Friday, April 9, 2010

Joburg Art Fair 2010


Art Fairs are to art critics what zoos are to animal-rights activists - an assault on their belief system. It all comes down to the setting and the politics of the display. You see, just as animal lovers do not relish viewing leopards through bars or watching these prized beasts circling cramped cages, art critics recoil from art hung randomly on makeshift walls on a trade floor. For, in such a context, the art critic's nebulous set of skills, which allows them to retrieve the curious matrix of ideas that shape contemporary art, is really not required. Hence the relationship between art critics and art fairs has historically been a vexed one.
"Art fairs reduce complexity and diversity to sameness. They encourage vacuous glancing," observed Peter Suchin, the British critic.
Jerry Stalz of New York's Village Voice was equally disparaging.
"Organisers claim art fairs are "important" and that they're "forums". In reality, they're adrenaline-addled spectacles for a kind of buying and selling where intimacy, conviction, patience, and focused looking are essentially nonexistent. They are places where commerce has replaced epistemology."
Speaking at the Joburg Art Fair this year, Klaus Biesenbach, director of the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Centre at the MoMA gallery in New York, apparently also urged that fairs were nothing less than malls for art.
In fact, so widespread has the dislike of art fairs among art critics and the art intelligentsia been, that the ICA (Institute for Contemporary Arts) in London held a talk in 2007 titled "Why we love to hate art fairs".

Certainly Ross Douglas, head of Art Logic, the company that stages the Joburg Art Fair, has some inkling about this actuality - hence this year he only extended invitations to members of the press or art critics who he felt certain would turn in flowery reports.

Mostly, South African critics have been less disparaging of the phenomenon than their American or British counterparts. The advent of an art fair on this tip of the continent indicated that the local art world had come of age and was part of a global context in which fairs have become an ubiquitous part of the art circuit. Besides which, critics realise that art fairs are like death and taxes - they are a fact of life.

And while the allure of art fairs might have been wearing thin in the past couple of years in the face of an economic recession, which has had many purists gleefully declaring that the over-commodification of art might have reached its nadir, these huge art spectacles remain attractive. This is partly due to the undeniable social cachet attached to them - the by-invitation-only opening night sees politicians, business honchos (the biggest consumers of art) and socialites rub shoulders with the black-clad art set.

It is such occasions, and the promise of perusing through a gargantuan trade hall full of art, that engenders an intoxicating buzz around the fair, luring even some of the art world's most steadfast cynics to the Sandton Convention Centre to view contemporary art.

Now into its third year and with FNB committed to funding the event until 2012, the Joburg Art Fair is here to stay.

There were a few new additions, for example, commissioned or sponsored works such as one by Willem Boshoff, a large patchwork work that spells out the word "fake", and the reconfigured design of the fair that saw a range of furniture pieces displayed in the centre.This allowed the furniture to take pride of place at the fair, creating the idea that art was "recognisable" or "accessible". It also engendered the notion that the borders between art and commerce are blurred. Of course, this fitted in neatly with the fair's theme: Art and Industry. For Douglas, who has tried to sell the fair as an educational experience, this signals that he has finally acquiesced and embraced the fair for what it is - a commercial endeavour.

Although the layout of the art fair has changed somewhat, one was struck by a strange sense of déja vu with many galleries showing artworks that closely resembled the ones that they had shown at their stands in previous years.
Smac showed beaded artworks by Wayne Barker that recalled the ones they displayed last year. The tenebrous views of London's urban landscapes by Jonathan Guaitamacchi also seemed to echo its fair offerings from 2009.
Sure, there were a few offbeat Barend de Wet pieces at Smac's stand that weren't exactly run-of-the mill art fair fare, such as I Knit you Not, a toilet covered with a green crotchet cover.

