Monday, March 10, 2014

Trading Places: Cape Town Art Fair

Tom Cullberg's Local Noise

‘Have a glass,” bellows Howard Bilton, pulling a bottle of white wine from an ice bucket. We are sitting under the VIP tent (it’s more modest than it sounds) at the Pavilion, the venue for this year’s Cape Town Art Fair (CTAF). “It’s one of mine,” he says, pointing to the label on the bottle that reads: Howard’s Folly. I reluctantly agree to a glass; I have a faint headache reminding me of the Strauss & Co dinner-party at the Queen Victoria from the night before and have a dinner at Brundyn+ before the final art party at the Manila Bar to get through. Bilton looks like he has battled through his fare share of art parties attached to the Cape Town Art Fair too, though as an avid collector and buyer of art, he is no stranger to the behind-the-scenes hobnobbing that these kind of art events seem to generate, sorting out who is really part of the “scene” and who isn’t. With his own wine label, a sponsor of the CTAF, and a self-confessed penchant for art collecting, this Hong-Kong-based chairman of the Sovereign Group, a company that basically manages people’s wealth, is undeniably part of the inner VIP circle at this fair, and presumably all the others he attends around the world. 

Bilton’s expansive art collection encompasses 350 artworks. Of local artists’ works, he has most recently acquired  pieces from Athi Patra Ruga’s recent show at Whatiftheworld. With performances at last year’s Venice Biennale, Public Intimacy at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, and rave reviews of his solo exhibition at Whatiftheworld last year, buying Ruga now is a no-brainer – one dealer at the CTAF cheekily tried to flog one of his older smaller tapestry works for R250 000. The price tag made art consultant Kim Stern smirk. 

Stern, like Bilton and much of the peripatetic coterie that swirls around art fairs, lives between places. She calls Cape Town and New York home, when she isn’t hot on the art fair trail. She never misses Frieze London, Frieze New York, Armoury (also in New York) and Art Basel and aspires to get to Miami Basel but tends to be too exhausted by the time that fair rolls around at the end of each year. 

Stern has the enviable position of shopping for art and building collections for other people, who know much less about art than she does. This makes her one of the most cut-throat collectors on the floor of the CTAF; she is discerning and knows what the work is worth. 
Not that the CTAF appears to be a vicious trading floor. It is “cute and sweet”, as Bilton suggests. With soft lighting this circular edifice adjacent to the V&A Waterfront is a much less severe environment than say the setting for the Joburg Art Fair (Jaf), which is held in the Sandton Convention Centre under supermarket fluorescent lighting. 

Predictably it is a lot more chilled than Jaf, even on the opening night; there are fewer people – in its second year it has perhaps yet to become the social event that it is at Jaf – but most importantly, the orientation of the building segments, the stands, and the displays are less salon-style; walls aren’t packed with artworks that keep changing every day – or hour. 
This gives you the room to spend time with artworks, take them in one by one as you might do at a museum or gallery, without feeling overwhelmed or bombarded. 
“It’s the vibe we were going for,” explains Louise Cashmore, the director of the CTAF. Cashmore is new to the game of art, but is experienced in lifestyle fairs, such as the Good Food and Wine fair, and recognises luxury fairs must create an experience for visitors that surpasses a mall or conventional trade fair. 

The spatial orientation of the fair and the sparse displays allow me to revel in Zander Blom’s new body of paintings at the Stevenson stand that may well be the best the artist has produced since he first hit the scene with dark modernist-inspired paintings on the ceiling of his Brixton house. There is a virtuosity and energy in the brushstrokes and compositions that resonates at a primal level. Blom’s series and in particular 1.583 Untitled hails a breakthrough in his postmodern, new-modernist mode of abstraction – could the atomised pieces of historical abstraction expressionism that he has been working with have fallen into place?
Jody Paulsen's Inner Poise

I also connect with a much less sophisticated work; a large chunky impasto by Kerry Chaloner at the Blank Projects stand that is a sumptuous, textural encounter with, er, oil paint – in line with this trend that sees artists luxuriating in the materiality of their chosen mediums. The work probably is a little on the vacuous side, but the Brundyn+ stand on the other side of the wall offers some happiness with a satisfying interplay between depth and surface in the form of Tom Cullberg’s Local Noise and Jody Paulsen’s Inner Poise and Metropolitan City Man. Cullberg and Paulsen’s works could not be more different; Paulsen works with felt cut-outs of famous brands that are collaged together to form a sort of garish label-orgasm, while using a traditional medium Cullberg presents a painting depicting book and magazine covers. 

Cullberg is exploiting familiar titles, names or images that are touchstones for a larger canon, or perhaps discursive universes linked to local art or literature such as a copy of Chimurenga’s Chronic, a Moshekwa Langa monograph and a catalogue raisonné by Zander Blom. Cullberg and Paulsen’s works are united by the fact that their subject-matter is absent. In Inner Poise Paulsen evokes brands and labels from designer clothing, Celine, the Chanel logo, and Weight Watchers, that are collaged with stubbed-out cigarettes which posit this smorgasbord of pleasure, desire, pain, greed and atonement as a sort of ashtray of the cycle of consumption. The actual things that are desired or undesired (designer clothing versus obesity) are not represented. In this instance it highlights the emptiness of the pursuit to attain the clothing, the body but also how contemporary existence can be summarised via labels – a life lived through brands. 

