The Quandary of the Art Fair
By Sukayna Powell
From Frieze to FIAC, large international fairs are increasingly coming to dominate the art world’s calendar. The model is a simple one, recognisable to anyone who has ever attended a trade fair in any commercial sector; galleries rent a ‘booth’ and exhibit both their wares and their curatorial ‘character’, and potential buyers (from museums to collectors) spend a few days wandering around deciding with whom and on what to spend their money. Observers analyse buying trends, attempt to discover new talent, talk to galleries (and listen to what galleries are saying about each other) and generally use these periodical eruptions of intense art-related activity to check up on the overall state of the industry.
This being the art world, however, things are not quite as existentially comfortable as they might be at a fine food fair, for instance. There is the perennial question of creativity vs commerce, or the question of whether this business model is stifling young galleries, or even the question of how this highly international model contributes to the creation of a new cloud-hopping globalised elite. There are also controversies surrounding the contemporary art fair that come more squarely under the rubric of art theory and criticism.
One of these is the problem of attention; implicit in the model is the central position of the gallery. Of course, artists are intimately involved with their gallerists and often in the selection and installation of their works for these fairs, and critics and collectors alike attend in order to discover new talent or build their collections of favourite artists. The fact remains, however, that it is the galleries, and not the artists, that are front and centre. Part of what they are there to display is their taste, or curatorial identity. This is most clearly demonstrated by the phenomenon of the ‘instagrammable’ booth, the installation that is surrounded by twenty odd people craning their phones to get a good shot.
This is not in itself a bad thing; curation and display is a creative activity and deserves to be celebrated, and a commercial enterprise has a right to display its products to its best (i.e. most saleable) advantage. In addition, the act of curating is becoming an increasingly large part of artistic practice, the display of artworks and ephemera in a larger archive-artworks is only getting more common.
Galleries and gallerists are getting in on the act too. Hauser and Wirth’s booth at the Frieze London 2017 was a collaboration with Cambridge Professor of Classics Mary Beard, and featured a mixture of artworks, objet d’art, and plain old objects. In 2016 Douglas Crimp (American, 1944-), the curator who canonised the ‘Pictures’ movement put on an autobiographical show at Galarie Buchholz in New York which featured everything from some of Daniel Buren’s (French, 1938-) iconic stripes, to tickets to Balanchine’s Swan Lake. It was not exactly a show of the artists involved, and nor was it a show by an artist, it was something else entirely.
And therein we have the crux of the issue with this blurring of lines not exclusive to – but perhaps most evident at – art fairs. One of the most vital and necessary practices in the contemporary art pantheon is the practice of institutional critique, the often painful and controversial result of which keeps the art world keenly aware of its existential contradictions and philosophical inconsistencies. This awareness of conflict and paradox plays an important part in a balanced creative diet, and can produce powerful shifts in perspective for both institutions and audiences.
Marcel Broodthaers’s (Belgian, 1924-1976) long project Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (1968-1972) was an extensive and engaging critique of museum culture. Consisting primarily of printed ephemera relating to the workings of a fictional museum department (responsible for ‘eagles’), the work mixed curation, performance, and object-making of all kinds. Amusing and, for institutional critique, relatively accessible, the work challenged the viewer to engage with many aspects of the museum experience which they might have otherwise taken for granted or not considered critically.
Another influential (and controversial) artist is Andrea Fraser (American, 1965-). Fraser’s oeuvre is filled with arch commentaries on the absurdities and hypocrisies of the art world. Little Frank And His Carp (2001) challenges the egregious grandiosity of the rhetoric museum design, and Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk (1989) the often inaccessible vocabulary of tour guides. She has also directed her eye at the language and body language of commercial gallerists, as well as of art historians.
Fraser, Broodthaers, and other artists like them/inspired by them, have turned their gaze on the system in which they work, and found them egregious, or absurd, or unwilling to confront certain aspects of their presentation. The system sometimes responds well, sometimes badly, but the dialogue is always revealing, and provides grist for the creative and critical mills. Institutional critique has touched every area of the art world from boardrooms to biennials, but little attention has hitherto been devoted to art fairs. There is little opportunity for the artists being shown by the galleries to respond directly to context in which their works end up, and the galleries themselves show few signs of being willing to engage in reflective criticism. After all, a gallery is not an artist, so the idea of them practicing institutional critique is somewhat redundant. As we have seen, however, the art fair is a context in which the line between gallery and artist becomes incredibly blurry and, as result, one sees a great deal of what looks quite like artistic practice without what might be called art-ethics.
One way to circumvent the problem of the gallery-as-creative-entity is for artists to experience and respond to art fairs as attendees, rather than from within the limitations of their gallery connection. One artist who has done this is Polly Brown (1986-). Brown’s photo series Stuff I Stole at Frieze (2016) features her disembodied hand reaching towards a bit of gallery ephemera – notepads, chargers &c. – which she pocketed throughout her time at the fair. Ironically, whilst going about her thieving she was also ‘reverse pickpocketed’ by fellow artist David Horowitz’ (American, 1961-) hired thief, who was going around depositing small sculptures in the pockets of attendees. Both artists are playing on the commercial value of art by subverting the tradition of art theft, commenting on the acquisitive nature of the art fair, and, in Brown’s case, on the branding/commercial activities of the galleries. It is an encouraging start; the we would undoubtedly benefit from a more consistent artistic response to one of the art world’s biggest institutions.
“Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective” MoMA. Accessed October 22, 2017. https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1542#slideshow
Martin, Richard. “Andrea Fraser – Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk – 1989” Tate Modern. Last modified July 2014. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/fraser-museum-highlights-a-gallery-talk-t13715
Singer, Olivia. “The Stuff Polly Brown Stole From Frieze New York” AnOther. Last modified May 9, 2016. http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/8662/the-stuff-polly-brown-stole-from-frieze-new-york
Gottschalk, Molly. “The 20 Best Booths at Frieze London and Frieze Masters” Artsy. Last modified October 4, 2017. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-20-best-booths-frieze-london-frieze-masters
Gavin, Francesca. “The 16 Best Booths at Fiac” Artsy. Last modified October 19, 2017. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-the-16-best-booths-at-fiac
Gerlis, Melanie. “We Want to Tell a Story” FT. Accessed October 22, 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/4af5f1c4-9f85-11e7-8b50-0b9f565a23e1