If it makes you scratch your head, it is art," proclaimed the American artist Edward Ruscha. A lot of people would agree with this line; it reflects their feelings about contemporary art quite well.

Sakshi Gallery seems to have taken the dictum as a challenge and, in a leap of faith, asked art collector Swapan Seth to become the curator for its 25th anniversary show, titled Scratch, now on in Delhi. Seth is known as a collector of new media (video) and mixed media (installation) works and there are plenty of both among the contemporary artworks on display.

Intriguing: (top) Long March to Java by Jompet Kuswidananto; and Rye ka Pahad by Akshay Rathore.

Two of the video works are typically quirky. The camera gently pans over modest, haphazardly built urban dwellings, capturing the gradual increase in the early morning sunlight in the 6-minute video that features in Rashmi Kaleka’s “surround sound installation", Hawkers ki Jagah. Accompanying this urban idyll of sorts are the intermingling sounds of different hawkers peddling a variety of wares which have been amplified to create a kind of Indian pastoral symphony.

The repetitive bird call in Priyanka Dasgupta’s 4077 similarly offsets the slow motion black and white close-up video of an insect (that looks like a smaller version of a centipede) slowly curling, and twisting on the ground in what looks like a life-death struggle. The title refers to the 4,077th death in the ongoing military operations in Iraq. Dasgupta says she wants to show “how individuals are reduced to numbers, under the seductive control of patriotism".

The videos are actually aesthetically appealing. So they qualify as works of art on two counts—they make you scratch your head, and they are pretty to look at.

“There is no great theme, no great thread," Seth says about the show. One element common to the works, according to him, is that they are all “large, fresh and formidable". “Indian art lacks sheer size and scale," he adds. “The spectacle of this show is its appeal."

Geeta Mehra, director of Sakshi Gallery, finds this attitude refreshing. Most Indian collectors, she feels, are largely conservative in their tastes. Her own collection at home, she admits, reflects this conservatism.

Mehra points out that, unlike in Mumbai, the Sakshi Gallery branch in Taipei, Taiwan, largely shows new media and mixed media works. One reason she hasn’t given such works the same emphasis closer home is the quality of artworks produced in India. “A lot of new media is not up to par in India," she says.

She lays part of the blame for this on the lack of local patronage. Shows such as this one, she hopes, will nudge buyers to be more attentive to alternative and newer forms of media. “I eventually hope to influence other people," she says. “The different range of art practice that will be on display needs to gain more currency."

Among them are Akshay Rathore’s Rye ka Pahad and Mithu Sen’s floor installation, Lifelong. The title of Rathore’s work describes what it is—a 4ft-tall, 9ft-wide mound of mustard or rye seeds. The reference is to the common Hindi phrase “rai ka pahad banana", which roughly translates to “making a mountain of a molehill". As Rathore describes it, there are multiple allusions—to hills and mountains, including the ones in Orissa that the tribal population is fighting to save from being taken over by mining companies; as well as to the traditional association of the mustard seed in the Bible as well as in Hindu texts with “faith, soul, the universe". The mound has been raised from the ground, providing the added “dramatic" element.

At first sight, Lifelong by Sen, comprising a regular 2K inch-long spool of white thread, is the opposite of “formidable". But wound around the spool, over the white thread, is a strand of black hair. It is made up of Sen’s own hair stuck together to make a 40ft-long strand. If a human never cuts her hair and lives till the age of 70, her hair would grow to a length of 40ft. The small spool with the long strand around it has been placed on a 5ft-pedestal so that viewers can see it at eye level.

Rather conventionally, the viewer is welcomed to the show by a band with horns and drums. But Indonesian artist Jompet Kuswidananto’s installation has band members with no bodies, only eerie, hollow breeches and shoes, circular video screens for heads and mechanical arms that beat on drums. The valedictory work, by N.S. Harsha, has the opposite effect, quietly inviting reflection. Engraved on a block of marble are the words: “Art is elsewhere". We are free to draw our own conclusions.

Scratch is on display until 19 November at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Rabindra Bhawan, 35, Feroze Shah Road, New Delhi. For details, log on to www.sakshigallery.com


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