It is part of urban lore that the late maverick MF Husain, in December 2010, surprised audiences, (not to mention the unsuspecting gallery owner) by bringing one of his muses, (no not Madhuri Dixit Nene) a live white horse, into the gallery, to paint on it. The gallery owner fearing the horse dung that would follow in the wake of this performative piece, requested the maestro to move the animal to the porch, which he sportingly agreed to. No doubt the ‘stunt’ got the shutter bugs clicking and made headlines, a phenomenon that Husain had perhaps gotten used to.
It is true that besides creating great works of art that often sell for crores of rupees, artists can ask for the damnedest things. That they want to drill holes in walls is understandable but when they want to break down the wall it might lead to some consternation. Or when they want to dig holes in the gallery floor, trying to bring in large boats that do not fit through. In some instances artists have even run around naked covered in honey. Yes, that is the nature of ‘true freedom of expression.’
One thing that every gallery-owner, curator and even a collector has to understand and almost accept without too much protest is that artists will be eccentric, throw tantrums and make unreasonable demands. It is the package deal. The question is, how does one tread this minefield?
One sure shot way to never get into the ‘bad books’ of an artist is to always say yes and agree to everything. However sometimes it is not possible and one has to gently negotiate strategies.
Curator: “Can the boat be displayed outside the gallery?” Artist: “No!” “Okay can we get a smaller boat? Since we cannot break down the door…” Artist: “okay then let’s get a smaller boat.”
Curator: “Oh you want to drill a hole in that wall?”
Artist: “Yes this is just the spot I want to hang my artwork”
Curator: “Well actually there is a marble wall behind it and…I would have to get the gallery owner’s permission to do such a thing.”
Artist: “But I want it here!!!”
Curator: “Okay then maybe we can have a false wall, a panel to mount the work?”
Eventually the artwork gets relocated.
Curator: “Are you taking off all your clothes for this performance?”
Artist: “Yes. I also want one kilo of honey…can we get some live flies?”
Curator: “Flies…er… just one second”
Curator to PR agent: “Hi can we please quickly cancel the press conference? I need to talk to the artist about the gallery policy on nudity.”
Ideally the artist should have the freedom to do a nudie with flies and honey, but the truth is, in India, we aren’t there quite yet. We have to worry about the moral police, having the gallery shut down, about the animal rights groups who might have issues with sedated goats, or sharks, pigs and sheep floating in formaldehyde Aka Damian Hirst.
The reality is that artists are people who are usually before their time. They do not see the world the way a banker does, or a real estate agent, a housewife or a school teacher. They have the singular privilege of being ‘crazy’ and throw tantrums…because they bring that unique perspective that we all lack in our lives. Of seeing a bathtub ‘floating’ on a sea of bricks, or a smearing a naked body with saffron as a ritual act of reclaiming the colour saffron in a time of Right Wing fundamentalism.
This theory is supported by the simple fact that Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime and died a pauper by shooting himself in a wheat field. That the Impressionist’s first exhibition at the Louvre was panned by the critics. By the fact that M F Husian never got to die in his Motherland because no one understood what he was trying to say in his painting, Mother India.
We as gallery owners, curators and even art critics, need to support artistic freedom as much as we possibly can, stopping where we think it’s just not possible. It also takes smarts to spot a situation where the tantrum or demand is just for the sake of creating a ruckus, a spectacle, a sensation. Of adding to the reputation of being a ‘terror’ or a ‘difficult artist to deal with.’
(All resemblance to artists living or dead is purely intentional!)