Art Fair Report: Out in Force

Art fairs for your travel calendar in the next quarter.

Words: Duro Jovicic

Covid-19, Omicron, and murmurings of further variants; Russia’s war on Ukraine; galloping inflation interest rate rises, a squeeze on household income; there’s much to be preoccupied by and rightly so. A recent trip to Europe somewhat assuaged those fears for me. Any region or city remotely on the cultural map saw queues and crowds pushing and pulling at venues with glee.

This bodes well for the upcoming art fairs – people, the general public and art investors alike, will undoubtedly be out in force confronted with a dizzying array of choice and experiences over the coming months.

Art SG (12 to 15 January) has overtaken Art Basel HK (23 to 25 March) in sheer size, hosting more than 150 galleries to Art Basel HK’s 130, seeing it go from a mid-sized fair to a global player. The fair director of Art SG, Shuyin Yang, says that “Art SG will not only invite the world’s leading collectors and art leaders to experience Singapore and all that the region has to offer, but also encourage a new generation of emerging collectors to be inspired by the rich diversity of art immediately at our doorstep.”

This will be readily achieved with participation of Gagosian Gallery from New York (having KAWS, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami in its stable), Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong, Yavuz Gallery, Sydney and Singapore and Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing. Charlotte Lin and Vivian Har, of Tang Contemporary Art, will represent artists at both Art SG and Art Basel HK having previously featured leading contemporary artists Ai Weiwei and Yue Minjun at Art Basel HK, among others. Lin and Har say that the main goal of the art fairs is to expand the gallery’s global influence for artists, collectors, and institutions of which they select a different artist list dedicated to its audience for each fair.

Art SG will showcase several Australian galleries, including Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Melbourne, Yavuz Gallery, Chalk Horse, Sydney and Station, Melbourne. Chalk Horse is exhibiting the work of Clara Adolphs, 12 expansive pieces adorning the walls in sets of four at a time, before being rotated. Many of her works are oil paintings based on found photographs that tap into our own memories and experiences.

Yavuz Gallery executive Dharshini Kannan will feature critical works by artists Alvin Ong, Patricia Piccinini, and Grace Wright as part of its program. Kannan says being at Art SG presents “an opportunity to showcase local artists and connect SE Asia to international collectors. Moreover, it’s an opportunity to bring the community of artists, curators, and collectors together to connect, share and inspire… we are excited to see our local artists recognised by international curators and included in global programs.”

Ursula Sullivan and Joanna Strumpf, co-directors of Sullivan+Strumpf, are particularly invested in Art SG; representing a number of artists like Alex Seton, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Irfan Hendrian, Kirsten Coelho, and Lindy Lee. They also have an itinerant pop-up space in Singapore that started, pre-pandemic, as a space at Gillman Barracks. Sullivan and Strumpf say that “exhibiting on Singapore’s global stage for contemporary art is an amazing opportunity to engage collectors and new audiences with our Australian and international artists – one that is never lost on us.”

The Art Basel and UBS Survey of Global Collecting indicates that more than three quarters of collectors were optimistic about the art market for 2022, with more than half planning to buy art within the next six months of that year. Art Basel HK and Art SG seem to be the flagship destinations for collectors to flex their financial prowess. However, this isn’t only about galleries hiring booths to display artworks available for purchase. To maintain interest and relevance in recent times, fairs have become more thematic and multi-sensory in their offerings. Art Basel HK has a Discoveries section dedicated to new and upcoming artists; an Insights section highlighting artists from Asia and the Asia-Pacific Region; and a Conversations section with artists and collectors, amongst others, included in panels and discussions regarding the global art scene.

Art SG similarly has themed events, such as Futures, which is dedicated to gallery spaces new on the scene (under six years in operation); Film, showcasing new moving image practice; and Reframe, a section for galleries presenting art that is engaged with, made or presented using digital technology.

Reframe, amongst other initiatives is a clever response to the times as suggested by the Art Basel and UBS Survey of Global Collecting. Despite the recent crypto meltdown appetites for digital works, including NFTs, have not reduced; in the first half of 2022 alone, surveyed collectors shelled out an average of USD 46,000 on art-based NFTs, more than what they spent on them in the entirety of 2021 (USD 44,000).

A component at Art SG called Film will be curated by Gridthiya Gaweewong, one of the most renowned curators at the Jim Thompson Art Centre in Bangkok. Her curatorial projects have addressed issues of social transformation confronting artists from Thailand and beyond since the Cold War. Such appointments ensure a more balanced approach, steering away from only a Western-centric representation of art by seeing diversity and inclusion bought to the forefront for the viewing and buying public.

The London Art Fair (LAF) (18 to 22 January) has embraced multiplicity as well, with its annual Photo50 section highlighting a timely theme in current photographic contexts. Titled Beautiful Experiments (taken from the 2019 book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals by the American writer Saidiya Hartman), the 2023 iteration is curated by Pelumi Odubanjo and Katy Barron. The artists chosen are UK-based, though have a range of diasporic heritages and have produced work that reflects their histories. These artists include Bernice Mulenga, Heather Agyepong, and Joy Gregory. In the words of the curators: “We tried to find a way to allow the photographers space to consider their ideas and share them with us. Some of these voices have not been heard and we feel that they deserve a platform. The exhibition is an opportunity for them to experiment with their ideas without constraints.” This is part of LAF director Sarah Monk’s strategy: “with this coming fair, we wanted to create different moments and rhythms for people to engage with art.”

