Last year, Art Basel, one of the major fairs dedicated to contemporary art, had to be restricted to a partial showcase online owing to the pandemic. This year, it returns in a physical format, with the forthcoming 2021 edition set to feature 272 galleries from 33 countries, including two from India—Experimenter, Kolkata, and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Both the galleries are presenting a series of introspective works that explore the evolving relationship of the body with space, and the changing rhythms of the artists themselves during covid-19.
One work that really stands out is N.S. Harsha’s interpretation of Themis, the blind Greek goddess of wisdom and good counsel. True to his practice, the artist, who lives and works in Mysuru in Karnataka, has drawn inspiration from his current reality. This work, presented by Chemould Prescott Road, features a local schoolgirl, Kutty. But instead of Themis’ sword, she can be seen carrying a grocery bag and holding up scales; ahead of her lie a pile of kitchen utensils. “The Goddess’s new avatar is the artist’s attempt to amplify the voice of countless unseen women caught in the domestic trap of contemporary society,” explains the curatorial note. The gallery is also presenting works by Atul and Anju Dodiya, Mithu Sen, Jitish Kallat and Ritesh Meshram.
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Chemould Prescott Road’s Shireen Gandhy can identify with the girl in the work. “All of last year, every artist responded to the sudden pause differently. Some felt pushed down, while others didn’t let this time overwhelm them. At the centre of these emotions, it was my role as a gallerist to maintain a balance and equanimity. We are telling the story of this time through our artists’ voices,” she says. Mithu Sen and she had several conversations, for instance, about channelling the trauma of this period into creating “beautiful things”.
On display at Art Basel will be Until You Unhome, recent “happy” pinprick drawings by Sen created on pure white paper. “How does one erase these moments of turmoil? Perhaps by revisiting places, objects, things that assume ‘happy-making’? Until You Unhome is a set of uncoloured, uncontroversial and virtuous happy-prick-drawings that serve as a disclaimer and an exercise in perceiving what the images are and are not,” says the note.
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Chemould Prescott Road will also be presenting a set of six works by Atul Dodiya, created in response to news such as the migrant crisis. “During the pandemic, he drew in a sketchbook daily, responding to the daily events. His approach became diaristic of sorts. He then translated these scenes on to canvas in rich colours. As the works unfold, they tell emotionally-charged stories,” says Gandhy.
Experimenter’s presentation, Transitory Forms, looks at the way bodies navigate space. “The body is a medium to look inwards at the self and others around us,” says Prateek Raja, co-founder of the gallery. “Everything is so dynamically transforming over time these days, and thus the works in this presentation look at the body as an emotive and political tool, as a tool of support and resistance, a space for anthropological enquiries, and more.” The presentation features works by Ayesha Sultana, Bani Abidi, Biraaj Dodiya, Praneet Soi, Prabhakar Pachpute, Radhika Khimji, Rathin Barman, Samson Young and Sakshi Gupta.
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Abidi, who works in Berlin, Germany, and Karachi, Pakistan, has created The Reassuring Hand Gestures Of Big Men, Small Men, All Men, a series of photographs featuring the hand gestures of political figures over the decades. She looks at fractured global politics through these. “There is always a wry humour in Bani’s work even when it is political,” says Priyanka Raja.
Then there is Breath Count by Dhaka, Bangladesh-based Ayesha Sultana, in which she studies her own breath and scratches out the counts on clay-covered paper. “These scratch drawings are almost like a removal as well as a marker of time. We take the act of breathing for granted, but for Ayesha, it is a laborious process, and these works act as meditative actions for her,” says Prateek.
Also interesting are Hong Kong-based Samson Young’s drawings and 3D printed sculptures. A trained classical musician, he explores the medium of sound in a Nintendo video game from the 1980s. “If you remember those brick games, in which the stick moves and the ball bounces back. In his Otocky drawings, one can see an interesting inhabitation of the video game’s architecture to generate a body of music informed by the movement in a simple game,” says Prateek.
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Young also creates “absurd and distorted” musical instruments that are, essentially, printed in 3D. The printing algorithm also creates support parts—almost like branches or scaffolding—that hold the body of the instrument upright. The artist has presented these as Support Structures to create a renewed understanding of the individual and their environment, the body and the background, and the space between the visible and the concealed. “There are so many possibilities in this exhibition that we may not limit it just to the fair, but extend it at a later time as a larger show at the gallery, where viewers can navigate the various points of departures and convergence,” says Priyanka.
Art Basel will be held at Messe Basel, Switzerland, from 24-26 September. The VIP preview is from 20-23 September.