoping to surpass.

The Booker prize-winning author Aravind Adiga recently recalled a poignant episode of a Delhi rickshaw driver dropping him off at the Lodhi Gardens and then asking if he would buy him a ticket so that he could enter. Astonished, Adiga assured the man that the gardens were open to all, but the rickshaw driver remained hesitant. To him, the beautiful park was a place where the rich went and hence not for him. One can magnify that sense of disentitlement several times to get a measure of how the poor feel about entering an art gallery.

Mounting an Anish Kapoor exhibition is not only expensive and logistically challenging but the artist is also known to be extremely particular and demanding about the site and context in which his art is located. This then was the perfect opportunity to include a public space given the financial and bureaucratic resources of the organizers, the British Council and the Ministry of Culture. Between them they could easily have raised the sponsorship and permissions to arrange for exhibits, say, on a Delhi green or a Mumbai seafront. The organizers told TOI that they had indeed considered it but with a six-month planning window there simply wasn’t enough time for execution.

Whenever Kapoor has been asked to name physical and philosophical stimuli from India that have shaped his art, the sources he has mentioned have usually been drawn from the public sphere -- the lurid heaps of abir in the bazaar that inspired his pigment mountains, the magnificent Jantar Mantar in Delhi and the Elephanta caves outside Mumbai. To exclude this dramatic theatre from the India outing of an artist whose reputation had been built on and burnished by his public commissions in Chicago and England is particularly unfortunate.

V S Naipual astutely pointed out that the museum is essentially alien to the Indian experience. Indians love to touch, examine and poke at showpieces, raising concerns about the risk of a public work being vandalised. A few security arrangements could easily take care of that, and moreover, Kapoor's stainless-steel orbs and voids are hardly the noli me tangere (touch-me-not) kind. I saw his sumptuous Bean in Chicago, reflecting the soaring city skyline by turning it upside down, and half the viewing pleasure was to watch groups of children whooping around it, pulling funny faces and writing their names on its shiny surface.

Just imagine the al-fresco spectacle of one of his massive sky mirrors or concave curves or even his tall pillar of steel balloons that mimics a floating pyramid of dahi-handis. Not only would 2.75 lakh people see it in less than a week, it would have been a game changer, giving a much-needed push to urban public art. Go to any Indian city and all you will see are statues of dead men or an old military tank or kitsch.

Concurrent to the two shows in Delhi and Mumbai, London is enjoying four of Kapoor's large-scale installations at Kensington Gardens, a beautiful open green that allows Londoners of every class and ethnicity to walk around the exhibits, cuss or praise them, and most important, feel involved in the debate on public art in their city.

Anish Kapoor's lasting legacy could have been to electrify that debate in the country of his birth and boyhood. One hopes that he has something up his sleeve for the future. It would make the illusionist's passage to India a more permanent one.

(Inputs from Neelam Raaj)


Girish Shahane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Girish Shahane said...

Hi Nina,
Just wondering: have you seen either show?

Nina Martyris said...

Hi Girish, how are you? No haven't seen either show. Nina

Girish Shahane said...

Hi Nina,
Did you remove my last comment? I wonder why.

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