Dario Illari, founder of Jealous Gallery and Print Studio, London, has attended LAF for more than 30 years, first as a spectator, then with his own gallery. He sees the benefits of exposure in this forum by what the visitors and collectors are responding to, and hearing differing points of view concerning the exhibited works. It can validate the choice of works, or bring upon a realisation that unsuitable works were bought to the fair. He never doubts the works or the artists, but accepts that sometimes he may mistake the mood or timbre of the moment. Illari does say that “one of the reasons I love the LAF is that for me it holds the air of a great dame whilst also being very open to the contemporary, the experimental and new.” It appears that art fairs are embracing works to appeal to a broader cross section of people, and tease out a level of breadth only seen in recent times.

With art exhibition booths in existence for merely a few days, and costing tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s a serious expense, and works need to sell. This is underscored, for example, by the Art Basel HK 2021 sale of a painting by Joan Mitchell for $20 million USD, against an upper estimate of $16 million. Inclusivity is important, balancing prestige and relevance, but being a financially profitable venture is always an underlying aim of art fair forays.

Another factor it would be remiss to not mention is how the pandemic has shaped people’s perceptions of viewing and buying art. Art Basel HK has seen the advent of online satellite booths that are increasingly being used by galleries, often in conjunction with a physical booth. A virtual fair as such provides the collector with an option to view and potentially buy art, even if not present to see it.

Larry Gagosian (sole owner of 19 galleries globally bearing his surname) acknowledges that one of the biggest shifts since having been an art dealer is the transmission of images over the internet, seeing increased momentum and the potential for more transactions to take place. The Art Basel and UBS Survey of Global Collecting shows that more collectors are willing to buy online – a consumer behaviour, ushered in by former pandemic restrictions, that may be here to stay.

This has seen art fairs having to adapt to public expectations that are no longer solely based on visual presentation in person. Frieze Los Angeles (16 to 19 February) for instance, has an online presence with Art: LIVE, providing interviews with seminal artists and, closer to the opening of the fair, an in-depth exclusive preview of what to look out for.

Providing detailed insight into these auspicious events can be an elusive affair. A representative from the Crane Kalman Gallery (partaking in LAF) appeared mildly astonished at the question of which artists would participate, saying artists shown will be released just prior to the fair. Gagosian Hong Kong gently side-stepped the question. This is hardly surprising as many galleries want to maintain a fevered level of interest. Surprise, via an anticipated unveiling, potentially helps consumer engagement.

Previously Gagosian enlisted an ensemble of contemporary works by varying artists for Art Basel HK. Will one be Anna Weyant? Born in 1995, she went from selling works for $2000–$12,000 USD in 2019 at her first solo show, to now be represented by Gagosian. In 2022 a painting of hers titled Falling Woman netted $1.6 million at Christies auction, eight times its highest estimate. Another, labelled Summertime, of a woman with lush undulating brown hair, was bought in 2020 for $12,000 USD and sold, two years later, for $1.5 million. Not surprising that she’s referred to as the millennial Botticelli.

Closer to our shores is New Zealand’s Aotearoa Art Fair (2 to 5 March) which is showcasing a diverse contingent of artists: such as Nell and Paul Yore by Station, Yavuz Gallery showing Abdul Abdullah and Julian Meagher and the gallery Fox Jensen McCrory/Fox Jensen showing a solo booth of work by Australian artist Tomislav Nikolic. Nikolic’s sublime and partly translucent abstract paintings have found an eager stable of collectors both overseas and locally, while Yore is coming off the back of an early career retrospective at Melbourne based ACCA named Word Made Flesh.

Yore’s works are an assault on the senses, highly sexualised and confronting – drawing on iconoclastic imagery, pop culture references, queer identity, current and past political trends, to weave a mesmerising tableaux, often in the form of appliqued quilts, collages, and assemblage. The work challenges convention and demands to be seen.

The post-pandemic resurgence of art fairs is here to stay – renascent, transformed, and ready for the anticipated surge of interest in what contemporary artists have to say during these curious times. Ben Bergman of Bergman Gallery, Cook Islands (participating in Aotearoa Art Fair) sums it up eloquently in saying: “Art fairs are a great vehicle for exposure of our gallery and artists to a new audience as well as reinforcing existing client relationships. Benefits are numerous, as we see clients, collectors, media, public and private institutional representatives and visiting art groups. For myself as a gallery director, art fairs are a lively, exciting environment to be in, where I also get to network with fellow gallery directors and speak with artists. The global pandemic has not changed our approach to art fairs at all, they are essential meeting points for the industry.”

Art SG: Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre, Singapore. 12 to 15 January 2023.

Art Basel HK: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Hong Kong. 23 To 25 March 2023.

The London Art Fair: Business Design Centre, London. 18 to 22 January 2023.

Frieze Los Angeles: Santa Monica Airport, Los Angeles. 16 to 19 February 2023.

Aotearoa Art Fair: The Cloud, Auckland. 2 to 5 March 2023.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 103, January-March 2023. 

Image: Art Basel Hong Kong 2022 With Rossi and Rossi Gallery Booth. Courtesy: Art Basel Hong Kong.

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