From Athens, the first stop in our contemporary art tour of three of the world’s biggest festivals in Europe (you can read the first of my two-part series here) we moved to Venice, the host city of the oldest and best-known international visual arts exhibition in the world: the Venice Biennale. The core of the biennale is a curated show spanning two venues near the island’s eastern tip, the Giardini, or gardens, and the Arsenale, once a massive shipyard.

Equally important are dozens of national pavilions, some displayed in permanent structures within the Giardini, others contained in the Arsenale or rented spaces in different locations in the city. India has usually ignored the Venice Biennale, causing much heartburn within the art community. To make the lack of an Indian pavilion more deeply felt, the curator of the core exhibition, Christine Macel, entirely ignored artists residing in India.

Macel called her exhibition Viva Arte Viva, which can be translated as Art Zindabad. This strikes me as extraordinarily silly. Aren’t all such exhibitions a celebration of art, after all? That a well-funded blockbuster show sought to emphasise the value of art in this fashion is telling.

I wrote in a previous column about how French artist Marcel Duchamp favoured ideas over painterly skill and surface attractiveness, creating a concept-driven art that grew tremendously influential over time. In an obituary of the art critic John Berger after his death in January, I argued that his foregrounding of politics was salutary 50 years ago, but has been carried too far in our day. By proclaiming,“Art Zindabad”, Macel was bringing the focus back to art-making and artists.

Unfortunately, her mode of bringing art back was to divide her show into nine “pavilions” with titles almost as dumb-sounding as Viva Arte Viva: Pavilion of Joys and Fears, Pavilion of the Earth, Pavilion of Time and Infinity, Pavilion of Traditions, Pavilion of the Shamans and so on. There was, as you can surmise from these pavilions, plenty of mumbo-jumbo going round. This placed the show squarely within the mainstream of today’s curatorial direction rather than in opposition to it, as Macel would have us believe.

Mumbo-jumbo and art

Mumbo-jumbo has mushroomed in the art world for a while. I first noticed its incursion when Vandana Shiva was included among the “artists” of the 2007 documenta art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Those who don’t know what I think of Shiva’s work can read this piece. A few years later, in Rotterdam, I viewed a show that included a yagna, a mandala made of flowers, and a performance involving healing crystals. I asked the superstar curator whether she was drawn to spiritual subjects. She responded, “Spirituality is a dated term, I prefer using the phrase ‘traditional knowledge systems’.”

Every major global art show these days seems to be in love with traditional knowledge systems/spirituality/new-age mumbo jumbo. I’ve realised that most curators are completely uninvested in these things, but pander to them because stuff like shamanism can be theorised as an alternative to the status quo, the capitalist order, however you want to phrase it.

I liked a couple of sections of Viva Arte Viva, particularly The Pavilion of Artists and Books, but it wouldn’t affected my overall Venice experience much if I hadn’t. The great thing about the Venice Biennale is that even if the main show is a dud (which has generally been the case in years I’ve visited), there are usually a few excellent national pavilions to lift your mood. If national pavilions let you down, you can go see a few Titians. And (snob alert) if for some inexplicable reason you do not love Titian, Venice is always jaw-droppingly gorgeous, though also always unbearably crowded.

Kassel let-down

But documenta, held once in five years, has none of these advantages. Kassel, where the exhibition is usually held – though this year there was also a segment in Athens – is a prosperous town (like most in Germany) but irredeemably boring. If the show is not good, your entire trip is doomed. Unfortunately, the Kassel half of the ongoing 14th edition of documenta was a bit of a dud.

Three years ago, I ferried Adam Szymczyk, the Polish curator of documenta 14 around Mumbai to look at the city’s art spaces and meet artists and gallerists. I could tell we had very different perspectives on art, and very different tastes, but could see also that he had a brilliant mind – and that’s not a term I use loosely. I expected something sparkling from him, and the Athens leg of documenta 2017 (detailed in the first part of the series) felt like it was building up to something really interesting. Instead, the whole enterprise collapsed on getting to Deutschland.

There were two main causes behind the Kassel meltdown. First, Szymczyk’s decision to repeat the same set of artists backfired. To view the same people doing more or less the same thing made the exhibition feel like a long haul flight in which the same air circulates a few times too often. His other conceit,of getting artists to forge connections between Greece and Germany, produced narrow and rather predictable political perspectives and histories.

I was also perplexed by his inclusion of past work, which leaned heavily on the late 1960s and early 1970s. I suppose that period marked a Utopian moment, but Utopian thinkers then passionately believed in their Utopias, and their curatorial use now becomes a political stance devoid of deep commitment, akin to the use of traditionalist mumbo-jumbo.

