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Face-to-face with art, finally

As galleries open up and we take a break from virtual exhibitions, here’s looking at why it is important to physically view artwork

Last Monday, I stepped out in my mask, a bottle of hand sanitiser at the ready, to do something I’d desperately missed doing in the last seven months: visit a gallery and see artworks up close and personal.

Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic has given me many firsts — virtual tours of international galleries and museums that I might otherwise never have visited (who has the budget to attend an Art Basel every year?), and back-to-back webinars that I sat up all night to attend — but by the end of lockdown, I was angsty. I didn’t want to see art on a screen any more; I wanted to see it in all its glorious three-dimensional form. I also missed the hubbub of a gallery, the ‘inside stories’ that you are privy to at art openings. People never do that in a webinar!

Al-Qawi Nanavati’s work, ‘Her Pink Shirt’, made with crocheted fabric

Al-Qawi Nanavati’s work, ‘Her Pink Shirt’, made with crocheted fabric
 
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Why is it important to physically view art? The materiality, I feel, can never be translated digitally — the way a work plays with light and shadow, the actual colours of a painting as opposed to the colour-corrected version you see on a computer, the texture of a piece, especially if it is sculptural. And as a curator, it is nerve-racking to organise a show without seeing the work. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been putting together a show for December and I’m anxious. Despite the artists sending me photographs of their work, seeing them in 2D is just not enough. I can’t get a sense of the size, texture or how it is going to manifest in a physical space.

Let’s talk texture

So I was impressed with curators Shubhani Sharma and Indira Lakshmi Prasad’s show at Latitude 28, in Lado Sarai. Titled When is Empathy Too Much?, it brings together the works of Abhishek Narayan Verma, Al-Qawi Nanavati, Shalina Vichitra and Yogesh Ramkrishna. “The idea was triggered by the desire to show what younger artists were doing during the pandemic, without making it only a show about the lockdown, but to actually try to understand their mental state,” says Bhavna Kakar, founder-director of the gallery. “With an overdose of visual media during lockdown, it often became frustrating and one had to do a balancing act. It brought out the worst in some people, but it also brought out empathy. That is what the exhibition would like to tap into.”

Abhishek Narayan Verma’s artwork, ‘Sowing a Cold Comfort’

Abhishek Narayan Verma’s artwork, ‘Sowing a Cold Comfort’
 
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

As I chatted with the curators, I realised they had had the same problems as me. Unable to go on studio visits, they conducted online interactions with the artists to get a sense of their process and completed works. But it was tough. “The magnitude of the work just did not come across in the virtual studio visits,” says Sharma, adding that they were excited to see the ‘presence’ of individual pieces in a physical space. Nanavati’s fabric-based works — that emulate the letters she wrote her mother — is a favourite. “Since her mother passed away, it is a very innovative way to keep her relationship with her alive through their correspondence,” says Prasad, pointing out that the small-format work has a larger-than-life effect when set up in the gallery.

Vichitra’s work had an impact on me when I saw it in person. Her high relief, wall-mounted ceramic sculptures of edifices are rendered in white and are very textural, with small specks of blue that you would miss if you were looking at a photo. Then there’s Ramkrishna’s graphic-style paintings mounted on easels and displayed in a circle, that encouraged interaction. And I was taken in by the sheer power of Verma’s works, arranged sequentially, featuring a tight-rope walker balancing his life.

Ramkrishna’s work, ‘Kal hi saval hai! Saval hai kal ka yahi!’

Ramkrishna’s work, ‘Kal hi saval hai! Saval hai kal ka yahi!’
 
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Social distance, but visit

As I walked around, people kept trickling in, sanitising their hands at the door and social distancing once inside. I recall a couple (the wife was an artist) who couldn’t keep their excitement in check as they observed the works by Nanavati, Vichitra, and Verma. I could identify with that.

Kakar tells me visitors are coming in smaller groups of twos and threes now, as opposed to the large gatherings one saw in pre-Covid times. “The demographic is mostly folks in their 30s and 40s — a mix of artists, collectors and walk-ins. Interior designers have also visited,” she says.

Shalina Vichitra’s Grain series

Post Covid exhibitions like this (and the one at Art Centrix Space in Vasant Vihar that I visited the next day, to check out Balaji Ponna’s works exploring his experience of how farmers are dealing with the pandemic), are bringing attention to the changing nature of our perception of the world and the self. So step out, and into galleries, and revisit the dialogue between the audience, works of art, and life.

When is Empathy Too Much? is on till November 30. Details: latitude28.com

Georgina Maddox is a Delhi-based art critic and curator.

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