Fair fare

Olina Banerji        Print Edition: June 10, 2012

Writing about art, for a novice like me, invariably involves a certain degree of pretence. Anything too mainstream, too pop, too massappeal is instantly rejected. There's no end to accumulating intellectual bling and name-dropping in the world, but it's at an art fair that you have to really up your game. Its history, politics, philosophy and religion lumped together on a canvas. Or in a video. Or on a person even.

ALSO READ: What drives youngsters to invest in art

The art world follows a cult of its own. I like to call it the hierarchy of taste. It's an order that you'll seldom be part of but one that'll dictate the kind of art worth investing in. No one really questions this hierarchy. You may look at an installation of light bulbs, feathers and a giant fish bowl entitled The End of the World and think why it may suggest so. Or a giant hair clip installation that resembles the dried insides of a cow and wonder what it would go with in your living room (if you have a living room big enough to accommodate a giant hair clip, that is). Make what you will of the odds and ends they call contemporary art, but the bottomline is that what you think matters very little.

Wim Delvoye's 19-foot stainless steel tower
Wim Delvoye's 19-foot stainless steel tower is a goth beauty
Nonetheless, if you're looking for a crash course (to check off as one of those things that certify you're upwardly mobile but still firmly middleclass), a fair is the best way to hone your pidgin knowledge. Don't make the mistake of sticking to only what you know, like yours truly, who spent an inordinate amount of time staring at the Hussain retrospective by London-based Grosvenor Vadhera at Art Dubai. While only two steps away were actual people pretending to be art! Let that be your first lesson.

STEP ONE LOOK AROUND
Most art fairs are week-long extravaganzas. Take the first day to acclimatise yourself with a long stroll around the premises. Enjoy the little sticky sweets and champagne that galleries set out for prospective buyers. Take a cursory glance as you amble along but don't get too involved. Practice your art critic pose and find your sweet spot by standing at an appropriate distance from the art work Whatever you do, don't ever show obvious disdain, even if it's deer feces mounted on a wall ( yes that happened- it was called Sex Fumes and sold for Rs 10 lakh).

Suhasini Kejriwal's Monument
Suhasini Kejriwal's Monument
STEP TWO ABSORB
On being given a cold shoulder at the booth of an eminent London gallery, I realised that playing dumb doesn't get you anywhere. Before you decide to do the same however, absorb as much as you can about the culture of art appreciation. The best way to learn is to get on to one of the guided tours or follow people who look like they know what they want. Not hard to spot, they look rich, talk in a clipped accent and usually know gallerists on a first name basis. Such passive stalking may lead you to work that you may eventually like.

Following the Ruler of Dubai's entourage was how I chanced upon Khosrow Hassanzade's beautiful gilt ceramic dome inlaid with classic images of pahalvans from old Iranian tales, on vintage blue tiles. Should you now feel the need to talk about your experience, the gallery catalogues are handy guides to the lingo. An extensive study of these taught me two popular words that can be used almost exclusively for all works of art. Subliminal and Contextual. They mean opposite things but are usually found in close proximity in these lofty descriptions.

Admirers under Khosrow Hassanzadeh's Dome
Admirers under Khosrow Hassanzadeh's Dome
The lesser you understand, the better. Other catchprahses you may want to watch out for: transcendental, illusory and my all-time favourite, juxtaposed.

STEP THREE ROLE PLAY
Gallerists only pay you attention if
a) you look like a rich intellectual or
b) they're afraid you'll break something.
Lest you're mistaken for the second category, avoid dressing like a slob. What you can have instead is a salt-n-pepper beard and a pony tail for good measure. The formermusician-now corporate-sell-out vibe works since it means you're wrapped in money, but still have an artists' soul (extra points if they can spot a label or two on you). The best way to break the ice with the swish set is to nod in agreement and insert your two bits at the very end.

I am admittedly too much of a philistine to appreciate fine art. This ironic self comment is a huge coverup. I won't ever get why a video installation of dour-looking women talking would make for groundbreaking technique. And only now am I beginning to understand that the medium is really the message (how else do you explain mannequins, butterflies and human beings wrapped in plastic?).

Thankfully, I have my three-step start-up kit for dummies or art novices to fall back on.

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