Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The 'Other' Art Fair: Turbine Art Fair

David Koloane peruses the Bag Factory's stand pic by Debbie Yazbek

Newtown should have always been home to an art fair. This idea isn’t just rooted in Joburgers’ insistence that their primary identity is linked to the inner city, or the now much-mooted notion that this area is a cultural precinct. But they were given to believe this would be the case when the Joburg Art Fair’s creator, Ross Douglas of Artlogic, waxed lyrical about art fostering a closer connection to the inner city at the opening of a screening of William Kentridge’s work in the city – the event that propelled Ross into the art world. Instead, when the time came, Artlogic opted to stage the Joburg Art fair in the sterile Sandton Convention Centre, located in a suburb without any link to the arts. This has contributed to the fair’s already commercial mainstream slant, though presumably this “safe” setting has worked at attracting a new audience more au fait with mall culture than contemporary art. Predictably, those in the art world haven’t relished the location; the bright lights, the associations with a “convention centre” and its proximity to the mall, somehow “cheapens” art.

Given these attitudes, the inaugural Turbine Art Fair, held last weekend in the über cool titular building in Newtown, should have been embraced with gusto by the art fraternity. The building, after all, epitomises Joburg’s emerging industrial-chic aesthetic that is mushrooming in Maboneng and Braamfontein – both locales for the artistically inclined. Yet, the usual art crowd; artists, art critics and fashionable gallerinas largely stayed away from this event.

Their ambivalence is related to the fact that the accepted reliable purveyors of contemporary art with a capital “C” – such as Goodman and Stevenson – weren’t participating in this new art fair. The majority of the galleries at the Turbine Art Fair – except for Art on Paper, Circa (part of Everard Read) and David Krut – are those rumoured to have been rejected by Artlogic as viable participants of their grand annual art bazaar. A lack of financial clout (the stands are pricey) and profile has been the barrier for some art dealers, for others their products don’t evince an understanding of what contemporary art is, or should aspire to be, despite the slipperiness of its defining characteristics.

The Turbine Art Fair, initiated by manager of the Forum, Glynis Hyslop, has provided an alternative venue for these smaller galleries to participate in the art fair phenomenon – there are thousands worldwide and some say they have become the primary place for buyers and the public to peruse art. This art fair isn’t quite a latter-day “Salon de Refusés”, a famous platform in France during the late 1800s that displayed art rejected by the Salon – then the establishment that deemed what was and wasn’t considered art.
For starters, it is unlikely that these smaller galleries or lesser-known artists at this fair are likely to prove to be the new avant garde. That is unless bronze animal sculptures, of the ilk that were shown at the Charles Greig stand, are likely to become prized in the “right circles”. In the curious world of art, Greig’s goods would belong in a shopping mall rather than at an art fair.

The same could be said of a number of items being flogged at this event. Such as Kirsten Goss’s jewellery collection and the array of ceramic designs at the Art in the Forest stand. It’s not to say that jewellery and ceramic works can’t be “art”; art has, after all, been expanded on a daily basis to encompass almost everything, yet there is a difference between a piece of jewellery art made by, say, Beverly Price, and Goss, though their products are both decorative.  The line between the purely decorative and the artistic seemed blurred at this fair, which is probably what makes it interesting – contemplating what art isn’t or is, can be stimulating, if not a theoretically impossible feat.

The collection of silk scarves for women on display at L’Mad’s stand bearing designs produced by some of the country’s edgy young artists – Jan-Henri Booyens, Nico Krijino – parade as being wearable, fashion and high art objects simultaneously. It’s uncertain whether this fuzziness improves its marketability; the art on the scarves can only be enjoyed/viewed when they are hanging, yet you wouldn’t want to hang it on your wall. All the scarves really provide is access to the visual aesthetics that define particular artists’ practices. They trade on brands rather than art.
The basement at the Turbine is a great setting for art but it wasn't
utilised as well as it could have been.
Pic by Debbie Yazbek

The blurred line between art and design isn’t particular to this fair; the Joburg Art Fair used to host the Southern Guild stand, which boasted design items that could be deemed art. As with Artlogic’s fair, the rhetoric surrounding the Turbine Art Fair emphasises accessibility. In this context, however, accessibility is linked to affordability rather than the barrier that the white cube and the highfalutin language attached to it has proved for the Sandton-going audience at the Joburg Art Fair, who have money but apparently lack the confidence to walk into a gallery.

Affordability is, however, subjective; affordable for whom? Prices ranged from around R2 000 to R20 000, and on the preview night there was a buzz in the air as fledgling art collectors shopped around for the best bargains. Visitors seemed delighted that they could snap up some well-known artist’s work. At the Art on Paper stand, you could buy digital prints of Norman Catherine’s works for around R2 000. Even though it was only a little bigger than a coaster and each work offered around 45 editions, it was not quite an investment piece, but a piece of Catherine nonetheless.

The Krut stand offered some real collectables, such as new prints by Stephen Hobbs from his latest solo as did Circa, with a series of untitled photographs by Bronwyn Lace. The Bag Factory and Artist Proof Studio, both institutions dedicated to the education and advancement of young artists, offered work by some unknowns with promise.

The emphasis on affordability at this fair meant that it operated as a platform for young talent. All the sorts of gimmicky visual trickery and sometimes facile approaches that you associate with art produced by youngsters trying on various personas in search of their own distinctive aesthetics and subject-matter colonised this fair, making it feel a bit like a university showcase.

Some young artists represented themselves, occupying their own stands, such as Victoria Verbaan and Anastasia Pather, two complete unknowns, who are likely to remain that way –  Verbaan’s whispy watercolours may find traction in a hipster’s bedroom but are bland illustrative works.

There is potential in this fair becoming a platform for young talent, but there needs to be some sort of criteria in place if this aspect is going to lend the arts any credibility and if the organisers are able to retain some of the established names showing at this fair, or attract the art crowd who stayed away this year. Art-world people and their dedicated patrons enjoy barriers, gatekeepers – this is, after all, part of the attraction; holding on to that which cannot quite be contained (the ideas), or owned (the products).

Accessibility can therefore only be partially or maybe even superficially embraced at an art fair.
The organisers would also do well to dispense with the “food is art” slogan too; a stand showing raw pumpkin artfully dressed with spinach leaves was simply lame. Nevertheless, this fair enjoyed a quality that has been missing at the Joburg Art Fair – comparisons are inevitable – and that is ambience. The soft lighting, the live music – the Radium Jazz trio played on the preview night – and the gentrified industrial setting really lent the art factor that may have been absent in some quarters. As they say in the interior and architectural worlds: location, location, location. - published in The Sunday Independent, August 04, 2013. 

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