Arms outstretched, her legs prepared for lift-off, Sonia Khurana is ready to fly. From the elevation of the tiny box she is perched on, her naked hefty body jump-starts; she falls; she raises her body into action again. On 48 aluminium stills, the New Delhi-based artist’s movements simulate the steps that should have propelled her into purposeful flight—if she were a bird. Khurana’s Bird: Re-take I was originally a stark, sometimes jerky, black-and-white video, shot on a hand-held camera. It details the artist’s failed attempts to fly, and depicts the sense of liberation that comes with exposing the body so open-heartedly to the twin travails of gravity and human limitations. The work was converted into stills earlier this year.
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Khurana’s two-minute performance video art was first exhibited in 2000 at the British Council in New Delhi and went on to become a popular piece of work in the international video art circuit. So, when Sotheby’s—the London-based international auction house—decided to include video art for the first time into their annual South Asian contemporary art auction, which is scheduled to take place on 21 September in New York, Khurana’s Bird was an obvious choice. “It’s a small selection, but it’s a try-out,” says Mumbai-based Dutch art historian Johan Pijnappel, who is also an expert in Indian videography. “It’s part of an international revival of video art. In the last six years, international art fairs specializing in video have proven that video art is a good commodity. And in that sense, Sotheby’s is a little late because they didn’t get into it earlier.”
Late though they may be, with video, performance art, photography and avant-garde sculpture, it is an eclectic autumn at Sotheby’s auction house. Its London contemporary Christie’s, which is scheduled to open a South Asian modern and contemporary show on 20 September, has also infused some fresh blood into its catalogue which combines modern and contemporary works; nestled among the canvas works are the digital chromogenic pop culture prints of Chitra Ganesh, Handpumps by Atul Bhalla, Rashid Rana’s digital print and performance art by Nikhil Chopra.
While both auction houses have been interested in the Indian contemporary art scene over the past few years, they have always played it safe, sticking to the well-intoned names of modern and contemporary Indian art, only going as far away from them as Subodh Gupta or Justin Ponmany, but remaining well within the spectre of tested and approved names. So, this is a watershed year for change, especially at Sotheby’s. “It’s a loving risk we’ve taken, and we’re happy to take it,” says Dadiba Pundole, the head of Pundole Art Gallery, and the India representative for Sotheby’s. “Auctions have for too long been utterly predictable, change needs to come in from somewhere. And we’ve made a decision to continue this way for a while. We’ll see what the response is, but the management has decided to give at least a two-year run on showing works like this,” he says.
Since last year, Sotheby’s has separated its sales for modern and contemporary works, and this year’s contemporary catalogue is a marked difference from what it did last year, and has always done. “It’s not really a departure from last year, but the criteria we’ve used to interpret contemporary works is different this year,” says Pundole. “We’ve chosen works that are contemporary in spirit. So, for instance, we have Nasreen Mohamedi and Zarina Hashmi, even though they were born in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, a lot of the works could fall into the modern context too,” says Pundole.
From 27-year-old Londoner Hetain Patel’s video art Kehrwa Kanku and Mehndi and Abir Karmakar’s oil on canvas, to Parag Tendel, D. Ebenezer Sunder Singh and Venkat Bothsa’s sculpture, the Sotheby’s contemporary show certainly offers a fairly wide platform for a variety of artists. “They seem to have taken a lot of risks,” says collector Harsh Goenka. “It’s a good start for young artists who are trying to get off the beaten track, because it gives them a platform to show from.”
Despite the quizzical looks the catalogue has received so far, the focus on lesser-known local artists such as Bangalore-based Ravi Kumar Kashi makes work easier for galleries in the country. The artists they represent suddenly have a wider berth to play on, and it has come faster than it normally would have. “The focus has fundamentally shifted,” says Mortimer Chatterjee of Chatterjee and Lal Gallery in Mumbai, which promotes new and upcoming artists. “And it’s very exciting because having these auction houses show this kind of work means it broadens the base of people who’re looking at your work, and people begin to understand that alternative works of art are also forms which can be bought.”
But, breaking the mould can also bring its share of criticism. At $400,000-500,000 (Rs1.7-2.4 crore), the largest quoted work in the Sotheby’s catalogue is Chintan Upadhyay’s golden babies, called New Indians. The work, which comprises 33 individual gold-leaf plated sculpted babies, offers a take on the homogenization of our societies and the multiplied similarities of cloning. But, at half a million dollars, “some works like Chintan’s are grossly overpriced,” says Goenka. “It should have been at least 20 per cent less than the estimate that’s been put on it.” Pundole counters the criticism by saying that it’s just an estimate, and a sculpture that combines 33 works of art is not the same as buying just one piece.
So, it would seem that with its latest auction, Sotheby’s, much like Khurana’s Bird, is poised for flight. It remains to be seen whether it takes off.