Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Damien Hirst of Delhi, The Guardian

India's economy is booming - and so is its art world. Its enfant terrible tells Randeep Ramesh about crazy prices and the uses of cow dung. Through the haze of frontier dust where New Delhi fades into scrub and grazing land lies the low-slung, white-walled home of the country's most coveted conceptual art. Inside the workshop, a sculpture of huge brass pots hangs from the ceiling. On the wall is a shimmering canvas of a stainless steel urn. Nearby sits a 5ft metal bucket. The works' creator is Subodh Gupta, the current darling of the booming Indian modern art market. Like a subcontinental version of Marcel Duchamp, who exhibited a public urinal in the early 20th century, Gupta takes everyday objects as "ready-made art". Pots, pans and squat stools from his childhood all recall the artist's humble, rural roots.

"All these things were part of the way I grew up. They are used in the rituals and ceremonies that were part of my childhood. Indians either remember them from their youth, or they want to remember them."

Perhaps most striking to western eyes is his use of cow dung. The 42-year-old has made installations out of manure patties, kitchen fuel for millions of Indian country homes, and painted with dung à la Chris Ofili. In a nine-minute video, Pure, the artist stands covered in thick layer of bovine excreta that is slowly hosed off in a shower. Gupta says he wanted to play with meanings of "purity". "In Indian villages, cow shit is used for spiritual cleaning like an antiseptic. But this is not true of today's [Indian] cities. I wanted to show that."

Despite dwelling on domestic themes, the artist has become a mainstay of the big international art fairs and has exhibited in the Venice Biennale, London's Frieze and shows in Moscow, Miami, Lille and Japan. As a sculptor, painter, installation-maker and video producer, Gupta is seen as the enfant terrible of the Indian art scene, a Damien Hirst of New Delhi. Last year, his work Across Seven Seas, a room-sized airport conveyor belt cast in aluminium, topped with 30 metal suitcases and bundles, sold for £550,000 to a German collector at the Basel art fair.

Perhaps Gupta's most famous fan is François Pinault, the French billionaire and biggest shareholder in Christie's, who bought a one-tonne skull crafted out of aluminium pots and pans, after one of his curators spotted it in a remarkable show at Paris's Eglise Saint-Bernard church last October.

Gupta says the monumental work, entitled A Very Hungry God, was a "one-off, unique". "I cannot reproduce that. The kitchen stuff is a phase I am going through, but a piece like that is not going to be done again," he says.

The British public have got a chance to sample Gupta's art at Gateshead's Baltic gallery, with a newly installed sculpture of a "kitchen city", which sees a stainless-steel sushi belt transporting metal bowls around a landscape of cooking utensils. Built in Singapore for $100,000, the installation is so large it took five people to set it up.

Gupta is among a generation of young Indian artists whose commentary tells of a country on the move, fuelled by boiling economic growth and a more materialistic mindset. Despite reflecting these changes in their art, the new generation of painters and sculptors are themselves part of the boom.

Last September, Christie's modern Indian art auction saw record sales of almost $18m (£9.5m). The recent spurt in prices has seen even newcomers such as painter Surendran Nair picking up $250,000 for a work.

Just who is buying the art reveals a novel trend. Indian-born but foreign-based Indians, especially those who are self-made, see the new art as a way of reconfirming their ethnic identity and as an opportunity to move up into the rarefied world of elitist arts. The result is rapid inflation in art prices.

Rajiv Chaudhri, a New York-based Indian hedge-fund manager who stunned a crowd at Christie's in late 2005, by paying $1.6m for a painting by the 80-year-old Indian artist Tyeb Mehta. The work, Mahisasura, a 1997 rendering of the buffalo-demon of Hindu mythology, was the first time a contemporary Indian painting had crossed the million-dollar mark.

The new valuations are not just down to new Indian money and a wealthy Indian diaspora intent on rediscovering their heritage, but also to the internet. A number of online auctions have connected once-obscure artists with a hungry audience.

"The pioneer of this model is Saffron-, which runs weekend auctions for the NRI [non-resident Indian] community who buy with their ears, not their eyes," says Peter Nagy, who left New York for New Delhi a decade ago to start up Nature Morte art gallery.

