Taking art to the streets
Disruptive strategies in exhibition and sales are liberating art from the elite confines of the white cube and making it more accessible to a larger viewing public
Imagine an aroma that transports you to a 142-year-old neighbourhood dock in Mumbai, to alleyways bordering the sea, where, in the summer, fish caught by the local Kolis is hung out to dry. Former adman Sameer Kulavoor decided to fabricate the olfactory experience of being in Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks. It was meant as a joke, a comment on his years in marketing. Kulavoor didn’t actually concoct the promised cologne, but he did design ingenious packaging that suggested the imagined essence.
At the first-ever Sassoon Dock Art Project, from 11 November-30 December, his Parfum Sassoon Showroom “sold" the so-called boutique “products", which were, in fact, simply empty boxes, with each unit bearing the drawing of a fish underneath the logo, in a colour palette derived from the neighbourhood.
He was one of 40-plus artists from India and around the world who were invited by the non-governmental organization St+Art India Foundation to, according to the project’s brief, “transform the dock into a vibrant art canvas that captures the lives of the Kolis, the Banjaras and the Hindu Marathas through installations, photo-stories, graffiti and art exhibitions".
Increasingly, curators, artists and exhibitors are leaving the confines of galleries to use India’s urban and rural spaces as their canvas: initiatives like St+Art, which has worked in different cities since its inception in 2014, and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India’s first artist-run initiative, co-founded by Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari. The third edition in 2016 saw 600,000 visitors over 108 days.
The work in these exhibitions and projects is notably site-specific, often finding inspiration in local contexts, which makes them more relatable to lay audiences. These are a direct counter to gallery set-ups, which, since the art boom of the 2000s, had become the norm to view art in India. Galleries do not typically charge an entrance fee, but they are zones of exclusivity that—sometimes unintentionally—ensure that people do not feel comfortable within their walls. The 2008 global art market crash, which led to many galleries shutting shop, made it obvious to artists and curators alike that the gallery nexus was perhaps not an ideal model.
For St+Art, founded by Akshat Nauriyal, Hanif Kureshi, Arjun Bahl, Giulia Ambrogi and Thanish Thomas, The Sassoon Dock Art Project is their biggest, most ambitious festival to date. It used publicly accessible surfaces, incorporated a larger range of media, going beyond graffiti and murals to include installations and photography. The result is like a mini-biennale.
“Art for all" is the project’s operational motto. It seeks to address issues of ecology, sustenance and identity, making it part of an ongoing trajectory of inventive exhibition-making that points to the future of how art will be displayed. It shares its ideological zeitgeist with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which had its first edition in 2012, and is premised on espousing the democratic possibilities inherent in the visual arts medium and engaging with local ecologies and communities. So, despite the large scale and public nature, intimacy remains key to both events.
The art world is changing. The methodology for the future centres on greater outreach, crowdfunding, repurposing of venues, especially distressed spaces, and site-specificity. There is a desire to liberate art from the elite confines of the white cube—the institutionalized display strategy that has for decades been the mainstay of museums and galleries the world over—and make it more accessible to a larger viewing public.
The second edition of the four-day biannual GoaPhoto, founded by the husband-and-wife team of Nikhil Padgaonkar and Lola Mac Dougall, in November was very different from the inaugural edition. It was a form of public art spread across multiple venues within the state’s capital, Panaji, in 15 consciously “site-specific exhibitions" set inside six old Goan homes in the village of Saligao.
The curatorial team, which included Mac Dougall, Eder Chiodetto, Cristina de Middel, Akshay Mahajan and Jesús Micó, saw GoaPhoto as an exploration of “living heritage", a response to Goan ways of living. Mac Dougall argues that this approach creates bridges between fine art photography and everyday life, even as it questions the modern art gallery as a place of privilege.
“In contrast with the aseptic white cube gallery space, our home venues retained their in situ furniture. This encouraged site-specificity while testing our ability as curators and exhibition designers to work around them: Not one nail was hammered on account of the festival, as we wanted to minimize our intrusion while investigating how the two aesthetics—the photographic and the domestic—engaged with each other," says Mac Dougall. “By exhibiting in private spaces and inviting the festival’s audience to temporarily inhabit them, the festival takes the relationship between photography and privacy a step forward."
