Luxury of experimentation and the freedom to fail

Non-commercial, experimental spaces provide the critical environment that is conducive to develop artistic practices and open new horizons for dialogues and conversations.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Nov 30, 2021

Historically, patronage has played a significant role in encouraging and supporting all forms of art. In the west, aristocrats supported visual artists and performers. The church extended support by asking for commissioned works on biblical themes. Some of the most monumental works are a result of such an engagement. The fame of Sistine Chapel primarily lies in its frescoes, particularly The Last Judgement and The Ceiling painted by Michelangelo under the patronage of Pope Julius II. Renaissance painters, theatre artists, and music performers were actively supported by the church.

Sistine Chapel ceiling | Michelangelo | STIRworld
Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo Image: Courtesy of – Wikimedia Commons

It was believed that art was an important way for the moral upliftment of society. These ‘gifts’ of artworks to the people were also with an objective of earning personal goodwill and to immortalise the legacy of the rich and powerful.

Back home in India, the royalty invested in the support of art. Emperor Akbar had a keen interest in art and architecture. His desire for cultural grandeur was an instrument of the government to reinforce its legitimacy, and his fostering of the Mughal style of art has left a significant inheritance for the region. Musician Tansen, one of the navratnas (nine jewels) of Akbar’s court, produced soulful music because all he needed was to focus on his art without worrying about paying his bills.

(Left) Goddess Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma (Right) Goddess Lakshmi by Raja Ravi Varma | STIRworld
(Left) Goddess Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma (Right) Goddess Lakshmi by Raja Ravi Varma Image: Courtesy of – Wikimedia Commons

Centuries later, the royal family of Baroda (now Vadodara) had a distinct role in supporting Raja Ravi Verma in his artistic endeavours. It is said that the unflinching support and freedom to explore allowed for Verma to set up a printing press that mass-produced inexpensive lithographs of images of Hindu gods. Besides their importance as works of art, the prints allowed for the poor to ‘access’ their gods, who were otherwise only to be worshiped in the form of sculptures in public temples (incidentally, many were beyond reach for the communities of lower castes), or the homes of the wealthy. 

One of the most significant fallouts as a result of ‘patronage’ is the liberty with which artists are able to devote themselves in the pursuit of the arts. And that allows for experimentation. Creativity, by definition, requires creating something that does not already exist. Artists, and for that matter scientists alike, will vouch for the number of times one has to fail to succeed just once. In the contemporary and hyper-commercial contemporary context of our times, where does one find the ‘permission to fail’? How does a creative practitioner break the confines of the white cube to explore and experiment, alter the context of their practice and maybe, just have some fun? And this brings us to the much-needed role of experimental spaces for the arts.

Exterior view, 52 Walker, New York | STIRworld
Exterior view, 52 Walker, New York Image: Nicholas Venezia, Courtesy of - Selldorf Architects and David Zwirner

I recently came to know about ‘52 Walker’, a new space in New York established by David Zwirner Gallery. An otherwise commercial contemporary gallery set up with locations at New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong, and currently representing over seventy artists and estates, the new establishment will work in parallel with the unique objective of an alternate space. As per the press note: “52 Walker will function differently than the other David Zwirner locations. The gallery will feature artists of all backgrounds and at various stages of their careers. Largely interested in broader curatorial practices, conceptual and research-based work, the works shown at 52 Walker will be for sale, but the gallery will not represent the exhibiting artists. The gallery will present four exhibitions per year, melding a traditional commercial gallery model with the longer exhibition development and presentation timelines, and visitors to 52 Walker will have the opportunity to engage with exhibitions over a full season and connect with the work through the gallery’s exhibition catalogue series and related programming”. To lead this effort, Ebony L. Haynes has joined as the director and curator at 52 Walker.

Ebony L. Haynes | STIRworld
Ebony L. Haynes Image: Lelanie Foster, Courtesy of – David Zwirner

Haynes is a writer and curator from Toronto, currently based in New York, and is a visiting curator and critic at Yale School of Art. She says, “After years of exploring ways to reframe the gallery, I’m thrilled to provide a space for artists to create and present their work for an extended period, encouraging deeper engagement between the artists and the public. We approached the opening of 52 Walker with the idea of an art space that is welcoming to all within a curatorial-driven and commercial context”.

Display at <em>8x4. It glows light</em> | 8x4. It glows light | STIRworld
display at 8x4. It glows light Image: Jasone Miranda Bilbao

I happened to visit the debut exhibition of Maze Collective in New Delhi. The exhibit, titled 8x4. It glows light, took place under the night sky on the terrace of the collective’s studio. It is an artist-run space with special interest in analogue photography, encompassing all non-digital photographic works by coating a surface with an emulsion of silver halide salts that are sensitive to light. For the artworks at 8x4. It glows light, artists have taken existing works and leftovers from previous projects and exhibitions, and readapted them for the occasion - old images were repainted, objects that were lying around in the studio, perhaps unresolved, took a new turn, and the sound and colour saturation of moving images had been tweaked.

Opening night of <em>8x4. It glows light</em> | 8x4. It glows light | STIRworld
Opening night of 8x4. It glows light Image: Jasone Miranda Bilbao

The overall format being of a non-complex and simplified presentation, 8x4. It glows light had been set up as a mobile exhibition using 8x4 feet sheets of MDF board to display works. It was fascinating to view works under a starry night, amongst dripping water tanks, and television dish antennas in the background. Several artists like Asim Waqif, Achia Anzi, and M Pravat, whose works I am personally familiar with, were presented in a unique context, opening up a new dialogue.

One of the works at <em>8x4. It glows light</em> | 8x4. It glows light | STIRworld
One of the works at 8x4. It glows light Image: Jasone Miranda Bilbao

Creative endeavours need the liberty of time, a freedom to fail. Scientific laboratories do not churn out new research theories every day. Even the ‘innovation labs’ within corporations provide for a conducive environment to foster creativity. Art forms of all kinds too then have a need for experimenting freely, putting things out of normal contexts, and without a direct linkage with the commerce of it. And this is significant not only as a private pursuit of the artists within their studios, but also by way of an engagement with audience. It is now more important than ever to challenge the normal. Time, space, and support for artists to create and exhibit over an extended period, allowing for newer conversations, and a more intimate viewing experience for visitors are all key ingredients for a successful experimental space. It will foster ephemerality, collaboration, pushing the boundaries, and dialogues with thinkers beyond the world of art.

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