The most captivating interior design feature of Sundaram Tagore Galleries is The Gamelatron Project. An ambient orchestra of self-playing Balinese and Javanese percussion instruments, it was designed and installed all around the gallery by American artist Aaron Taylor Kuffner. Their melodious chimes confer dimension to this white space, alongside which its owner and director beats out a rhythm on his own drum.
The man in question is Sundaram Tagore, the descendant of prominent Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, and something of a celebrity in the art world, although he denies it vehemently. But the proof is in the pudding and the company he keeps ranks among the likes of artist Robert Rauschenberg and many a Nobel Prize-winning writer.
“I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the most critical thinkers of our age and have learnt a lot from them because, essentially, we learn by association,” he elaborates. For similar reasons, the unassuming former director of New York’s lauded Pace Wildenstein Gallery is equally enthusiastic to indulge less celebrated folk like you and I. “It’s really about the quality of an engagement — we learn a lot when we open up our minds.”
A walk through his gallery in the Gillman Barracks arts hub facilitates a healthy and eclectic engagement of one’s senses. Along one wall, the works of Korean artist Kim Joon explores issues of Korean commercialism through enthralling photographs of porcelain and tattoos, which are actually not photographs at all, but life-like digital artworks. A couple of exhibits down, past those of Mexican artistic stalwart Ricardo Mazal, Merit Prize winner Hiroshi Senju and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife Susan Weil, hangs a livid painting by Vittorio Matino. In a world that follows Picasso’s style of using lines to dictate form, Matino uses colour to illustrate objects.
Articulating his interpretation of art, Tagore explains: “Every artist is exploring a culture outside of his or her own, so every piece is actually an intercultural dialogue.” The talkative eponymous owner of galleries in Singapore, Hong Kong and New York reveals more, saying: “My galleries are mission-driven and I plan them to be platforms for dialogue, which no amount of money can dissuade. When two cultures meet, it is initially a collision, which slowly evolves into a befriending. For example, a contemporary Japanese artist living in New York would have to ask himself: ‘What more do I bring to the table than other artists?’ The gravity and strength of his works would come from his own roots.”
He also sees his role in the world as one who highlights young talents. His basic criteria at the door of his gallery: The art has to transcend time. “Just like the Beatles, it takes a while for people to say if something is evergreen — if you can date something to a specific era, like the 1960s, then it is not evergreen,” he reasons. “In a time when art was about painting maidens with bows and arrows, and creatures who were half man and half beast, the art of impressionists like [Édouard] Manet and [Claude] Monet were seen as a slap in the face of art. No one paid any attention to them because they were too avant-garde, but things like these take time to make sense. Sure, you could make a new artist famous with a huge marketing push, but it might only last for five years. The question we need to ask when we consider a new artist is: ‘What is he or she doing for the world?’”
Still, the shrewd businessman divulges some degree of marketing is inevitable. He often showcases the works of completely new artists beside that of famous ones. “The critical eye makes associations,” he explains. “So a dialogue is created when I place an unknown photographer’s work beside one by someone like Annie Leibovitz. In this day and age, everything is possible and everything has been done before, but juxtaposition creates a new angle through which we can view the universe,” he remarks. Tagore’s nurturing instincts have also created scholarships, where he identifies individuals through NGOs and pays for their art education abroad.
He admits that his “platforms for dialogue” are manifestations of himself, a young boy who left India and has lived in Vancouver, Ohio, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Venice, Oxford and Geneva. “I am neither a proponent nor an opponent of globalisation,” he comments. “But I am a product of it. My allegiance is to human beings who should not be distinguished by ethnicity.”
So where does he truly feel at home? “On the airplane,” jokes the man who has been visiting Singapore since 1993. People believe that he constantly jets around the world to look for promising new artists whom he woos to make Sundaram Tagore Galleries their abode, but others might guess that he actually travels constantly simply because he enjoys soaking in different cultures.
His pursuit of putting underrated individuals in the spotlight has also led him to enter into documentary filmmaking. A passionate director and producer, the subject of his films are artists and architects like Louis Kahn, responsible for some of the most important architectural creations in the world today such as the Yale University Art Gallery. His brand of filmmaking also favours the unconventional: “I would much rather interview someone while cycling beside them than from across a desk.”
The former collaborator of the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the United Nations also finds the time to give talks at symposiums and conferences around the world (his last pit stop being Sweden). Tagore proclaims that the most prevalent misconception about art today is that it can be regarded as an investment commodity. “My gallery is definitely not a mall,” he frowns. “Treating art like a piece of property is the wrong approach. Ask yourself: ‘Why do we exist?’ From the day we are born, we need to express. Art is a human necessity.”