"These guys come to India once or twice a year, but don't have time to buy art. So they sit in their computer rooms in New Jersey, pushing up prices in New Delhi. Right now, prices are going through the ceiling." burst on to the scene with a $1.5m sale of a work by Francis Newton Souza, one of the older generation of Indian painters, in December 2005.

What we are seeing, says Yamini Mehta, head of Christie's modern and contemporary Indian art division, is a pattern of sales similar to the other ancient, large-scale Asian culture: China. Chinese art grew from a curio item in auctions in the 80s to the point where Chinese painters now sell work routinely for half a million dollars.

"We are at the beginning of Indian art. Chinese art has been in western galleries for a long time," says Mehta. She points out that the Indian auctions a decade ago yielded just $800,000. "This year the figure is $42m. India is more diverse than China. But he prices are definitely following [the same] course."

Subodh Gupta owes his rise in part to Pierre Huber, a Geneva gallery-owner who spotted that Chinese work was the next big thing in contemporary art. He also saw the potential for Indian art and Gupta, and quickly signed up the young artist.

Mehta says what is remarkable about the Indian market is that you can still pick up bargains. "You cannot buy the best Picasso at the moment because it is in a private collection. But you can pick up a MF Hussain because private collectors are only just starting."

There are signs that a new crop of visual art museums is appearing in India's new metropolises, designed by Indian collectors who model themselves on cultural impresarios such as Charles Saatchi.

More than $500m is expected to flow into the market when the half-dozen private museums currently being built by India's new elite start acquiring work. These new centres will preserve and present Indian contemporary art projects.

In a warehouse on the edge of Delhi's southern rim is the Devi Foundation, which aims to replicate New York's temple of modern art, the Dia Foundation. The brainchild of mother-and-son team Lekha and Anupam Poddar, who also own designer hotels, the foundation aims to become India's main showcase for art.

Gupta's work litters the Poddars' collection: they own a life-sized, pink fibreglass statue of a grazing cow, and a huge globe made of milk cans. They have also commissioned a cow-dung painting.

"These are incredibly sophisticated people who have travelled all over the world and educated themselves about contemporary art in Europe and the US," says Nagy, who has also backed Gupta's creations. "They came back here and realised such a talent like Subodh was just doing the craziest shit. It is both visionary and a no-brainer".

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Terrible twosome, The Guardian

Gilbert & George's huge Tate retrospective is a roller-coaster ride of brutality, tenderness, boredom and booze. It is also deeply filthy. Adrian Searle leaves it winded - but thrilled The most striking thing about Gilbert & George is their independence. They once proclaimed that they "believe in the art, the beauty and the life of the artist who is an eccentric person with something to say for himself". Forty years after their first meeting, in the sculpture department of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Gilbert & George have cultivated an eccentricity that is to be found throughout their work, as well as in the personas they present to the world. They seem to be a single entity. And they have never stopped having things to say for themselves.

Gilbert & George may see the world askance, but they address it, and us, unswervingly. If they weren't Gilbert & George, I might be tempted to describe them as a moral conscience. Being a witness to one's age, if one is to be more than a voyeur, is not without its responsibilities. Gerhard Richter, who once painted their portrait, has said what impresses him most is that they have always taken their independence as a matter of course. They position themselves as outsiders, marked by their suits, their professed conservatism, their delight in perverse and sometimes outrageous opinion.

But their complaints about being ignored and slighted by the art establishment in Britain can no longer be sustained. Gilbert & George are the only artists, apart from Andy Warhol, to have been given an entire floor of Tate Modern. From Thursday, their retrospective occupies both of Tate Modern's suites of temporary exhibition galleries, as well as the concourse in between, the coffee bar and seating areas. Maybe I should have checked the toilets, too.

Out on the concourse, their most recent, large-scale pictures rub shoulders with early black-and-white photo works, and with display cases filled with stilted manifestos, squiffy "postal sculptures" about drinking (there is a heady bar-room haze over much early Gilbert & George), and printed ephemera from the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the artists' own annotated copy of the sheet music to Bud Flanagan's 1931 song Underneath the Arches, which they famously performed as a singing sculpture. There is also the infamous photograph of the two young artists smiling innocently to the camera, spoiled somewhat by the cut-out lettering they sport on their suits: George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit. This all has the air of a lark by two particularly unsavoury denizens of Bertie Wooster's Drones Club.

