Emil McAvoy – 3 July, 2016
Although it can be awkward watching dealers play curator at times - the pervasive presence of capital strongly shaping the materialisation of any art fair - this year furnished a number of excellent presentations. The best of which both consciously embraced, and attempted to transcend, the commercial imperatives of their situation: delivering tight, enigmatic and well considered shows with playful and sophisticated exhibition design.
Forty dealer booths representing galleries from New Zealand, Australia, the Cook Islands, and Chile
Auckland Art Fair 2016
26 May - 29 May 2016
The commercial framing of art as a commodity at a domestic scale can be an uncomfortable reality check for those invested in its loftier ideals. Yet with art, as you’d expect, there’s always more to it. Anthony Byrt put it well:
It’s easy to assume art fairs are the dirty end of the art business: the events where all our ideals about beauty and aesthetics and the noble pursuit of social change via our creativity runs into the coldest and hardest of facts: that art and money have gone hand-in-hand since forever.
The Auckland Art Fair returned - after a hiatus and a change of both owners and directors - with stall holders, stakeholders and the wider arts sector primed to appraise the rebooted Fair as a commercially viable entity, and an event capable of capturing the public imagination. From the accounts I’ve been privy to, it appears the new Co-Directors Stephanie Post and Hayley White have delivered on the former. I’m more interested in the latter, but of course the two are in many ways inseparable. Byrt goes on:
New Zealand has a remarkably healthy art market given the size of the population. But that’s still the problem - a small country makes for a small number of collectors. As a result, there have always been questions about whether a substantial art fair is really sustainable here. They’re expensive to put on, and, for the galleries who buy booths, expensive to participate in. That’s why up until now, the Auckland Art Fair has been a sputtering - albeit worthwhile - beast.
With this in mind, the weblink for Byrt’s piece - released before the Fair and encouraging people to attend - betrayed an inadvertent, and somewhat ironic, poetry: /auckland-art-fair-just-trade-show-go/
On the surface it was, perhaps, largely similar to previous iterations. Most major New Zealand gallerists returned to The Cloud, along with a few newcomers, including MUTT from Santiago and Bergman Gallery from Rarotonga. A strong contingent of Australian galleries also participated, albeit against the worrying backdrop of their recently slashed state arts funding, leaving a number of cultural organisations in uncharted territory. Not to mention the demise of the 2016 Melbourne Art Fair.
Although it can be awkward watching dealers play curator at times - the pervasive presence of capital strongly shaping the materialisation of any art fair - this year furnished a number of excellent presentations. The best of which both consciously embraced, and attempted to transcend, the commercial imperatives of their situation: delivering tight, enigmatic and well considered shows with playful and sophisticated exhibition design. The worst salon style offerings echoed and exacerbated the visual overload of the fair environment. Yet, according to one artist I spoke to, their gallerist reported the ‘more is more’ strategy had apparently produced strong sales. Go figure.
While at one end of the spectrum one gallery was (allegedly) charging artists to participate, on the other, Michael Lett‘s knowing placement of Eve Armstrong’s Trading Table in a solo presentation was a bold move. Eschewing the sales imperative entirely, Armstrong’s now practised social practice work operated as a platform for the bartered exchange of goods and services throughout the period of the Fair.
Evolving over time, and infused with Armstrong’s open, charming energy, Trading Table foregrounded the social exchange as the work itself. Lett’s was also a move that paid off, with the booth proving one of the most widely popular and directly engaging. It took out the 2016 Stand Prize sponsored by My Art, judged by Christina Barton and Gregory Burke (whose response to the Fair you can read here). According to the Fair, the stand was “awarded the prize on the basis of quality of presentation, curatorial sensibility and contribution to arts development and discourse in the Pacific region.” Trading Table proved it is the experience of art that is most valuable.
Hopkinson Mossman owned a challengingly deep booth design with a cool, measured pairing of lush, elegant felt wall hangings by Peter Robinson and a suite of assured, minimalist double-stretcher paintings by Oliver Perkins. In a fortuitous moment - although the venue felt lit for an expo event rather than an art event which simulates gallery environments - the array of overhead lights produced a play of raking light and shadow within their space which framed and echoed the works themselves.
There were strong group presentations from Melanie Roger, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Starkwhite, and Hamish McKay, among others. PAULNACHE was a hub overflowing with raw energy, high contrast and vivid colour. The ‘DEALER’ badge on Matt Nache’s lapel said it all. His team of artists ably demonstrated you can work the room and party hard at the same time. Glen Hayward‘s meticulously constructed simulations created a series of easily overlooked visual double-takes. Kow tow and Everyday people, adapted specifically for the fair, covered the walls in clusters of carved wooden nails which looked like they had been hammered in by our Prime Minister.