Indian highlights

The Indian presence was fairly strong in Athens and Kassel, thanks, presumably, to one of the exhibition’s advisors, Natasha Ginwalla, who is the first Indian to have made it to the top echelon of international curators. Delhi artist Amar Kanwar was accorded the singular honour of being invited to documenta for the fourth consecutive exhibition.

My favourite Indian piece in Kassel was the performance artist Nikhil Chopra’s Drawing a Line Through Landscape. Chopra is known for performances that last hours or even days. For documenta, he stretched that timeline further, travelling from Athens to Kassel by road, sleeping in a tent and painting onto its canvas sides representations of the landscapes he traversed. That tent, along with a video capturing moments from his East European sojourn, and the paintings he made, now stitched together in one long panorama,were presented in an abandoned underground station in Kassel, where he ended his 28-day performance.

Not only is Chopra an unflagging performer of rare stamina and concentration, he is also an excellent draughtsman, capable of producing vigorous drawings and carefully-wrought likenesses in difficult circumstances. What do I mean by difficult? Try painting on the cloth of a tent on a windy day, or even on a still day. His performances require heaps of skill, and their meaning grows out of it. I’m heartily sick of discovering the point of a work solely through reading about the its historical context in the wall text, or through a sappy biographical back-story, and there was far too much of that in documenta 14.

Nikhil Chopra's performance art. Credit: Chatterjee&Lal/via Instagram

Cooking up a storm

Between the two relatively non-commercial shows, we attended one super-commercial event: Art Basel. If you want to witness the art market in action, this annual event is the place to be, specially on the first day immediately after the champagne breakfast in the circular central courtyard has ended. We came in at lunch time, and heard that some flights scheduled to land earlier had been delayed by an air traffic jam caused by private jets. As soon as I stepped into the first booths, I sensed this was going to be a vintage year for sales.

Even late in the afternoon, gallery managers and assistants were in constant conversation. The conversion rate of conversations to sales is very high during Art Basel’s VIP days. There was plenty of great art around as well, though a fair is a pretty bad place to view art, what with the cramped booths jostling for space and flat lighting.

Only three Indian galleries made the Basel cut this year, Chemould, SKE and Experimenter, and it felt like fewer than three Indian collectors had made the journey to Switzerland. The rest of the art world did not seem to notice.

Art Basel has a section called Unlimited, created for large-scale works that would not fit into conventional booths. This year’s edition featured two Indian artists. Dayanita Singh showed Museum of Shedding, a selection of her photographs of architecture in an architectural space she had created. The second was Subodh Gupta, who had also created an architectural space, a home of sorts, with second-hand utensils, part of a project he called Cooking the World.

Credit: Girish Shahane

Gupta has used pots and pans in his sculpture for nearly two decades and has consistently probed beliefs, rituals, and taboos related to food. He took his preoccupation a step further in Basel by creating a performance around serving and eating food. In a table setting that resembled an intimate sushi bar, he offered a seven course menu of Bihari and Indian favourites in four daily seatings which had to be pre-booked through a website.

We booked a bit late and got the worst time of day: 4.45 pm – far too late for lunch and way too early for dinner. We had also made the mistake of eating a full meal earlier that afternoon. I was feeling a bit embarrassed as I took my seat, knowing I would only pick at the food Gupta offered us.

The very first course, a slice of besan cheela with a smear of chutney, looking nouvelle but served in a disposable plate made from leaves, proved me wrong. It was flat-out delicious. I could’ve scarfed five of those. Then came bhel puri, khichadi, a thali, and dessert, washed down with nimbu paani or masala chai. By 5.30 pm, I’d happily consumed my second full meal in four hours.

In the context of an exclusive event in Switzerland, Gupta’s sculpture and performance brought up ideas of the way food both unites and divides, how the same dish can comfort one individual while estranging another. In a time when migration is among the most potent political issues, Cooking the World interrogated cultural identity and difference through the acts of cooking and eating. But those second-level considerations could be effectively addressed only through the artist’s evident passion for food and skill in the kitchen. If the meal hadn’t been exquisite, any political discourse around it would have been dry and flavourless.

The first part of this series can be read here.

Documenta 14 runs from 8 April to 16 July 2017 in Athens, Greece; and from 10 June to 17 September 2017 in Kassel, Germany. The Venice Biennale opened to the public on 13 May and will be on view till Sunday 26 November 2017.