SOMU DESAI’S QUESTION
Recently I was asked a question by Somu Desai who is an Indian artist interested in temporality/ ephemerality in the arts – ‘Is there a space for ephemeral art in India?’
Limited as my experience and knowledge of Indian art is – I was left a bit flummoxed, suspecting that Indian contemporary art, by virtue of its existing patronage, is rather market happy and focussed more on sale and purchase of art objects. Pardon my ignorance, but I do suspect that seemingly little weightage is still being given to process based art practices, compared to the scale at which the prices of objects such as painting, sculpture etc. have skyrocketed in the past decade or so! Indeed much of Indian art seems to be commercially driven and funnelled through art galleries and private investor lobbies; that too, in a country severely starved of contemporary museums and, or government support.
Whilst, I myself, have been somewhat party to the Indian commercial art circuit nearly a decade ago, having worked for wages as a so called curator in certain commercial establishments of Mumbai (between 2001 and 2005), I certainly have had little experience of witnessing any sustainable patronage for alternative/ temporal/ non commercial/ ephemeral art practices in India. My ignorance must also stem from the limited experience that I personally have with process based arts in the Indian mainstream. The little that I have been privy to, has mostly been at the behest of nonprofit organizations/ artist collectives – such as the residency programs and workshops offered by the likes of the Khoj International Artists Association in New Delhi and the Sandarbh Artists in Partapur, Rajasthan.
Somu Desai’s question was posed to me while I was viewing an exhibition at the Environmental Sanitation Institute in Sughad, Gujarat. The exhibition was that of photographic documentation of ecological/ nature art works made by a group of international artists who participated in the Global Nomadic Art Project (GNAP) India Chapter – an artist residency program wherein the participants travelled across Gujarat and made ephemeral/ecological artworks with materials available in nature. Perhaps Somu had already answered the question with the success of GNAP. There is little doubt in my mind that as of now – the space for ephemeral art in India exists merely in isolated pockets of artist led initiatives, due to the continued misfortune of a severe lack of museums and bare minimal government support.
However, the real question that remains is in fact – whether it is possible to acquire sustainable support for art practices that offer to its patrons merely the documentation of process/ practice, rather than sellable/ commodified objects of art?
Perhaps it is only commercial gurus who can really answer Somu’s question, and I’m pretty sure that their answer would be far better than that of a layabout such as myself. One would imagine that after the meltdown of the stock markets, and the art market crash that played itself out nearly a decade or so ago, art dealers must have felt a need to re-evaluate the worth of art as investment; perhaps some would’ve pondered whether lengthy artistic processes and documentation could well be more sustainable investments rather than merely objects after all?
If there is no denying that the value of art is in the ideation; and if ideation may manifest itself merely in the documentation of artists’ processes and practices (as much as it manifests in art objects) – then perhaps the documentation alone might as well count as potentially viable investments in the holy sanctum of profitability i. e. the halls of auction houses, galleries, sales pitchers, dealers, evaluators of art etc.
Perhaps this may have occurred to the market gurus; or perhaps not? Of course, as of now, takers for ‘that sort of thing’ seem few and far between. Pretty art objects in market fairs continue to rule the roost!
The very fact that I could barely answer Somu’s question, peaked my interest in doing a short study of how GNAP came into being – moreover, one was intrigued to learn about the organizational challenges that must’ve been met in order to bring GNAP to fruition, sans commercial sponsorship.
At the outset GNAP earns its mentions as a nature art focussed program initiated originally by YATOO (Korean Nature Artists Association) but has gained in its momentum and spread through an international community of artists interested in Nature Art. GNAP is organized periodically as a travelling artist-in-residence program – one that intends to travel across the globe. The India Chapter was organized by TREES, which is a Delhi based nonprofit organization with a certain focus on ecological conservation.
Upon being prompted, the organizers of GNAP (Somu and his partner in crime Gunjan Tyagi, also an Indian artist), shed some light on the challenges they met when they set out to build the GNAP – India Chapter.
The story of its conception, planning and implementation went back to 2012, when Somu and Scottish artist Lynn Bennet-Mackenzie established a company limited by guarantee in Gairloch, Scotland; with the view to organize a residency entitled ‘Ceangal’. It was during the first Ceangal residency that Somu renewed his contact with environmental artist Anke Mellin, who later offered to bridge Ceangal with the YATOO artist’s network.
