Artists Fairs Switzerland

The artist’s survival guide to art fairs

Love it or loathe it, a big fair is an opportunity to embrace the visual noise, critique the commercialism—and sell work

Clockwish from top left: Elmgreen &?Dragset, Richard Wentworth, Keith Tyson and Philip-Lorca diCorcia are among those who acknowledge the benefits of showing at art fairs

The American painter Chuck Close once expressed a memorable view of art fairs. “I think that, for an artist to go to an art fair, it’s like taking a cow on a guided tour of a slaughterhouse,” he told New York magazine in 2007. “You know that sort of thing goes on, but you don’t want to see it.”

Although Close is not alone in his disdain, an American dealer who asked not to be named perhaps sums up the majority view. “Most of the artists I work with aren’t so interested in admitting that they want to show at fairs,” he says. “But, of course, in the end, everyone appreciates what can come with it, in the form of press, further exhibition opportunities and cash.”

Some artists take an even more positive view, however. The Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset relish the art-fair stage, and have made a habit of creating show-stopping works exploiting the conditions of the events. As Elmgreen says, the artists are curious about human behaviour, “and since we are in the art world, it is obvious for us to ask the question: ‘Why do people in the art world behave the way they do?’”

At Frieze Art Fair in 2005, the pair created an exact replica of their Berlin dealer Martin Klosterfelde’s booth, asking the gallery’s other artists to make duplicates of each work, cutting Klosterfelde’s hair and then creating a wig for a doppelganger who wore identical glasses and clothes. The double knew nothing about the value of the works, so “he was selling the works for horrendous prices”, Elmgreen says. “But the scary thing was that a big part of the audience didn’t even notice—that is the attention span of art-fair-goers in general.”

But the pair’s enjoyment of fairs goes beyond the lampooning of art-world quirks and vanities. “We think it is important to show the crowd of people who come that there are things for sale other than classic sculpture and oil paintings or photographs. We almost feel it is our duty to show that it is possible in a highly commercial context to introduce installation works, or things that have more of a message, rather than just working with pure aesthetics,” Elmgreen says. “And in that way, we find our role at art fairs important, because if only really upfront commercial works were shown in the art-fair context, then it would be a pity.”

He feels it is pointless to dismiss fairs. “You have to contribute from your standpoint instead of just turning your back on it,” he says. “You have to deal with the reality that there are far more people who will see your work in an art fair than if you do a gallery show today.”

Can an artist gain more control of fairs’ conditions? “It’s very often up to the artists themselves,” Elmgreen says. “If you allow your dealer just to show something from the store, which they hang beside something that is absolutely meaningless in relation to your work, then you’re just lazy.”

The American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, who is showing an epic series of 1,000 Polaroids from across his career—“Thousand”, 2009—in Art Unlimited (U37), welcomes the comparative informality of fairs. “For me, going to an art fair is a strange look behind the forbidding white desk that is usually the first thing you see in a gallery,” he says. “All that pretence to a rarefied atmosphere is stripped [away]. You have to compete on a level that I think the art world would like to deny actually exists as a part of its practice. There is a lot of effort put into presentation in the galleries and that is limited by the constraints of an art fair. And I think that’s interesting—to see the director sitting there and to see what kind of socks he’s wearing.”

At the fair held by the Association of International Photography Art Dealers in March and April, diCorcia had a solo booth in which he showed his “East of Eden” series, begun in 2008. “I find this approach more interesting for me as a participant, but also more interesting in general,” he says, “because when you go to art fairs, there is an amazing hodgepodge of work, some of which is engaging and some of which is an example of how clueless the art market can be. And then you come across this cool breeze in the middle of that heated environment and it is either a solo booth or a themed booth.”

The iTunes effect

The British artist Keith Tyson, who is showing a stirring and richly coloured new painting, Chorus, 2012, with Pace Gallery (2.0/B20), likens the rise of the art fair to the seismic changes caused by iTunes in the music industry. “Once, artists produced an album and they had complete control over the whole thing,” he says, “and then iTunes came along and it [now] has to be a series of singles that competes with every other single in the world simultaneously, and people choose. That’s my experience of an art fair on one level—the works that do well have to survive the context of thousands of works around them.” The aim, he says, is ultimately to encourage people to visit your exhibitions—“the place where you are making a creative statement”. He compares selecting a work for an art fair to discussions between a record company and a recording artist about a lead single. “You are putting out one thing that sums up what you have been working on for two or three years.”