When they began, Gilbert & George might have wanted to disassociate themselves from conceptualism and from Fluxus, from the grunt'n'grind aesthetics of welded steel sculpture at Saint Martins, and from the amateur naiveties of happenings, the everyday poetics of arte povera and the interminable longueurs of structuralist film-making. But what you reject also informs you. Just as they proselytised a democratic "art for all", so Gilbert & George entered a period of profound inwardness, photographing themselves walking and looking at nature, and redrawing the images in charcoal. (They also produced paintings of this peregrination; alas, those are not here.)

Later, they photographed themselves in the dusty gloom of their house in Fournier Street, east London, with its creaking floorboards and wormy panelling, the murky windows, the holes in the ceiling, the silences. There is an air of time frittering away, of emptiness and prolonged hesitation. Offstage, you can hear the gin glugging into a glass. Bloody life, as if to say. The artists emerge with sudden splashes of milky semen and sanguine runs of red dye.

The city about them, as much as their interior lives, became their subject. They saw beauty in a naked young man, pictured stark against a river of yellow piss; they described a mullah's face in the knots and whorls of the floorboards, and found dignity in a madman's stare. Images, subjects and bodies collide throughout their art, which is often a roller-coaster of brutality, tenderness, threat, the pretty and the disturbing. It is also frequently filthy, in every sense.

Gilbert & George have drawn cartoon hand-jobs, photographed skinheads, Asian boys, mouths, navels, bums, leaves, tears, words and expressions. Their multi-panelled pictures burst into acid colour and became ever more lurid and confrontational. In some ways, their art prefigured punk, saw fundamentalism coming and foresaw the shocks of Aids. And the mood in their art kept flipping, from celebration to horror, from flowers to shit. In Shitty Naked Human World, Gilbert & George got down to their underpants - two middle-aged naked men ungainly in their skins, George never taking his glasses off, their turds like sentinels behind them.

Graffiti on a wall, an ejaculation, spatters of bird droppings and chewing gum flattened on the pavement, inarticulate curses - "every body has prombles woste then mine" reads one hopeless message they found scrawled on the street and incorporated in a picture. Gilbert & George's London is more than a backdrop. It teems with life and dirt, shock, surprise, boredom and beauty. Their retrospective is as relentless, cumulative and varied as anyone could ask for. You exit winded - you've seen too much. Like the city itself, the show is uneven and sprawling, and goes from dark to garish, sexy to monstrous. Their best and worst are here - and which is which, one keeps on asking, and what do we mean by best and worst? Good filthy or bad filthy, raving mad or just raving? Are they brave or are they bores? They provoke ambivalence. The contrariness and contradictions are essential to their art, and to our responses to it.

Here, in one great, late room, is Nineteen Ninety Nine, whose four parts present a montage of scribbled messages, a wash of piss, globs of blood, brick walls, the London street map, the artists clothed and naked, undaunted. The atmosphere is abrasive. Opposite hangs Named, an enormous picture with the calling cards of 90 male escorts, in a sort of city grid of desire. Declan, Rudy, Guido, Bob and Felipe, the names read, listing the services they offer. Gilbert and George, suited, collide in the middle of the picture. They have said that Named is like a war memorial. It is always wartime now, one way or another. Gilbert & George may have begun as a double act, but the exhibition ends in the confusion and hysteria of London after the July 2005 bombings.

The show climaxes with their most recent series of pictures, produced for this exhibition, whose imagery largely consists of the felt-tipped bills that accompany each edition of the London Evening Standard. The bills appear outside shops, at newsstands, on vans. They are a black-and-white shout, a fusillade of bombs, bombings, bombers, terror plots, terror laws, blunders, heroes, arrests, and more bombs. Against the blunt graphics the artists loom, weirdly.

Looming is what Gilbert & George have come to do best. They emerge from a jungle of signs, lurking, mooning, grimacing, praying, howling wide-eyed and horrified. Then they stare back, mute and hypnotic, calm, from the dead eye of their theatrical rages.

It is impossible to walk through these rooms without being made aware of how prescient so much of their work has been. The artists themselves rarely travel far from their neighbourhood. Just as Kafka told writers that there was no need to leave their desks, and the world would come to them, so Gilbert & George have discovered that the world does indeed pass along Fournier Street. Their art has witnessed the rise of fundamentalisms, the grimness of the Callaghan years, the divisive Thatcherite epoch, the hollow capitalism of New Labour, the disaffection of young working-class kids, a confusion of identities.