Later prompted by Somu, Lynn attended the ‘YATOO Conference’ which invited an international group of artists to ponder on the future of nature art – and thereby the idea of a proposed nomadic art project took birth.
As it turned out – India was chosen as one of the first countries outside Korea to host the GNAP. Lynn proposed to the YATOO community that Somu could be the potential participant with the capacity to bring GNAP to India; and that he could be appointed The GNAP India Chapter Director.
Upon invitation from YATOO in 2014, Somu participated, along with other international directors, in the first pilot GNAP that was held in Korea. Later, Somu suggested as the venue for Gnap India Chapter, his native state of Gujarat, especially with focus on the Kutch region – given the region’s diverse environment – with the desert and the salt flats of the Rann of Kutch (that are a salient feature of the landscape of Gujarat); and lastly because much of the Rann is inhabitable and also is unchartered territory where real Maldhari nomads do exist to this day.
Organizing & Implementation
Soon after the formalization of Somu’s directorship, Eung-Woo Ri (director of GNAP Korea) came to India in December of 2014, to begin the work of putting together an artist led residency, independent of gallery support. What followed was a collaboration between YATOO and TREES – who jointly networked with the Korean Culture Centre in India; private sponsors; and a number of Kutch based NGOs – in order to obtain affiliations, advisory and partnerships etc. Funding for the project unfolded in three parts – pre production, execution, and post production. Help was also sought from the Korean consulate to fund the kick off.
By the sounds of it; the whole process would’ve been somewhat of a sporadic yet a continual search for support that the organizers must’ve had to deal with in order to really make the residency a plausible/ tangible operation.
It so appeared that some sponsorships needed to obtained locally; and some of which were to be sought ‘in kind’ – e.g. some local sponsors promised logistic support such as boarding and lodging rather than actual funds; and educational institutions partnered by providing exhibition spaces. Being the project director, Somu maintained a democratic approach to artist selections; and an autonomy in administration, and community supported management; for effectiveness of operations. A GNAP steering committee comprising of international artist-led organizations oversaw operations; and made sure that artist selections were made in fair, non-judgemental and lobby free manner. Organizations were asked to nominate 2 artists each as potential GNAP participants – in total, a group of 33 artists was formed as GNAP India participants including 21 International Participants; 9 Indian Participants and 3 Visiting Artists.
GNAP’s story offers us the opportunity for making an inquiry into a number of topics related to ephemeral practices that may help us in assessing – if at all there is a scope for ecological/ environmental/ performative art practices in India (which as a geographical region, itself is like the perfect canvas for nature art with all its fertility and bio-diversity). Moreover, if at all process based temporal art can somehow acquire a more sustainable support structure?
This introductory promo video, offers some rather keen insights by artists:
Some of the GNAP artists works (and their statements) do seem to reveal certain topics that are the potential barebones of new discourses that Indian arts could benefit from:
A conscious effort to view the work that emerged via GNAP will surely bring into focus a number of resonant themes like temporal, transitory, performative practices that are perhaps actively operating in artist led initiatives in India; albeit they do seem to still lay scattered across in pockets:
In my mind, the success of GNAP lies perhaps in the very avenues of discourse that it opens up for art lovers and enthusiasts such as myself. Here are a few topics that I feel encouraged to begin picking at, since coming across GNAP:
Of course, one could get lost in semantics, but to remedy that – there is also this:
Now that India has a couple of biennales, art fairs and museums to boast about, the hope is that there might indeed be some scope in the future for more actively and sustainably supporting process/ performance based practices and, or ephemeral/ temporal ones. However more questions emerge when we truly observe the context within which ephemeral arts exist:
Is patronage of ephemeral arts really a possibility in a country that has had little to offer contemporary artists in terms government support/ funds? If yes, what would it take in order to reveal the potential advantages of ‘investment in ideation’, over commodity?
Surely these questions lie unanswered yet! I must submit to defeat, my futile attempts at answering Somu’s Desai’s question! I can’t promise him any resolve, however in closing, I daresay – ‘Although I don’t know the answer to the question, perhaps others with better insight (and of course sizeable pockets) might someday oblige to shine the light on the value/ scope/ space for the future of ephemeral arts in India’?