Sarah Scout Presents Tony Garifalakis was perfect for a fair context. Having also come looking for a little amateur social anthropology (so did Julian McKinnon), in Garifalakis I found the work to mirror and confront the surrounding social spectacle. The ‘black faced’ official portraits of bejewelled female royalty in his Bloodline series proved playfully edgy, and frankly, hilarious. Brilliant.
Across town at DEMO, a new project space under the auspices of the Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design, artist Sarah Mohawk’s hosted the Public Domain Art Fair, developed in association with DEMO’s Co-director Hikalu Clarke. Inspired in part by the Speculation publication project, and timed to coincide with the Fair proper (and ride along on its marketing), the low-budget PDAF invited current and recently closed artist-run initiatives in Auckland and Hamilton to submit work from associated artists. Established both as a grass roots alternative to, and a critique of, the moneyed Auckland Art Fair, the PDAF ended up being included in the Fair proper’s wider VIP programming (via Francis McWhannell’s tour of local ARIs) and hence endorsed by them to an extent. For the better.
In its collective form, the PDAF didn’t look fundamentally reactionary anyway; rather, it looked playfully critical. The expanded programme of events associated with the Auckland Art Fair were sprawling, and the concept and positioning of the PDAF contributed something important to the wider conversation, above and beyond any consideration of the material exhibition itself. Much like the Fair proper, the PDAF couldn’t rely on a theme-driven curatorial premise, and reflected the drives of its institutional and individual participants.
Mohawk spoke to me about Public Domain as a kind of “artists’ union”, an indeterminate “open source” network for making connections which artists might adopt for their own purposes. She also spoke to Artists Alliance about the emerging project. Here’s their manifesto and fine print, along with a sexy GIF of their series of PDAF posters.
Although there was a minor social media controversy over the PDAF designer ripping off a 2015 poster by artist/designer Matthew Galloway for Blue Oyster Art Project Space - a case of “who wore it better?” - everyone involved appeared to get over it quickly. Perhaps most interesting was the implied question: what constitutes the ‘public domain’ itself, and how are artists and designers choosing to engage with their understandings and experiences of it? Given the prevalence of remix culture - where the public domain (rightly or wrongly) is often considered synonymous with anything available on the internet - I would have owned the poster reference as a homage and the design a gesture of appropriation, rather than apologising when outed and then making minor alterations to it.
The PDAF exhibition made use of a space upstairs normally used for storage to display the work of Louisa Afoa (via NZ on TV Gallery) which offered a provisional aesthetic context. Other highlights included Hamilton-based painter Te Marunui Hotene’s raw, energetic paintings (via Casbah Gallery), Hugo Lindsay’s nasdaq and a slice of your corner (via HOTDATE), and the large sculptural centre piece by Li Ming Hu for Canape Canopy, a layer cake complete with life sized photographs of Hans Ulrich Obrist and Nigela Lawson. And while a Hallertau beer was $11 at the Fair (the cheapest drink there), at DEMO it was free (many thanks).
Back at the Fair proper, 2016 boasted a number of new initiatives everyone could celebrate. One of these was Ngatahi Editions, initiated by Te Tuhi Director Hiraani Himona, drawing on her experience participating at Frieze via the South London Gallery. The Ngatahi Editions stand presented a wide range of reasonably priced limited edition works and publications by artists showing at, or directly associated with, the major Auckland non-profit arts organisations. Donating them $10,000 worth of booth space was a meaningful (read: not merely symbolic) way of acknowledging the huge (and systemically underpaid) contribution made by non-commercial arts organisations to the delicate arts ecology, and indeed the commercial arts sector.
Ngatahi Editions was the only stand where, like a gallery shop, visitors could buy a work and walk straight out with it. Working the stand for a few hours myself (I wear a few hats), it was so unbelievably busy I saw works carried out in one hand under a little bubblewrap. In a good way. With limited edition works starting at $100, it was an inexpensive way of supporting these organisations’ need to innovate alternative revenue streams to ensure their own survival, particularly when state funding is so unstable. Not to mention supporting the vast majority of artists they often show, who have no dealer representation, self-fund their own endeavors at a recurring loss, and who receive little, if any, “taxpayer” funded support in the form of artist fees and funding grants. These are the people upon which everything else is based. They produce for free within an exploitative economic model which props up the entire unregulated art market, a fact many non-artist insiders are miraculously unaware of, or willfully blind to. Show me the money.
The art and photobook stand was also a first, co-curated by Kelvin Soh of DDMMYY and Anita Totha of Remote Photobooks. They rode the crest of Totha’s recent contribution to Photobook New Zealand 2016, and drew on Soh’s now recurring presence at prestigious international art book fairs. They also repurposed the official Paper Tiger cardboard stools as display stands (and I noticed on Tan Vargas‘ Instagram feed - who showed with MUTT - that he’d acquired a few stools and included them in a new project in Hamburg).
