It’s easy to miss the short, slight man doing the rounds of this year’s India Art Fair (IAF), wearing an inscrutable expression as he takes in the art from all across India and the world. Few in India known about, much less recognise him, but he is Zhou Tiehai, one of China’s most highly-regarded contemporary artists who shot to global fame in 2003 for his provocative painting, Libertas, Dei Te Serventi, which depicted former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani flanked by elephant droppings.
Teihai is not the only Chinese visitor at this year’s IAF, which concludes in the capital today, but part of a delegation of influential gallery-owners, museum officials and collectors which is here to look around, network and see if they can forge connections that might result in collaborations with Indian artists and galleries. These include Waling Boers, Dutch co-founder of Boers-Li Gallery in Beijing and Lise Li, the owner of Vanguard Gallery in Shanghai — both known for promoting avant garde art from China and elsewhere. Then there are Wong Shun-kit, executive director of Himalayas Art Museum, a new private museum in Shanghai, and KC Kwok, former executive director of the National Gallery Singapore and present deputy chairman of Yellow River Art Centre, a large upcoming museum in Yinchuan, a city in north-west China. Among the Chinese collectors are Budi Tek, reputed to be one of the most important in east Asia; collector couple Yang Fang and Augusto Laforet, and Fang’s brother Yang Yiqun.
Their schedule in India includes a tour of the National Museum and National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), besides galleries and studios visits. Renu Modi of Gallery Espace will be hosting the delegation at her gallery, which is running a major show of Zarina Hashmi, followed by lunch at her residence — exactly the kind of social interaction that might lead to artistic collaborations.
The names of the Chinese delegation will be unfamiliar to many within India’s art fraternity, an indication of how little interaction there is in the arts sphere between the two countries. Barring a few such as Subodh Gupta and Tushar Joag, few Indian artists have shown in mainland China. Ironically, Shun-kit says the only Indian contemporary artist whose works he has seen is Shilpa Gupta, but that was at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Indians, have not seen Chinese contemporary art that’s making waves internationally, unless it is at a Western metropolis. In 2012, “star” dissident artist Ai Weiwei was to come to India to take part in the inaugural Kochi-Muziris Biennale, but he was put on house arrest by the Chinese government. There was a solitary Chinese participant at the Biennale, Zhang Enli. Teihei was there, accompanying his friend Enli, and says he was “very impressed with Kochi”.
The lack of interaction is, however, not an indication of lack of interest, feels Philip Dodd, the influential British arts and culture administrator who led the initiative to get the Chinese delegation to Delhi. Dodd is a self-professed Sinophile who has been closely associated with Chinese contemporary art since 1998 when, as director of London’s Institute of Contemporary Art, he put together the exhibition, Beijing London: Revolutionary Capitals, which was one of the first large-scale expositions of Chinese contemporary art in the West. He now runs “Made in China, a company that promotes artistic collaborations between China and Britain. “I talked to my Chinese friends and they were very interested in going to India,” he says. “Unfortunately, the fair coincides with the Chinese new year. There are around 18 people who’ve come — without the conjunction of dates I would have brought 40.”
“The Indian art world can learn a lot from the Chinese, especially in the sphere of arts education, where private museums there have taken the lead,” says Modi, whose Gallery Espace is one of the few Indian galleries to have shown Chinese artists. In 2010, the gallery hosted a joint show by Han Bing, a young artist from Beijing, and Tejal Shah from India. A year later, the gallery had video works by well-known artists, Yang Fudong and Peng Hung-Chih, included in its “Video Wednesdays” programme. The last one was the result of a dialogue between Indian curator Gayatri Sinha and Taihei, who was the curator of Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai at the time.
Though the West frequently clubs China and India together as “the rising Asian art powerhouses”, the Chinese are far ahead both in terms of market size and a domestic audience for art. There are nearly half a dozen private contemporary art museums in Shanghai alone, while India has just two. The Chinese art market is the second largest in the world, worth $14 billion; the Indian one, in contrast, is less than $0.2 billion. Clearly, the Chinese attention can help Indian art.
Barring a few such as Subodh Gupta and Tushar Joag, few Indian artists have shown in mainland China. Ironically, Shun-kit says the only Indian contemporary artist whose works he has seen is Shilpa Gupta, but that was at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Indians, have not seen Chinese contemporary art that’s making waves internationally, unless it is at a Western metropolis. In 2012, “star” dissident artist Ai Weiwei was to come to India to take part in the inaugural Kochi-Muziris Biennale, but he was put on house arrest by the Chinese government. There was a solitary Chinese participant at the Biennale, Zhang Enli.