The Unique Spectacle That Is The Contemporary Art Fair

By Tucker Neel

Originally published in  Fine Art Magazine, Vol. 33 No 1, Spring 2008, 67.

Installation at Gavin Brown Projects

Installation at Gavin Brown Projects

Art Basel is like watching your parents have sex, or so says one of my favorite graduate school professors. While the gallery/collector public displays of affection and private backroom deals may seem to spoil the mood, the roaring art market wouldn’t be able to survive in its current state without Basel.

For many galleries Miami in December is the time and place to unload inventories and increase reserves for the coming year. This sobering reality doesn’t diminish the queasiness that comes with seeing work you adore hanging clustered like so much meat in a butcher’s window. Hearing dealers and collectors talk in frank, Warholian terms about how much is it now and how much it will be worth in a year seems to take the fun out of looking at the work in the first place. And watching works sell to earnest collectors and hotel chains alike, and knowing that in a few months the entire cycle will start again can put a damper on any sort of art-school-fueled idealism.

Yet if one can overlook its artistic and creative constraints, Basel can become a welcome opportunity for artists. Where else can one interact with so many intelligent, influential (an often inebriated) artists, writers, curators, and cultural mavens from all over the world? If anything, the multiple fairs allow for thousands of artists to contrast practices and compare conceptual interests.

Once inside the fairs the repetition of materials and methods was at times overwhelming. Every-day objects cast in metal, taxidermied animals, reconstituted designer goods, Photoshopped history paintings masquerading as photographs, utilitarian tools covered in sparkles, crystals and glitter, adolescent flat watercolors, oversized celebrity-themed photographs and paintings, abject libidinal cartoons, finish-fetish metals, neon, glitter, cardboard, and used and unused bottles of alcohol – all cropped up again and again in countless booths.

This is not to say that any of the works employing these techniques were inherently derivative. In fact, an outstanding work at Art Basel employed more than one of these material concerns. Oliver Payne and Nick Relph’s installation at Gavin Brown Projects allowed visitors to peruse the duo’s stylish retro sneakers stuffed with expensive bottles of Chateau Latour, strategically placed alongside antiquated technology like a tan Macintosh Classic computer or an old Tamagotchi keychain. Displayed on well-lit platforms a’ la Prada or the MOMA’s design wing, the work embodied a kind of dandy decorative sensibility, updating Haim Steinbach’s 80’s consumer fetish wall displays for a new nostalgic millennium.

Another work, also reminiscent of Jason Rhodes’ plastic phantasmagoria, was Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s Infinito Botanica at Frederieke Taylor’s booth at the Pulse art fair. Here the artist arranged a crowded table of religious idols draped in fake foods, pizza, Corona beer bottles, ceramic tzotchkes and pop art piñatas. The booth’s walls were crammed with clichéd paintings of whimsical white dresses, lonesome suited figures, and brooding faces, all of which looked like they came straight from a local mall’s Fine Art emporium. The overall effect was not only humorous, but also keenly critical of the art fair’s tendency to value commerce over kunst, likening the entire experience to a carnival of conspicuous consumption.

However not all standouts employed an over-the-top aesthetic. Jay Johnson’s Some Kind of Meal in Quint Contemporary Art’s booth at Art Miami sparsely speckled an unremarkable wall with minuscule bronze objects: a bottle, a pill, a funnel–each referencing human relationships to food, eating, digestion, and sustenance. The work insisted on placing the viewer in a self-reflexive position, highlighting one’s own bigness next to the work’s conspicuous smallness. This physical sensation no doubt heightened by the work’s close proximity to nearby bombastic and self-consciously BIG painting and photography.

Unfortunately some artists and galleries can take reductive tendencies too far. Take Wilfredo Prieto’s El Tiempo es Oro / Time is Gold installation in Martin Von Zomeren’s booth at NADA for example. The entire booth was painted machine-gun blue, empty, save for a single gold pocket watch dangling from the ceiling. With this didactic polemic deployed in such a privileged space, the piece clumsily strives to addresses the economies of space and time associated with paying for and showing in an expensive fair. But the piece does little more than scream its castigations in a familiar tone at an uninterested and unreceptive audience. While Prieto has made his name practicing similar flat-footed institutional critiques (some of them at times quite acerbic and poignant), he, and many other artists with similar goals, could learn a thing or two from Yves Klein.

While admittedly operating under less anti-capitalist pretenses, Klein spoke to Prieto’s current concerns with Le Vide, his now legendary performance from 1956. For this work the artist provided blue cocktails to guests attending his opening in a gallery that featured nothing displayed on its blank white walls. Upon returning home after the show and retiring to the water closet, the patrons found that their urine had turned a patented Yves Klein Blue. He had effectively used the tools of the trade (booze and a party) to highlight the merger of the gallery/patron relationship, making the remnant of such public interaction visible in the most private of places.

Maybe the art world is too jaded to take note of pranks like this. Maybe we’ve seen it all before. However, Cut out ‘however’ one can only hope that more artists could channel Klein’s strategic humor within the primed setting Basel provides. Such an informed, simple, and hilarious intervention would no doubt usher in new ways of seeing and participating in the unique spectacle that is the contemporary art fair.

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