Another important first was the official associated projects programme, Pacific Real Time, curated by Govett Brewster Gallery Director Simon Rees and MONA Hobart’s Curator Jarrod Rawlins, with curatorial assistance from Auckland-based writer and curator Francis McWhannell. John Hurrell discusses a selection from the lineup in some detail. A more comprehensive conversation around the projects’ programme and its positioning would be valuable, and I hope others take this up, it being beyond the scope of this review.
A personal highlight of Pacific Real Time was Terror Internationale’s presentation. While several years ago, the players of the Gloria Knight set adopted (or perhaps co-opted) the language of the moneyed and mobile (the most compelling piece, a glorified smart phone charging station), the Terror Internationale collective swung the pendulum in the other direction. Capitalising on their invitation to present work in the projects programme, the collective constructed a booth simulating the other commercial galleries, and sought a crowd funding campaign to realise it.
Their booth consisted of confident, agitational, low-rent art, along with an assortment of interwoven accessories: a bookshelf and a grungy old couch which looked as if it might conceal a few empty bottles underneath. A pair of boxing gloves hung facing a pair a ballet shoes. A makeshift voodoo doll. A rug defaced with the words ‘The End’ burned in to the fabric. An empty wine bottle used as a candlestick. Their provocative and polarising installation - akin to an impoverished but uniquely social student flat - playfully engaged the politics of their situation. A wing of the booth sported a section of upturned white picket fence leaning against the wall, a less than subtle yet amusing critique of middle class aspiration. Perhaps also a nod to New Zealanders’ obsession with property as a form of financial security, and its links to the subsequent insecurity in our current housing market. A skateboard acted as a kind of countercultural centre piece, complete with disembodied shoes and a tethered purple helium filled balloon. Positioned as if about to ollie and ascend in to the air, it made me smile. Love it or hate it, I’d chalk it up as a win.
The first call for submissions to Pacific Real Time went out to the exhibitors and a selection of major public galleries (along with CIRCUIT), hence the programme can be seen not only as a reflection of the project’s curators, but also of these wider participants in some way. Its stated agenda to include projects which might not otherwise be available in this commercial setting was an important gesture. I was pleased to see works by unrepresented artists included, such as Bronwyn Holloway-Smith, Mike Heynes, and Elam student Quishile Charan. A few of the works within the programme didn’t feel comfortable in the difficult display environments they were forced to occupy (a challenge for any curator), but most managed to shine brightly enough (Holloway-Smith’s literally so). Fiona Connor‘s cheeky, low-key material philosophy was a welcome addition.
There were some thoughtful and engaging moments within Pacific Real Time, and it left me considering what else was possible if it was sufficiently funded in future. The projects programme needs to be afforded the space to develop more of the synergies which emerge from highly collectivised resources and partnerships. Of course one could ask this of any endeavour, particularly in the creative industries where funding is a constant challenge. However, we are discussing something marketed as New Zealand’s “premier” and “foremost” art event. Fairs sell sizzle and we could benefit from turning up the heat.
A lower ticket price (particularly for students, our future generations of artists), and less expensive drinks, would be in keeping with building a larger and more demographically diverse audience. The vast majority of people I spoke to complained about the price of both, from artists of modest means through to major benefactors.
While Natasha Matila-Smith got into a spot of trouble for recommending the Fair don the Art Basel moniker (in jest I imagine) - with one commentator reminding us that it is an art fair and not a festival - the discussion inadvertently begged the question: why not? Of course it’s an art fair and not a festival. But it could be both. In many ways it already is.
I am not asking for the Fair to be anything it is not. Perhaps, as one anonymous reviewer stated “the point is that its best to engage with the AAF on its own terms, as an art fair, and not as an exhibition.” Or a large number of exhibitions. While I’ve been chastised as getting “carried away” for suggesting the projects programme become multi-venue (one idea), as an artist and writer it is in fact my job to do so. There is such a wealth of creative resources and curatorial expertise in Aotearoa available to compliment the dealer driven bulk of the programme, it would be a missed opportunity not to incorporate it further. Pacific Real Time was a step in the right direction. Sure, we are not Basel or Frieze, but we can do it our way. Let’s keep talking about what comes next.
The strategic drive for greater inclusivity and consolidation evident in this year’s Fair was clearly successful, widely celebrated, and offers an encouraging sign for future iterations. Having a good hold on the basics, it also offers a platform for the Fair to ramp up its ambitions for the future.
To conclude, a recent video directed by Oscar Boyson for Artsy, examining the rise of the art fair may be of interest.
Along with a video produced by the Fair to thank all those who participated and visited.
This is the last of three EyeContact articles on the 2016 Auckland Art Fair.