Living With a Wound, paintings of November's terrorist attacks in Mumbai by Indian artist TV Santhosh, may help the Indian art market avoid the chill of recession
Paintings by one of India's most successful young artists that were made in response to last November's terrorist attacks in Mumbai are to be exhibited for the first time in London this week. Drawing on details from the newspaper and television images that shocked the world, the artist TV Santhosh, whose work has attracted the attention of British collectors Frank Cohen and Charles Saatchi, has painted the images so they look like photographic negatives imbued with garish neon green, yellow and red colours. In one, security guards pour out of a truck as the bombs are going off; in another, a sniffer dog is at work outside the Taj Mahal Hotel where a car has just exploded; and in a third, a woman searches through the rubble carrying a piece of paper with a child's photograph on it.
The exhibition, entitled Living with a Wound, comes at a time when the Indian art market is feeling the chill of recession. Having experienced an unparalleled five-year boom, at first for modern art from the Fifties and Sixties, and then for more recent work by younger artists, cracks began to appear last autumn. In September, a sale at Sotheby's saw half the works by Indian contemporary artists go unsold. In October, ArtTactic, a research group which analyses the performance of emerging markets, reported that confidence in the Indian contemporary art market had fallen drastically, and blamed the withdrawal of speculators who had moved in in force over the previous two years. Word then spread that a number of buyers had defaulted on payments at the New York auctions. In December, the specialist auction house Saffron Art in Mumbai saw sales from a regular Indian art auction fall from an average $7 million (£3.5 million) throughout the year to just $2.8 million.
As a result, the next Indian art auctions, which are to be held in New York this March, have been severely trimmed. Christie's, which took nearly $18 million for modern and contemporary Indian art in September 2006, is expecting only a third of that at most. Deepak Shahdadpuri, a Mumbai-based collector, says his biggest concern is what will happen when the numerous funds for Indian art have to realise their invested capital. An estimated $30 million to $40 million has been poured into Indian art investment funds over the last four years. Depending on the terms of their contracts, they could have to start unloading as early as 2010, potentially flooding a market that might not be ready to return those investments.
Galleries which show the latest Indian art are also bracing themselves. While the Serpentine Gallery's Indian Highway exhibition, which opened in December, was stealing the limelight, a selling exhibition of contemporary Indian art at Phillips de Pury and Co in London generated few sales. Bodhi Art, which is one of the market leaders and has five galleries spread between India, Singapore and America, is adapting to the situation by closing its branches in New York and Berlin. Shahdadpuri believes that "half the new galleries in India could close down. It will be the survival of the fittest."
Thirteen of these galleries, including Bodhi Art, provide the focal point of ARCO, Spain's biggest contemporary art fair which opens in Madrid next week. Internationally established artists such as Santhosh, Jitish Kallat and Atul Dodiya will be represented as well as many more who are still on the cusp of recognition. They are bound to attract attention, though whether they will sell is another matter.
For some, there is light even in the gloom. "The art boom saw an enormous improvement in the infrastructure of the market," says Shahdadpuri. "The galleries became more professional. Collectors became more knowledgeable. And the international exposure given to Indian art has been unprecedented."
Also, now that the speculators have gone, serious collectors have more choice and more time to buy, he says. Artists will be less pressurised to make work that panders to the market. This could result in better, more thoughtful art.
Conor Macklin, the director of the Grosvenor Vadehra Gallery in St James's, where Santhosh's latest works are to be shown, believes that the primary market, where galleries provide the first point of sale for an artist, now offers the best opportunities for collectors. Whereas Santhosh has seen his prices at auction soar to more than £350,000 at auction, his new paintings are priced at £60,000, and some have already been sold.
"The problem with the hottest Indian artists," says Macklin, "was that speculators would buy them out in the galleries and then resell them at auction for much more." That is a practice that is now firmly in the past.