“What about ME if I only think about you?” The repetitive hum of this chant drew me to Princess Pea’s Proxies. The incantation shifted registers as you neared the booth: from sounding like a plaintive cry of a lover to the wily, enchanting call of the Sirens. In the booth, a small waif-like woman in a long white dress, white socks and a monstrously large white headgear, which resembled a space helmet, was soundlessly approaching an audience member randomly and measuring different parts of his/her body with a tape. At times, she measured the length of the bridge of the nose or the distance between an ear and a shoulder. On occasion, she assessed the distance between two people. After which, she scribbled vertical lines and dashes with a pencil on a wall, as if making line drawings. These lines evolved into a crosshatched landscape by the end of the day.
Pea is the alter-ego of a Gurgaon-based artist who keeps her real identity under wraps using her large headmask. Through her subterfuge, she challenges the conventional notions of beauty and body stereotypes. Pea also transfers the focus to the interiority and subjectivity of the viewers by suggesting that perhaps this interrogation measures their “breath, insecurities, uncertainty, intimacy, self-doubt, and anticipation”.
This work that blurs the line between performance, sculpture and theatre was part of the Forum at the 10th edition of the India Art Fair (IAF) held at the NSIC grounds, New Delhi, from the 8th to the 12th of February. Some of the other works in the Forum were Don’t Look at the Finger by Hetain Patel and Drawing a Line through Landscape, a film by Sophie Winqvist on Nikhil Chopra’s performance at documenta 14.
With MCH becoming the major stakeholder, Neha Kirpal made way for Jagdip Jagpal as the fair director. A change in the leadership brought quite a few changes in the layout, some good and some not-so-good. The fair improved in terms of the presentation and curation at the booth level. The booths were redesigned and made wider; their walls were raised to provide the feel of an enclosed space and not of a temporary structure. The fair felt tighter and less flabby. The Speakers’ Forum shifted its focus and became more artist-centric with a new series called I Know What You Did Last Summer in which Reena Saini Kallat and Lubna Chowdhary, among others, presented their works and talked about their art practice. One of the unfortunate changes, however, was that media partners were shifted out of the main exhibition area – this drastically reduced the footfall and sales figures.
A total of 78 art galleries participated in the festival where South Asian art remained at the forefront. “The aim is to inspire visitors to discover the best of the local and regional art scenes, from its fascinating history through to its modern-day icons and contemporary artists, across a range of media,” said Jagpal.
Besides the focus on regional artists and galleries, the fair also hosted international galleries including David Zwirner, Mo J Gallery and Richard Koh Fine Art that participated for the first time. Other international galleries like Sabrina Amrani and Aicon Gallery returned. These galleries were instructed to get new works. “It would be disrespectful to the audience here if the international galleries bring in works that don’t sell elsewhere with hopes that they will work here,” said Jagpal.
The Art Projects and Forum in this edition of the IAF comprised performative works that often questioned the freedom of the human self and body. They also suggested that one of the ways to escape these limitations is through role-playing and adopting multiple personas. Zoya Siddiqui’s Loop, an art project supported by Shrine Empire, comprised a four-sided life-size video installation that looked like a room made of glass walls. You saw a woman walking on the surface of the screen but the three-dimensionality of the installation created the illusion of a woman trapped inside the glass walls, restlessly walking along the margins of the wall. The work recorded the monotony, agitation, restlessness and thwarted desires of the circumscribed female body in a contained space.
The streamlined programming and presentation helped to pull galleries like Chatterjee & Lal and Jhaveri Contemporary back into IAF’s fold. The booths were well-curated with more variety and some rare works. Gallery Espace even had a solo presentation of Manisha Gera Baswani’s works inside an enclosed space within its booth. Jhaveri Contemporary primarily showed women artists like Lubna Chowdhary, Simryn Gill, Rana Begum and Manisha Parekh whose works explored ideas of landscape, memory, architecture and belonging. Their booth also featured a rare multi-layered montage, The Fireside Camp, by the PAG member Mohan Samant, in which figures made of paper cut-outs seemed to be engaged in a cultic sexual ritual. Tarq featured works by women artists like Saubiya Chasmawala, Rithika Merchant and Soghra Khurasani. Personal favourites were When Alborz will Melt and Winter is Over by Khurasani. These landscapes in saturated colours subverted the traditional utopian trope of the classical pastoral by inserting signs of violence and contagion.