The India Art Fair returned to a physical format this year after a hiatus due to the covid-19 pandemic. On the fairgrounds, there were reminders to mask up and maintain social distancing. It was heartening to see the annual event back as it is a significant cog of the art ecosystem. And the response on the opening day only proved that people are more keen to see shows in a physical format than ever before.
An art fair, however, has a role greater that goes beyond just the event itself. This is particularly true for the relatively nascent market like in India. Educating viewers on contemporary art and nurturing a new generation of galleries are significant responsibilities as well. This edition was a step towards that with curated walks, a Platform section for folk and tribal arts, accessibility interventions, talks and panel discussions, book launches and institutional participation.
However, here are four key areas that could be worked upon for the future editions.
Booth layout and sequence
It has become very predictable to see the same galleries take the ‘prime’ spots year after year. A mash-up would help expand the net wider. Assuming that the more established galleries present star attractions, ones that people come looking for, their placement need not be right at the entrance of the first hall. Viewers will go looking for them even when the booths are placed further into the maze. And in the process of getting there, they will walk through the newer and younger galleries, discovering art that they did not know existed. A lottery system might make the process more equitable. And so, one would be happy to walk to the end of the hall looking for a Martand Khosla sculpture at the Nature Morte booth, and on way would stumble upon the delicate drawings of Santosh Kumar Das at Ojas Art.
Curation within the booths
Several galleries in the current edition had art from different genres placed next to each other. That would have worked if the experience was cohesive. For instance, a vibrant Paresh Maity landscape next to Keerti Pooja’s delicate monochromatic etchings did disservice to both the artists and the viewers. But here is an example of what worked: Arshi Ahmadzai seemed to be in conversation with Nasreen Mohamedi on the wall of Chatterjee & Lal’s booth. It’s perfectly fine to mix generations and genres, provided there is a conscious thought behind it.
Each booth ought to be designed strategically to keep in mind the large flow of audience. A closed entrance is not conducive for people to walk in freely. For instance, Dhoomimal Gallery created its booth with spaces within the space. Although the dark room, with focussed lighting, for the Raja Ravi Varma collection was intriguing, the overall booth felt a little cramped for space. Given the heat and need for physical distancing, a more open format would be encouraging. The cubicle style format within another gallery's booth gave ample display space, but did not allow for a pleasurable viewing of art.
One cannot expect controlled lighting, spaced-out displays, and sound absorbing surfaces at the fair. That is possible only in the gallery. However, certain galleries could not make optimum utilisation of whatever space was available in their booths. Take, for instance, the edge-to-edge display at Gallery Ragini’s booth, which cramped up the wooden masks on the façade wall. Placement of BR Pandit’s pottery on the floor at the Art Heritage booth made it feel like an item of décor and not art. The large-scale bronze sculpture by Seema Kohli would breathe better if it got more space, not at the entrance of the booth.
Rahul Kumar is a Gurugram-based artist and culture writer