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Signature art

Gargi Gupta  |  New Delhi 

What is the value of art without the artist’s name on it? And how does an artist brand his work as art? An exhibition raises these questions.

If there’s one general factor that distinguishes modern art from art of preceding eras, high art from popular art and craft, then it is the “signature”. Modern artists sign their works, pre-modern artists didn’t, craftsmen still don’t. In a very real sense then, it is the artist’s signature that authenticates an object as a work of art and gives it value. But what about a work of contemporary art such as Hand-picked Rejects by the Mumbai-based artist Sharmila Samant, which comprises garments rejected by export houses on which she has embroidered, “This is an original”? The point of the art-work is not the object — which, anyway, has not been made by Samant as a painter or sculptor of yore would make a painting or sculpture — but the idea of what constitutes originality in fashion and the exploitative labour that is used by fashion houses. But how does the artist validate, or “brand” it as a work of art?

These, and allied knotted questions, enliven Khoj’s latest exhibition, In Deed: Certificates of Authenticity in Art (on till December 16). The show, curated by Susan Hapgood and Cornelia Lauf, both respected curators of and writers on contemporary art from New York, is a travelling one that has shown already at Middelburg (Holland) and Venice, and will go next to Mumbai, Rome, Chicago, Istanbul and New York.

Included in the show are “certificates of authenticity” issued by 50 international contemporary artists from the past five decades or so, including such heavyweights as Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, Sol LeWitt, Yoko Ono (John Lennon’s wife was an important member of the Fluxus artists’ group in the 1960s) and Robert Rauschenberg, which shows how these artists battled the one charge that is even now levelled against a lot of contemporary, concept-driven art — that it isn’t art at all. Two other Indian, besides Samant, also form part of the show — Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective and the husband-wife pair of Hemali Bhuta and Shreyas Karle.

This is a fun show, despite all the art-historical baggage that it carries with it. Take Duchamp’s Tzanck Cheque (1919/1938), which is a drawing of a cheque for $115 drawn on a fictional company called “The Teeth’s Loan and Trust Company, Consolidated”. Daniel Tzanck, to whom the check is made out, explains Hapgood who has come to Delhi with the show, was a dentist who treated the French-American artist who is considered a pioneer of “conceptual” art. And since Duchamp did not have the money to pay Tzanck, he made out a drawing representing a cheque!

The art market’s obsession with signatures and works by famous artists, and the entire framework of pompous sounding, quasi-legal documents on which market transactions are based — both of which Duchamp’s Tzack Cheque pokes fun at — is a running thread through many of the exhibits. So also is the tension between asserting the artist’s autonomy and realising that this same market ensured that he earned a decent living. It makes for a piquant combination in the certificate French artist Ben Vautier issued for Gesture (1961), authenticating a “kick in the butt” as his art-work.

Much of conceptual art arose as a reaction to the growing importance and reach of the art market; the artists were trying to create works that could not be coopted by the market. For instance, Yves Klien’s Zones for Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility — art-works that only existed in the mind, in other words — which the buyer had to pay real gold for. The irony is that the receipts that Klien issued to acknowledge the transaction and which the buyer had to burn to “absolutely and intrinsically” own the work — one of these is part of the show — have themselves become objects that are highly valued in the art market.

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First Published: Sun, November 20 2011. 00:03 IST