They have recorded all this without pandering to received opinion, and without becoming lovable media stereotypes. In their more recent, digitalised and computer-manipulated images, they muck about with the lateral symmetry of their bodies, making themselves appear strangely warped. They chart their ageing bodies. To which one might add that they spit, scowl, drop their pants, are frequently drunk, bored, stilted, static, silly and utterly serious throughout this exhibition. The most shocking thing they could now do would be to be spotted on the golf course.

Their art might often appear punch-drunk, but Gilbert & George never underestimate human and social complexity. They wrestle with stereotypes. How are gay men meant to look? What platitudes are artists supposed to spout? What does it mean to be avant garde now, and, if art is supposed to be important, what exactly does it say, and to whom and how?

The 24-hour-a-day business of being Gilbert & George, and the creative struggle itself, became inextricable almost 40 years ago. They are immensely prolific: they are what they do. Truman Capote said that Andy Warhol was a sphinx without a secret. Being Gilbert & George is not an act. Their secret is that there is no secret. At the same time, they are their greatest invention.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

You’ve Seen the E-Mail, Now Buy the Art, NY Times

FOR his fall show the artist Tom Friedman planted two dozen characteristically demented sculptures throughout the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. He set a giant Excedrin box, made from dozens of cut-up Excedrin boxes, on the floor near the entrance. He placed three identically crumpled wads of paper on a shelf. And he affixed to the ceiling a bunch of colorful papier-mâché balloons, which magically appeared to float despite their weight. Their strings were held together not by a hand but by a pair of men’s briefs suspended in midair.

It was Mr. Friedman’s first outing with Gagosian after years of showing at the much humbler Feature Gallery in New York, and the exhibition sold out, with works priced up to $500,000. But most of the buyers did not see the installation. They did not personally see the pieces at all. Gagosian sold out the show before it opened, in large part through a flurry of e-mail messages and digital images.

When asked at the opening if the show had really sold out in three days, Deborah McLeod, the gallery’s director, replied, “More like three minutes.”

It’s another sign of the acceleration of the contemporary art market: New works, even in the six-figure range, are selling by digital image alone. For the Friedman show, Gagosian set up a private section on its Web site, accessible only by a password sent via e-mail message to select collectors. More typically, gallery directors send off e-mail messages with JPEGs — a format for digitally storing and transmitting images — to potential clients.

As with so many aspects of the art world, industrywide figures do not exist. But anecdotes abound. Howard Read of Cheim & Read in Manhattan said the gallery sold by JPEG alone “about a third” of its current show: paintings of Mexican-American laborers by the California artist John Sonsini, with prices from $25,000 to $65,000.

The Chicago dealer Kavi Gupta has presold — in large part through JPEGs — his current exhibition of paintings by Claire Sherman, a 2005 graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “We debuted a painting at Basel last year, and Marty Margulies bought it,” he said, referring to a major Miami collector. “Since then we’ve been selling her work based on digital images.” The show opened this weekend, but it has been sold out since December, with prices up to $15,000.

In Los Angeles, Timothy Blum of Blum & Poe said he sold a “handful” of works by the conceptual artist Dave Muller, sight unseen, from his January show, at prices up to $100,000. “This happens routinely now,” he said. “I’ve also sold paintings by Mark Grotjahn, for over $200,000, to buyers who never saw them in person.”

But Mr. Blum was quick to add that these buyers already knew Mr. Grotjahn’s work, an off-kilter updating of abstract painting. Other gallerists made the same point. This is not the case of an Internet surfer discovering a picture on an e-commerce site and tossing it in a shopping cart, but more a sign of how efficient the high-end contemporary art market has become.

“I don’t know if this is the beginning of something wonderful, or the end of something wonderful,” said Amy Cappellazzo, co-head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s. “But we’ve seen the use of JPEGs increase dramatically, exponentially, in the last few years. It’s all about the speed of the market. Without the use of digital images, this market would come to a grinding halt.”

Lisa Schiff, a New York art consultant, agreed, saying that “99 percent” of her sales now involve a JPEG at one stage or another. “It’s changed the way we all do business,” she said. “People have begun using JPEG as a verb: JPEG me this work.” (On the resale market, where many art consultants operate, JPEGs can be shopped so widely that a seller can find himself in the puzzling position of being offered his own work.)