Tyson began showing at fairs with London’s Anthony Reynolds Gallery, which has been fundamental in shaping his career. “For a young artist, art fairs are a brilliant way of getting yourself out there,” he says. But he admits that “the world has changed so dramatically” since his early days in the 1990s. “Once, you did an exhibition, you put your best work in it, and whatever was left over ended up at these trade fairs.” But with growing audiences, fairs are now about “having yourself instantly put in the debate”, in a way that cannot be guaranteed with gallery exhibitions. “People are picking their best works to send to art fairs and it is almost as if the exhibition is a legitimising structure to have the prime wall in Basel or the prime wall at [Tefaf] Maastricht.” Tyson admits that only certain works survive the fair’s cacophony. “If you do something subtle, it is lost.”

The British artist Richard Wentworth, who began showing in fairs in the mid-1980s, feels that the events are useful “if you pull away from it all and don’t think ‘these are not museum conditions’ and ‘you haven’t got time to contemplate’. Get a life. You have to be realistic [about the fact] that there is a chance that people will see your work. And the range of people involved is probably 100 times bigger than it ever was. But I bet its intellectual range is the same: from the extremely stupid to the ridiculously vain, to the connoisseur, to the browser, to the high intelligentsia.”

Wentworth, who is showing a new work in Art Unlimited (U32) with Peter Freeman of New York and Galerie Nelson-Freeman, Paris, quite literally lost a work at last year’s Frieze when it was taken away by a cleaner. Gland, 2011, “a huge dictionary full of rubbish”, was hung very high, he says, and was brought down to a plinth overnight. It had been removed by the morning. The anecdote neatly illustrates the expectation of grand spectacles at fairs. “I am a relatively quiet artist, not somebody who wants to have a very large cast-iron figure in the middle of someone’s stand,” he says. “And we are living in a moment of bling.”

Nonetheless, Wentworth is philosophical about the role of fairs. “The first thing is that people ought to know their history and how they came to be invented, and why they are like they are,” he says, citing the Kunstmarkt 67 in Cologne, 45 years ago, as the beginning of the history of the contemporary art fair. He sees art fairs as part of the “great diffusion range we all live with—the great distribution”, as he puts it. “Once you’ve got aeroplanes and people can fly around and there is disposable time and disposable income and a sense of the festival, you are going to get all sorts of odd fairs.”

Art first, money second

Wentworth questions the art world’s criticisms of fairs. “There is a new shrillness, to be for or against things, and yet the people doing that are involved in all sorts of other distributive trades. They download whatever music they want, they wear whatever clothes they want, yet they often have no idea who made their clothes—like a child in Pakistan. So there is something to do with the ease of abusing [art fairs].”

So what does he expect from Art Basel? “I hope I will make something good. I hope people will find it interesting. I would be delighted if it was sold, but I don’t expect it to be, and it is not my first thought—I am thinking about making art. But we are in a culture that is extremely anxious about the pleasures of receiving a cheque, which is absurd. The first time somebody gives you a cheque for your art, it’s thrilling. It’s like sex. It is exciting and it allows you to make more art, and make another 20 mistakes, and then, if you are very lucky, sell something else.”

What links Wentworth and the other artists who enjoy art fairs, or at least find them useful, is a relaxed position on the events’ role in the wider culture. They are “just another place to look”, as Wentworth describes it. DiCorcia is “not excited” by the prominence of art fairs, but equally “not put off by the fact that they are blatantly commercial and often crass”, he says. “There are no museums at art fairs—it is merchants. I don’t know why people get all high and mighty about not participating, or brag about having never set foot in one. I see my involvement not so much as participation in the art fair, but as co-operation with a gallery that supports me in many ways.”

For Tyson, art fairs are vital, but only as an introduction. “If all you did was Basel and Basel Miami [Beach] and just got into producing work for art fairs, then it would be a terrible thing,” he says. “One has to understand that an art fair is not the place where you go to see a retrospective or to see an artist in context. It is just where you get a snapshot of the whole state of play—and I think that’s valid.”

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13 Jun 12
23:15 CET


Being a successful artist myself I enjoy attending important art fairs and always find interesting people and topics there to discuss. True artist won't become affected by other artist's works, ongoing commerce, hipsters in funny glasses or weirdos showing off cheap Rolex and a ton of gel in their hair. If you think about it there is really no reason to avoid art fairs or hold the spectacle in disdain :=) 3 times a year is enough for me to have fun and keep looking forward to the next great show. Cheers! Jan Krasnan

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