The Slow Ascent: Death and Resurrection of the Art Fair

Whitney Bedford. “Untitled shipwreck” (2010). ink and oil on panel. Courtesy of the writer.

Four years ago, Artseen editor and writer Ben La Rocco published a piece on the Miami Art Fairs in which he likened the experience to walking through a tomb:

An art fair is a supreme expression of repressed necrological urges…An over indulgent involvement with the past to be sure, but one means by which some can feel a measure of control over their future. Like necromancy, commodification relies on examination of the past—that which has been successfully commodified—in order to predict what will sell in the future and determine how to sell it. Art fairs are the place to observe the transformation of art into commodity. Watch carefully and you can actually see art dissolve and drain into the die-cut molds of status symbols, decorative accessories and financial investments. If any inorganic object can be said to have life, it is art. Its dedifferentiation at art fairs, though celebrated by some on democratic grounds and by others on aesthetic, nonetheless represents a sort of ritualized death.

Like my cohort, I possess an inherent skepticism of the fairs. This most likely stems from my art school days—countless late-night conversations waged over a six-pack, debating the evils of the new institution—but this year’s installment of the gridded monolith (otherwise known as the Miami Beach Convention Center) brought a fresh perspective. Perhaps it was that, after having been starved of real artistic submersion for the past few months, my eyes were open to seeing. Or maybe it was a matter of waning cynicism, brought on by age and a more tempered demeanor. Whatever the case, what I found was candidly unexpected and soulfully refreshing (albeit with the usual blend of toxic fetishistic tropes mixed in).

Don’t get me wrong; as both an artist and critic, I still view the art fair as a concept that holds a number of dangerous ethical and aesthetic pitfalls. Its smorgasbord bravura, resplendent in the form of Basel, Pulse, SCOPE, Aqua, Verge, Fountain, NADA, Red Dot, or Seven, not to mention Art Miami, Photo and Design Miami, Art Asia, Art Positions, ArtKabinett, Art Nova, and Art Public (the list goes on and on)—and its lack of conceptual cohesion can be infuriating at times, especially for one so schooled in theory that I often find myself spending as much time trying to “make the pieces fit” as actually looking at the work itself. So this time around, I attempted to leave the critic’s notebook at my Art Deco hotel and, for a brief December afternoon, enjoy the act of looking. By the time four hours had passed and I had only conquered roughly two-thirds of the convention hall, a few realizations became clear:

Mounir Fatmi, "Maximum Sensation," 50 skateboards composed of plastic, metal and prayer carpets. Courtesy of the writer.

Risk taking is back, at least among the foreign galleries in attendance. At Yvonne Lambert Paris, Loris Gréaud’s 16mm projection, an extract from his tour de force, Cellar Door, at the Palais de Tokyo in 2008, struck with the weight of an anvil as puffs of inky florescent clouds rolled forward in an expression of silent, Rorschachian force. London’s Vilma Gold Gallery screened a pair of Charles Atlas films from the early ’70s, converted in grainy washes from Super 8 to digital video, and Tel Aviv’s Dvir Gallery showcased Naama Tsabar’s “Untitled (Speaker Wall Gold)” (2010), a mixed media work with bookshelf speakers, music wire, guitar pickups, guitar machine heads, and mini-amps. Other international successes included Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi’s hand-woven, skateboard-mounted prayer carpets at Lombard-Fried, and José Bedia’s rough-hewn etchings at Polígrafa Obra Gráfica, S.L.

Painting, relegated to the dead more times than art historians can count, has officially returned to the land of the living. There were surprises on hand from Julian Schnabel, Albert Oehlin, Ed Paschke, and Kehinde Wiley. Kara Walker’s traditionally stark silhouette forms hummed with an unprecedented demureness in her use of intaglio aquatint, and recent Columbia grad Murad Khan Mumtaz dazzled with his use of Turkish miniaturist painting methods to depict Wyoming-inspired microcosms of the Plains Indians.

Video art is surprisingly refreshing in the art fair context if you have the time and patience to spend with it. At Basel, LAXART’s Lauri Firstenberg curated the Art Video program, comprised of its own section at the center of the exhibition hall. A fair within a fair, it consisted of approximately half a dozen private viewing stations or “pods” which allowed for a) more focused viewing and b) a respite from the masses. This platform, while time-consuming, was extremely successful and offered an interesting look at the development of avant-garde cinema in the Los Angeles area with standouts by Jennifer West and Emilie Halpern.

Disappointing low-lights still remained in the form of the Hirst, Warhol, and Murakami camps, not to mention the distastefulness of the Modernist section—i.e. art history for auction. For it is one thing to designate contemporary work, whose place in the art historical canon (if there is one) has yet to be determined, for mass-market salability, another to relegate museum de-acquisitions, steeped in history and inveterate creative insight, to the same fate. Despite these lulls, however, it occurred to me that something very important was happening here. If art indeed acts as our barometer of cultural consciousness, then this goliath, in more ways than we may care to admit, must be synonymous with our contemporary version of historical creation. The incredible effort of the fairs alone—entire cities put up and torn down in less than a week—represent the same compressed time lapses that the technological interface has created for the condensation of image and text. This is a chilling thought, but pause to consider the notion that our communicative transmissions, having achieved terminal velocity, no longer possess the ability to be read. As image after image flickers past our line of sight, we are left blind to true meaning—resulting in, according to media-theorist Paul Virilio, our own unique brand of “visual dyslexia.” What in the past might have taken 20 years to create, build, appreciate, and tear down is now constructed and deconstructed in a matter of days. We have sped up the process to such a degree that there is no longer time for the formation of a bona fide “movement,” only the recognition of its fading shadow as we watch it recede onto the horizon.

Detail from Mounir Fatmi, "Maximum Sensation," 50 skateboards composed of plastic, metal and prayer carpets. Courtesy of the writer.

So what do we do? How do we respond? The only way to slow this process down is to change the system from within. What set this year’s fair apart from those that have come before is that for the first time, even if its movements were only audible in the form of a low whisper, it seemed that this was actually starting to happen. At its roots, the act of looking is one of the most primitive forms of human intellection. If we can remind ourselves that the art fair’s platform as based in this primitive human impulse (as opposed to the commodifying forces that have come to define it), perhaps we can begin to rehabilitate the idea—to transform its infrastructure at the most basic level and work our way out of the labyrinth, cubicle by cubicle.

The problem is not the art fair itself, but rather the way its context of high heels, champagne, and commodity fetishism have conditioned us to see its offerings. Contemplative looking is a trained skill, but it can be accomplished even amid the art fair throngs if we are willing to take the time to explore not what to look at but how. In a recent interview with Art in America, Hudson, the curator and founder of the Lower East Side’s Feature Gallery, claimed, “art is about the development of consciousness, not the development of an object. The object is just a catalyst.” If this is true, and I believe it is, then the art fair may just contain the potential to act as a consciousness-raising entity. An entirely new world might open up—one that is significantly more in line with the way we encounter art on a daily basis—as a mishmash of mediums, modes, and attitudes that contain little to no connective theoretical constructs, or, at best, a formal relationship to each other. In the end, I’ll most likely remain a disbeliever in the format, my short-lived optimism fading with the next snowfall or New York’s impending Armory Show. But in the meantime, I’ll hold onto that vestige of hope formed on a warm afternoon in early December. After all, if we can’t believe in the idea of change, what can we believe in?

Contributor

Kara L. Rooney

Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.

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