Mr. Gupta said about half of his sales take place without the presence of the buyer. “Being in Chicago, without the walk-in traffic of a gallery in New York or even L.A., I can’t imagine working without digital images,” he said. “We have a ton of European collectors, and we reach them through art fairs and digital images, a combined effort.” Read the whole article.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Boston officials livid over ad stunt

By KEN MAGUIRE, Associated Press Writer
Livid about a publicity campaign that disrupted the city by stirring
fears of terrorism, Boston officials vowed to prosecute those
responsible and seek restitution, while others mocked authorities on
Thursday for what they called an overreaction.

Officials found a slew of blinking electronic signs adorning bridges
and other high-profile spots across the city Wednesday, prompting the
closing of a highway and part of the Charles River and the deployment
of bomb squads.

The 38 signs were part of a promotion for the Cartoon Network TV show
"Aqua Teen Hunger Force," a surreal series about a talking milkshake,
a box of fries and a meatball. The network's parent is Turner
Broadcasting Systems Inc.

"It is outrageous, in a post 9/11 world, that a company would use
this type of marketing scheme," Mayor Thomas Menino said. "I am
prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting
and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred."

The 1-foot tall signs, which were lit up at night, resembled a
circuit board, with protruding wires and batteries. Most depicted a
boxy, cartoon character giving passersby the finger — a more obvious
sight when darkness fell.

Two men who put up the promotions were to be arraigned Thursday on
charges of placing a hoax device and disorderly conduct. Authorities
say Peter Berdovsky, 27, of Arlington, and Sean Stevens, 28, of
Charlestown, were hired to place the devices.

Berdovsky, an artist, told The Boston Globe he was hired by a
marketing company and said he was "kind of freaked out" by the furor.

"I find it kind of ridiculous that they're making these statements on
TV that we must not be safe from terrorism, because they were up
there for three weeks and no one noticed. It's pretty commonsensical
to look at them and say this is a piece of art and installation," he

Fans of the show mocked what they called an overreaction as about a
dozen gathered outside Charlestown District Court on Thursday morning
with signs saying "1-31-07 Never Forget" and "Free Peter."

"We're the laughing stock," said Tracy O'Connor, 34.

"It's almost too easy to be a terrorist these days," said Jennifer
Mason, 26. "You stick a box on a corner and you can shut down a city."

O'Connor said there's nothing wrong with being vigilant, but said she
said it was ridiculous to shut down a city "when anyone under the age
of 35 knew this was a joke the second they saw it."

Authorities vowed to hold Turner accountable for what Menino said was
"corporate greed," that led to at least $750,000 in police costs.

As soon as Turner realized the Boston problem around 5 p.m., it said,
law enforcement officials were told of their locations in 10 cities
where it said the devices had been placed for two to three weeks:
Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland,
Ore., Austin, Texas, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

"We apologize to the citizens of Boston that part of a marketing
campaign was mistaken for a public danger," said Phil Kent, chairman
of Turner, a division of Time Warner Inc.

Kent said the marketing company that placed the signs, Interference
Inc., was ordered to remove them immediately.

Interference had no comment. A woman who answered the phone at the
New York-based firm's offices Wednesday afternoon said the firm's CEO
was out of town and would not be able to comment until Thursday.

Messages seeking additional comment from the Atlanta-based Cartoon
Network were left with several publicists.

A voice mail box for Berdovsky was full Wednesday night. The
Associated Press was unable to find whether Stevens had a lawyer.

Authorities are investigating whether Turner or other companies
should be criminally charged, Attorney General Martha Coakley said.
"We're not going to let this go without looking at the further roots
of how this happened to cause the panic in this city," Coakley said.

In Seattle and several suburbs, the removal of the signs was low-key.
"We haven't had any calls to 911 regarding this," Seattle police
spokesman Sean Whitcomb said Wednesday.

Police in Philadelphia said they believed their city had 56 devices.

The New York Police Department removed 41 of the devices — 38 in
Manhattan and three in Brooklyn, according to spokesman Paul Browne.
The NYPD had not received any complaints. But when it became aware of
the situation, it contacted Cartoon Network, which provided the
locations so the devices could be removed.

"Aqua Teen Hunger Force" is a cartoon with a cultish following that
airs as part of a block of programs for adults on the Cartoon
Network. A feature length film based on the show is slated for
release March 23.