London Art Fair 2012

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london art fair

View’s Georgie Davidson casts a critical eye over the first major art fair of 2012 and takes the temperature of the contemporary art world.

Last week the Business Design Centre in Islington opened its doors to host the 24th London Art Fair. Presenting over 100 galleries and displaying several different creative aspects I believe this event intended to entice a wide variety of visitors from overseas and as well as the UK.

The London Art Fair’s name is arguably synonymous with pressure. This is because many art analysts view it as a barometer or first marker in the art market to indicate what can be expected in the next quarter year. Sales, visitor numbers and collectors enthusiasm are weighed and measured and from that expectations are drawn.

The entrance on the ground floor brings you directly into prime pitch. These galleries all tended to be prestigious and established and displayed a major trend for the 2012 fair; “big names” in the art world such as Hirst, Hockney and Warhol. I certainly felt that Hirst was the artist that was predominantly pushed upon the viewer because he was represented by several of the galleries within this prominent space. Whilst it is always interesting to view his work, (whether because you like it aesthetically or simply enjoy marvelling at how someone who doesn’t even create his own prints can become so famous), it also incited in me a feeling of disappointment. Hirst’s work is featured very regularly within the national press and art magazines so I was hoping for the initial impact of the fair to be rather more novel than one of his skulls or butterflies that has been viewed countless times.

This focus on the established names surprised me and I began to question to what extent this fair supported emerging artists. Significantly London Art Fair Director Jonathon Burton presented a strong case for his reasoning behind this decision. Whilst the 2011 fair proved a success in terms of visitor numbers, Burton is quoted as saying that in regard to sales, pride and provenance featured as a strong component for collectors. Due to the current economic climate, people have become reluctant to take risks when investing in art. Critical prowess and exhibition history are now key features for buyers. Therefore, in Burtons’ own words, the inclusion of these artists was “reassuring for the collectors” as it lended the fair prestige. Argument being:  entice the collectors to visit by displaying the “big names” in press releases and emerging artists will also receive exposure.

Further into the fair complex revealed good, strong support and promotion for less well-known artists.  Walking up to the mezzanine level one could find a number of galleries showcasing their work.

Of particular interest to me (perhaps because I too am newly graduated), was the inclusion of the Catlin Guide. Art Catlin curator Justin Hammond has a particular awareness of emerging artists and visits numerous graduate fairs each year to discover the top 40 which he and a selection committee believe hold the most promise. These finalists are announced at the London Art Fair and Hammond stated that it has received great feedback from curators and galleries who have found artists they wish to exhibit through this guide.

A favourite piece of mine was by one of these graduates: Adeline de Monseignat, represented by the Cynthia Corbett gallery with her intriguing piece entitled Armadillo. Inspired by Freud’s theory of the uncanny and taking pleasure in subverting the familiar, Adeline (similar in ethos to View Art Gallery) takes a great interest in watching people’s emotional reactions to her work. Essentially Armadillo is a fragile sculpture comprising of fur trapped inside a glass bubble. Through her work she discovered that one’s intrigue is generally lost once something is experienced, so whilst Armadillo provides the suggestion and desire to touch, it can never be performed due to its entrapment. Whilst her work is fascinating, the exposure she has received as a result of the London Art Fair is equally insightful. The day after the private view Adeline featured in an article in the Guardian, a newspaper which has an average daily circulation of 230,541. Therefore illustrating that through the fair, perhaps due to the notoriety of people such as Hirst, young artists are projected into the public sphere for the first time. I am very much in favour of the London Art Fair providing a support and recognition of these up and coming new talents and it should not be forgotten of course that there is the potential for the discerning collector to purchase the possibility of a future investment.

Surrounding the galleries were the Art Projects Space and Photo50. The Art Projects Space was first launched in 2005 and this year was curated by Pryle Behrman.  It featured, amongst others, 29 international galleries. Behrman explained that for 2012 there were two primary and, I felt contradictory, themes. The first was the notion of escapism and the second, the financial crisis.

It was Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom’s Ghost of a Dream that particularly drew me to this section. Using discarded lottery tickets to build an opulent setting and ironically representing peoples’ fleeting dreams, I believe this highlighted a reality that everyone can relate to and the title made it ever more poignant and sad. Certainly on the few occasions I have played the lottery, I convince myself that I have the winning ticket and start to play “what would I do with 40 million?” Logic tells us we can’t win but that doesn’t stop the intense disappointment felt each time we lose.

Also part of the Art Project section was the Film Screening Room which hosted a curated programme of experimental film and video whose central themes overlapped humour, satire and beauty in contemporary moving image artworks.

This year’s Photo 50 section was curated by Sue Steward and was aptly named The New Alchemists. It featured 12 artists who transform or deface their prints by mixing them with other media. As Steward explained, Photo 50 aimed to provoke the question of how challenging it is now to define photography due to its convergence with craft, painting and film.

Personally I was taken with Joy Gregory’s Cinderella Tours. This delightful series documents a pair of sparkly gold shoes on their journey through various cities. Whilst intending to symbolise the photographers own background, I was more intrigued by the humour and idyllic settings of the images.

Throughout the course of the fair there were also various talks that one could attend to which focused on questions such as, “Can Art Still Shock?” and “Can Photography Change Society.?”

Despite Mr Burton’s best intentions and preparations, apparently the 2012 London Art Fair recorded lower than usual sales and visitor numbers. This was surprising as the combination of artists/projects/photographs and galleries were believed to be one of the best. I visited on the Sunday morning, which Burton had expected to be one of the busiest days and was astonished with how quiet the venue was. From a selfish perspective it enabled me to experience the art on display in a more relaxed environment. However I would have preferred there to have been more of a hub and bustle. Instead, as with a lot of art establishments, there seemed to be rather too much of a reverential attitude towards the art. Gallery owners kept themselves to themselves and I wasn’t made to feel entirely welcome, particularly when walking through some of the more established gallery booths. It also seemed that this year collectors had focused their sights on buying prints of the “big names” rather than originals, perhaps too an indication of the economic climate. On the plus side, as always at art fairs, the cake and coffee on offer was superb!

Unfortunately overall I felt that the predominant focus for all directors involved was the financial crisis. This seemed to play a major role in all aspects: artist selection, themes for projects, booth size and placement etc. Perhaps it is just my own naivety that I’d hope art could sometimes be free from the overhanging burdens of investment and appreciated instead for its narrative or aesthetic qualities. I’m of course not expecting the art world to disregard this, however I will pose the question of whether it is necessary to be constantly reminded of the financial reality especially when attempting to take part in something enjoyable!

Despite my somewhat mixed experience of the fair, I do believe this is an event worth going to and exhibiting at. Especially with the expanding international focus there are serious benefits for emerging artists and galleries to showcase their work here. Adeleine de Monseignat is a prime example of how the fair’s prestige can aid exposure within the art sphere.  Essentially it illustrated to me how broad artistic taste can be and what art in contemporary society has to say.


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