In the context of Cullberg’s rendition of book covers, some of which he says are fictional, the object (the book) appears to be present, rendered in a figurative mode, but its contents are not. In this way this seemingly simple still life evokes a complex world of ideas; perhaps the meat of our art landscape, without figuring it (can it be?), but also exposes the acts of vanity and means of concretising it, which are maybe flimsy and whimsical too. 

Cullberg’s Local Noise perhaps sums up the CTAF quite succinctly; this polyphonic platform that suggests a world far beyond the prefab white walls, something concrete with “depth” but also one that is rooted in whimsy and ego. Not just the ego of artists, but the kind of peacocking that goes on behind the scenes as art dealers, critics, buyers and curators network and affirm their space or role in the shifting sands of these makeshift art temples that we call fairs. In a way all this behind-the-scenes action speaks more of the potential of the CTAF than its current carnation. 

By all accounts this second iteration of the CTAF is a vast improvement on the first, which took place at the Lookout venue. The big name galleries – Stevenson and Goodman – didn’t participate last year and some galleries were peeved to find they were placed next to stands selling craft objects or works that didn’t conform to the contemporary rubric. Cashmore, however, is a fast learner; she is open to feedback and responds quickly and incisively. 
“It was fair criticism. I can understand that those gallerists worked hard to distinguish themselves as dealers of a kind of contemporary art.”

 Cashmore credits much of the fair’s success to Mark Coetzee, the director and chief curator of the much anticipated Zeitz MOCCA Museum. He has been a steadfast adviser since he arrived back in South Africa to realise the largest museum for contemporary African art that will be housed in the Grain Silos building on the V&A Waterfront. The design for this art behemoth was revealed by Thomas Heatherwick, the British architect, on the morning of the opening of the CTAF and with 80 galleries, and storage facilities that are the size of the Joburg Art Gallery and the Iziko National Art Gallery combined, this institution clearly presents the biggest game-changer to the visual art scene here. Its door will only open in late 2016 but Coetzee’s influence is already being felt via the guiding hand he has provided Cashmore and Elana Brundyn, owner of Brundyn+, which has fast become a “serious” new contemporary space worth paying attention to – that the fair’s defining works by Cullberg and Paulsen hail from this gallery is testament to this. Coetzee is worth listening to; he is one of the most important art buyers – like Stern he is discerning but more than that he is guided by a much larger vision of national importance; developing museum collections that will finally allow Africans to write contemporary African art into global and local narratives. 

It makes sense therefore for him to cultivate the art scene in Cape Town; Zeitz MOCCA will draw attention to the Mother City, bringing in an influx of new art buyers, curators, critics – this peripatetic community that thrives on identifying, selling and packaging the next best thing.  CTAF isn’t quite ready to service this hungry crowd, who are not only looking to take a bite of South African culture, but art production from the rest of the continent. 
“I don’t really need to go to an art fair that shows work from the Cape Town galleries, I can come to Cape Town at any time of the year and look around to see the work in their galleries. Yes, it’s convenient that I can look at what they all have in one place, but I want to be able to see art from the rest of the continent,” says Bilton. 

The Jaf has, with mixed success, been trying to offer this since its inception in 2008; most of the galleries showing art from other parts of the continent at this event are European based and given the inception of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London international buyers may find it more convenient to access that market there. 

CTAF is less of a Cape Town affair with the addition this year of Joburg based galleries Art on Paper and David Krut and the Omenka Gallery that promotes predominantly Nigerian art. 
Notably, absent from the CTAF is a visual show-stopper or spectacle – of the sort that creates the kind of buzz that Mary Sibande or Ed Young’s sculptures have done at the Jaf. That is unless you count the bizarre mise-en-scene in Strauss & Co’s stand constructed around Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl and Irma Stern’s Two Arabs, which were displayed in a decorated room on the second level that brought art and décor together in a way that was as disturbing as it was pleasing. Strauss’s stand asserted the presence of a “secondary” art market – the auction house, where the trading of art is at its most brutal and immediate. Paradoxically, this decorated stand, with pot plants, carpets, couches all in tones that complemented the tones and exotic vibes in the Tretchikoff and Stern, denied this reality, while articulating its separation from the surrounding scene. 

Fortunately, for a few minutes this decorated setting was disrupted by Gerald Machona, who entered the stand in a space suit fashioned from decommissioned currencies, placing a yellow Post-it on a vase where he had written: “not everything is for sale”.
Typically it seems to be left to performance artists who can’t profit from the scene (they have nothing to sell) to be the ones attempting to upturn it, comment on it. But these are small, fleeting incursions that keep the public and art collectors amused in between buying art and sipping on their own wine. - published in The Sunday Independent, March 9, 2014. 

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