Mark Amery – 10 August, 2011
Add-on aspects of the Fair like the Chartwell giveaway, a Lauren Lysaght community project and, outside, the yellow snaking boxes of Richard Maloy courtesy of SCAPE provided a welcome new public edge to the fair. Partnerships like this have the potential to make the fair the snapshot survey it proclaims to be. Temporal work speaks to elements that are intrinsic to the fair experience - people, space and time. They provide us with an antidote to the glut of objects.
Auckland Art Fair
4 August - 7 August 2011
Reviewing an art fair is a very different business to reviewing an exhibition. Yet the success of this year’s event deserves recording, and at least a modicum of critical attention.
Fairs don’t pretend to be a strong place for the good, sustained look and feel out of an artwork - something a gallery so carefully provides. In fact they encourage quite the opposite: something that can be alarming on first encounter, and new buyers need to bear in mind.
You are constantly distracted within the salon hang by what is next in your line of vision, and who just walked around the corner. (“Who is Billy Apple talking to?” “What a nice pink coat Emma Bugden is wearing” “Gosh Robert Leonard is looking good”). Even outside the opening vernissage this is principally a social experience, with the number of artists in attendance testify to the relaxed air that seemed to waft on a sea breeze through the events centre.
The undoubted star of this year’s event was its setting. The impressive new events centre, the super-yachts and fishing boats, the gift to Auckland of its waterfront with the opening of the Wynyard Quarter (complete with some impressive public art works) and some beautiful mild maritime weather. These were the prize exhibits. Wellingtonians had to swallow some pride - supersized Auckland has caught up and is roaring ahead.
A great party, an entertaining circus, a busy shopping mall, a country fair, all of these things the Auckland Art Fair may be. But an event that provides, as the art fair organisers tell us, “a snapshot of what’s current in contemporary Trans-Tasman art” - most definitely, not yet.
To further get the obvious out of the way: a quick whizz around some 41 New Zealand and Australian dealers (my calculation that 10 minutes with each would mean just under seven hours of viewing) misses out a huge amount of what is happening in contemporary art. Video comes close to being square box furniture to sit on and, as the cramped sculpture court at this years fair so patently showed, sculpture looks dead without space or environment (its centerpiece, the carved Brett Graham rendition of a Russian military scout car, from last years’ Sydney Biennale, looked lumpen and lacked for me the immediate layered punch of his stealth bomber). Much core contemporary art practice is installation and performance based and, however much dealers fiddle with their hangs, it’s not here.
Nor is it easy to critique the success of the various dealers’ hangs given the principle barometer of their success should be making sales, here or later. I struggled to engage with the crowded hangs of many stalls, but then they maybe just what the throngs of local apartment owners and office workers, living and working within walking distance, like. At the other end of the spectrum a number of dealers have taken Paul Nache Gallery’s 2009 lead and focused on one artist in cramped installation per day. I particularly liked Oedipus Rex’s hang of a large energetic Glen Wolfgramm work, cutting the air like sharpened helicopter rotor blades, yet its frenetic energy really wasn’t what I needed amongst this buzz.
The Paul Nache gallery meanwhile was trying to stay ahead of the pack with a Rob McLeod installation for the entire show. This could be called the art fair Trojan Horse strategy. It had the telling title ‘Proud to Commit Commercial Suicide’. The busyness of Nache’s friendly smile and his ipad (this year’s dealer gadget du jour, ideal for showing the artists’ work who are not on the walls), plus McLeod’s presence hopefully ensured he was committing anything but.
McLeod’s installation was a wacky, playful and constantly changing gaggle of gangly, gangrenous human figures. It was the art equivalent of a Haunted House at a fun fair, and provided a neat expressionistic portrait of the society around the event to boot.
Yet for all the compromises the art fair environment enforces, there were some dealers who really got the balance right. For me they were in the main those who gave you a breather, with a quieter more elegant form of curation. They provided refuges from the many stalls screeching at you colourfully to pay attention (the big sets of Karl Maughan and Reuben Paterson at Gow Langsford for example).
Top marks then to Robert Heald who presented work that quietly absorbs or measures time: the shoelace rulers and delicately incised and painted industrial materials of Patrick Lundberg, and the intimate drawings of John Ward Knox (cleverly the central image was of a sailing boat in full flight).
A respite from the bleeping of our handheld devices and urban encounters, this is what also made Dunedin’s Brett McDowell Gallery such a joy. McDowell again showed the terrific gouache and pencil works of Kushana Bush, but charged them with seventies drawings by Jeffrey Harris, nineteenth century etchings by James Ensor and more recent ones by Paula Rego.
It’s worth noting very few attending will have actually visited the galleries of Nache, Heald and McDowell, nor seen the recent work of these artists - and their displays seemed all the more carefully considered for it.
Dealers who focus keenly on one area actually work well in an art fair context. They can provide a truer snapshot - even if its fish tank sized - from already working to represent the best of their media from across Australasia. In this regard the absence of McNamara Gallery and Solander Works on Paper, who represent fine art photography and works on paper respectively, is noted. A shame also given the comparative affordability of what they represent. I did however very much enjoy Auckland based Masterworks stand, who illustrated just how strong the applied arts are currently across the country.
Special mention must also go to rather smart giveaway video work ‘Feedback’ by Clinton Watkins, organized by Starkwhite and the Chartwell Trust. This was available for download during the duration of the fair. Watkins’ slowly spinning blank CD film has been beautifully made, conceptually and visually, for my iTunes display. It’s made me rethink my aversion to the presentation of art on computer screen and the collection of video art - a rather effective intervention into the market.
Add-on aspects of the Fair like the Chartwell giveaway, a Lauren Lysaght community project and, outside, the yellow snaking boxes of Richard Maloy courtesy of SCAPE (which would have been far more effective as a live event inside) provided a welcome new public edge to the fair. Partnerships with organisations like this are to be encouraged. They need to be furthered and better integrated into the fabric of the fair itself. They even have the potential to make the fair the snapshot survey it proclaims to be. Temporal work speaks to elements that are intrinsic to the fair experience - people, space and time. They provide us with an antidote to the glut of objects.
What about a darkened space for a curated programme of video work with comfy seating and coffee (a respite from all the colour and waterfront glare)? Time and space did a disservice to all the video on display in the stalls.
What about also a performance series that plays with the shop-floor dynamics of the fair, and its exciting surroundings? (The hit of the vernissage for me, in its drunken dying moments, were the fleet of large commercial fishing boats unloading their catches right before us outside the impressive glass doors). There is the potential here also for a reflection of the strength of contemporary Pacific Island performance work. For all the dealers’ weight on displays of their Maori and Pacific Island artists, this fair did not feel like it was taking place in the capital of the Pacific. So why not balance the shoptalk with art that is of this event’s place and space; work that speaks to the unique, and rather special, social and political experience that the Auckland Art fair provides? Provide a swing bridge between the public and private.
If the fair can hold onto its spectacular setting its future looks spectacularly bright.
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