Gallery Momo once again gave prominence to the work of their shining star, Mary Sibande, who was a hit at the fair last year. This year they presented The Reign, a sculptural piece of Sibande's alter ego Sophia on a bucking horse.
The artwork was created for her solo show Long Live the Dead Queen, which was staged last year but wasn't displayed because of size restrictions. It's dimensions make it a work with grand visual impact. This counts for a lot at an art fair - visitors want to be dazzled by novel visual extravaganzas. Modelled on a statue of General Louis Botha, which stands outside the Union Buildings, it has ideological gravitas, but at a fair there is no room (or time) to unpack nuances. Because of this, it is all about appearances. "Vacuous glancing," as Suchin puts it.

The Sibande works were new, never-before-seen artworks, which demonstrated the new direction that her narrative with Sophie is developing. The addition of a traditional beaded necklace in the image Her Majesty Queen Sophie suggests that Sibande is shifting her focus to our cultural heritage - how it has been represented and how it has shaped identity.

Much of the work that galleries displayed had been seen during the year at exhibitions. This in itself could be an advantage in the sense that with all recent work being shown within one venue, the art fair could present an opportunity to grasp the central motifs, either visual or ideological, that are shaping our contemporary output.
The fair's commercial slant, however, impedes this to some degree because the bulk of the work on display is work that is first and foremost sellable, bankable and appealing to a broad market. For example, based on the art fair, one could conclude that painting has become the mode of expression de jour. It appeared as if there was a widespread revival of painting, with Sannell Aggenbach's luminescent paintings at the Joao Ferriera gallery, Joni Brenner's semi-sculptural paintings at the Everard Read and Johannes Phokela's subversive take on the western canon on show at the Momo Gallery. In addition, there were Peter Eastman's dour, black portraits at Whatiftheworld gallery; the burnt-orange-tinged images by Penny Siopis, the high priestess of painting; as well as a number of works by the late Robert Hodgins. But it simply might have been a case that paintings sold well the previous year and gallery owners were keen to cash in this year.

Certainly last year gallerists believed that photographic works were the most bankable. The fair was flooded with all kinds of photographic offerings. But at the fair this year there was such a cornucopia of art using different mediums that one could make a case for any characteristic emerging in our contemporary art scene.

One could, for example, observe that there has been a rise in political-themed work, citing a wooden carved work by Brett Murray depicting a man with a rifle - accompanied by a wry quotation from a fictitious "struggle hero", as an example of the way artists are critiquing the current political climate. The quotation read: "Tell my people that I love them and they must continue the struggle for Chivas Regal, Mercs and kickbacks."
Stuart Bird's States of Emergency (2009), a mirror configured into the design of the old South African flag, could be said to provide an interesting counterpoint to Murray's statement, as does a Johannes Phokela work depicting black workers which is titled We won't work for shit anymore (2010). Photographs by the Bang Bang Club documenting political violence on show at the Rooke gallery stand, such as one of a burning cap lying on an street, could especially have served as an ironic counterpoint to Murray's statement, by invoking the noble ideals that once were the driving force behind the ruling party. Whereas at a conventional art exhibition curators create dialogues between works, at art fairs one is left trying to identify and establish connections among an incoherent mass of art.

In this way, perusing an art fair is not dissimilar to browsing through a disordered museum or art gallery storeroom that boasts a panoply of artworks that have yet to be archived, catalogued or even interpreted.

Without a doubt the highlight of the fair, as is always the case, was the display of works by the featured artist Siemon Allen, who presented his Records collection, an array of oversized, scratched records of hit songs from bygone eras. By presenting these outmoded and redundant objects Allen confronts viewers with a "record" of history that cannot be retrieved - even if one had a giant record player one could not access the spirit which informed the making of this music or its reception. All we have left to meditate on are scratches that track or "record" previous users' use of these objects. In this way our reading of history is centred on reading the marks that others have left in their efforts to retrieve the information that is contained on these records. Just like the songs are bound within the circular shape of a record that recoils back into itself, so too is our access to the past locked within a limited channel. - published in The Sunday Independent, April 4, 2010.

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