Subsequent editions will continue this approach, Mac Dougall has decided. Each year, a different Goan village will be adopted. “The challenge of this model is that it means starting from zero every edition of the festival. The trust of new residents will have to be earned.... I guess we could call GoaPhoto a slow-cooked festival," she says.
Months before GoaPhoto, artists and farmers in a village named Paradsinga in Madhya Pradesh decided to stage their own intervention. From 25-31 December 2016, the village played host to what is possibly India’s first land art festival, titled Gram Dhara Chitra Utsav, supported completely through crowdfunding.
Five artists from different states teamed up with farmers and young volunteers from the village to create a series of seven installations highlighting the issues facing the farming community. These included Nagpur-based artist Shweta Bhattad, whose grandfather is an inhabitant of Paradsinga, five social workers from the drought-stricken Maharashtrian region of Vidarbha, a Pune-based writer, a psychologist from the Netherlands, and a choreographer from Nagpur. Seeds were sown on seven farms that served as a set of canvases, cumulatively covering 24,500 sq. ft of farmland with red and green leafy vegetables. One piquant text-based work read, “Dear Prime Minister Please Grow in India", a subversive take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make In India" campaign.
The festival was open to anyone who wished to perform, paint, sing, sculpt, sow, farm, cook, observe, learn and collaborate, and its programming included, for instance, an evening of revolutionary farming songs by farmer Prabhakar Devtale and his group. Guests from outside the village could opt to stay with a farmer’s family for just Rs310 a night, including meals. Visitors could learn skills like making a mud stove, cattle grazing, assisting farmers in their fields, or making your own land art on a small farm.
Even within the for-profit sphere, establishments like Project Café in Goa look to provide their clients, as well as the neighbouring local and tourist community, an alternative experience that transcends the usual business of running a hotel. Originally co-founded in Ahmedabad by Drasty Shah, Project Café is an “experiential design consortium" located in a 130-year-old Goan property in Assagao. Each room’s interiors are uniquely designed to offer the experience of living with art. Sitting down to dinner at this boutique hotel, you find yourself amid a wonderful selection of art and design, where every element constituting the interiors, from furniture to crockery, is on sale.
You don’t have to be a client to experience the art. The interiors double up as an art gallery, and the all-women curatorial team ensures high-quality exhibitions that are open to the public free of cost, as well as workshops by their chosen artist-in-residence for a nominal fee. The ongoing, sold-out launch exhibition, The Project Café Art Spaces, at the Goa property features lenticular shadow boxes by Ruchi Bakshi Sharma, cyanotpes of the resident Bismarckia nobilis by Jagrut Raval, and textile-inspired maps of Goa by Nidhi Khurana. The in-house restaurant also has Dayanita Singh’s celebrated Museum Bhavan, a series of accordion-like books that open up as mobile exhibitions.
Some of these new initiatives use crowdfunding to bridge the disconnect between a potential audience and the gallerists, collectors and philanthropists who are often seen as the art world’s gatekeepers, by inviting viewers and artists to be the primary consumers and supporters. There is also an increasing tendency to bypass the conventional gallery system. For instance, in Delhi, the inaugural “The Irregulars Art Fair," which will be held from 9-11 February, will run parallel to the more glamorous India Art Fair. It hopes to create a platform outside the mainstream, positioning itself as an “anti-art fair" meant “for independent artists to foster a dialogue that transcends prescribed geographies, hierarchies, and markets", thus “creating an alternative space for the irregular arts for the weird and the bizarre". Its founder, the 28-year-old curator Tarini Sethi, says the fair will feature 171 artists. It is being promoted only through word-of-mouth activism, with no paid promotional media activity.
Many artists are now cautious of depending on gallery representation, and prefer to circumvent the art market entirely. State governments, such as those of Kerala and Rajasthan, have noted the link between art and tourism, resulting in projects like the Sculpture Park at Madhavendra Palace in Jaipur’s Nahargarh Fort. This doesn’t mean the gallery system is under threat. But the future of exhibiting art in India might just be less exclusive and more democratic in its outreach.