Art fairs have always given me an awkward inkling. I enjoy, like any other person the opportunity of seeing a great volume of art within a short space of time, but the conjectural repercussions are hard to swallow. While on one hand I gladly support the insistent attempt to integrate art into what we know as the ‘real world’, I remain in unvarying suspicion of superficial whims posing as art which are, I’m afraid, what most art fairs are in danger of showcasing. The obvious question in this regard is: While we want art to remain progressive, if we want it to remain relevant, shouldn’t we make it as accessible as possible for the benefit of the general public?
I guess there’s no easy answer. Even years of research and discourse have not managed to bring us to a clearer summit. What we know is that people generally appreciate that which is beautiful as art, but the definition of beauty changes over the years. But the art that dares to challenge what we see as beautiful is the art that makes a significant impact on art as a discipline.
There always has to be a number of people holding on to the old definitions of beauty, otherwise there would be no social conditions to challenge. The thing that disturbs me is the art fair’s apparent authority on what beauty is. Moreover, art fairs have a consumption oriented attitude towards the visitor, thus not only claiming authority on uniform artistic beauty, but offering it up for an institutional price.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m terrified of social norms masquerading as truth, but some situations become exempt from my sharp rejection as a result of their inevitability. Individuality and uniqueness should generally be first nature to an artist. It’s not even hypothetical, but almost a given – qualities an artist should understand and possess a deep curiosity for. Certainly, this is what art fairs claim to strive for. But that devotion seems to turn majority of these fairs into one-dimensional presentations where most of the works tend to look alike. I guess it’s to be expected. In a space designed to contain so many artworks and so many personalities, how can banality be avoided?
Realisme 11 has descended into the same corner, presenting a rather predictable assortment of famous and emerging Dutch and international figurative artists. The obvious aim of an art fair is to sell, but I was really hoping for more genuine stimulation. Some of the works could be comfortably inserted into any number of previous artistic eras, some extremely realistic paintings and photographs, some expressionism, impressionism, etc. There’s nothing wrong that, but I have the tendency of expecting progressive intercourse when I look at art. Most of the art looked delightful and would make divine decoration, but was it really art? Among all of the artists and galleries given a platform, how much originality and ‘realness’ actually found a voice? In this fair, realness wasn’t really a priority but conformist notions of beauty were the premise.
One of the most popular artists was photographer Helen Schellens who made photographs of traditional still lives featuring Apple products. Although I’ve always been somewhat baffled by the popularity of archetypal contemporary Dutch art photography due to its likeness to documentary, fashion and advertising photography, I have to admit that in another context (aka advertising) these would make impressive pictures. The conclusively pretty pictures focus on the ‘...transience of existence and the beauty of decay ...’ But upon walking further, I discovered a painterly version of the same image (minus the laptops) by artist Qiangli Liang, and the Schellens photographs were expunged. Although I once again felt no real defining significance of another conventional still life, the paintings at least were mneumonically fresher than their counterpart which I'd seen beforehand.
The exhibited art wasn’t confined to the implied theme of the self (Real is Me), nor was it confined to figurative art as the descriptions declare. This caused a hasty comportment when looking at the art. This is not a problem specific to Realisme. Galleries always have to compete with each other at art fairs. And with today’s speed of communication, people’s attention spans are short. An art fair cannot be expected to constantly amaze, impress and change us. But I found overlooking the luscious title and exhibiting indiscriminate works of art heightened this sense of a swift and deadpan pace of seeing.
The space offered the typical art fair ambience of luxury and grandeur. Set in the Passenger Terminal Amsterdam building near Central Station, it was located near enough so that it would have a significant presence in the city, but far enough so that it would not be confused with other common happenings within the city. It was quite easy to appreciate Realisme’s ability to avoid that cold, supermarket-like feel that’s normally evident in big art fairs. But instead of feeling like a large airport terminal, the fair was designed so it ended up feeling like a hotel during an extremely busy holiday season. Everything is regulated in art fairs and excellence is equated with convention. Granted some galleries were able to give their works some room to breathe, but the overall impression was that of high capacity. (Some people would count that as an asset – who am I to argue?)
Some works stood out in spite of the spatial inhibitions. Igor Tishin, Gerard Schrimmer, Sylvia Evers, Cornelia Scherm, Creative Block, Ger Eikendal, Hugo Kaagman and F. Franciscus were among the artists who managed to stay afloat, taking a real place within the artistic context. In addition, these works tackled figurative expression, the self and ‘reality’ with resourceful conduct. For example Frans Franciscus who uses an early painting style to depict his noble figures in an Alice in Wonderland-esque background remains wittingly original. His large scale format is not a sly distraction from a lack of content, but a re-enforcement of his concept. Hugo Kaagman’s bold stencils reference pop and punk art, juxtaposing Dutch aesthetics with more universal forms. Obviously critical and analytical, the technique is still hip and accessible. His works deserve recognition as one of the most socially relevant voices at Realisme. And Ger Eikendaal’s wood panel paintings tackle current affairs head-on without foregoing a distinguishing style. His cleverly titled work ‘Who is running your economy?’ gains speculative merit from the direct awareness and use of stereotypes and trademarks.
The audience were as far as I could decipher, religiously intent on deciphering the virtuous meaning of the art they were presented with. This makes sense in the context. It seems Dutch art consciousness seeks the ideological idea of art that bonds the community. The ownership of art is seen as the ownership of something profoundly prevailing. That explains the haughty pricing. Dutch artist Rob Schulte says: “Art can be something that connects people to one another, giving a sense of unity and producing a feeling of the positive force of being connected to the world.” So the general constitution at this particular fair was high class people who were either looking for something non-existent and of course others who came to show off and look cool.
That being said, there were people who really did come for their love and understanding of art. The maximum aim at an art fair is status and with the lack of time to invest in all works, red dots are general indications of what’s hot. Interestingly, despite the scarcity of red dots below the artworks, there were quite a number of discernable ‘art people’ within the audience. But what was once true for galleries is becoming true for art fairs. There are so many art fairs, so many works and it’s impossible for the collector to keep track.
An art fair is the new model for the selling of art, having somewhat replaced the gallery and biennale model. What worries me is that at Realisme, I failed to experience an unassuming and artistic acknowledgement or criticism of the fair as a market for aesthetic objects and that is precisely what it was. Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl challenges the standardised format of art fairs by presenting a series of assorted prototype-stands from non-art related business fields. For example, he exhibited a display of lamps, a poster stand, a mirror business and a jewellery show at various art fairs. But few artists or gallerists presented at Realisme followed his cue. The art itself was typically, more like posh wallpaper, destined to fetch a hefty sum from some unsuspecting member of the Dutch bourgeois.
French philosopher Jean Baudrilliard said of the fatal fakeness of art: “Today, the only magic art still performs is that of its own disappearance.” At some point these poor sods will realize they’re being scammed. As far as I’m concerned, it takes more than something looking ‘nice’ for it to be called fine art. There are numerous other industries which can offer pleasant aesthetic experiences for a much lower price. An art fair should either admit to being a large market for pretty pictures or rather try to find a new niche in the art market.
Art fairs shouldn’t shun experimentalism, not only for the sake of authenticity, but for their own survival. Perhaps capitalising on the new model of what has come to be called ‘the experience economy’ might have been more valuable for Realisme. Instead of parading as a place for art and sacred images, a fair could reinvent itself as an urban entertainment centre. There is no doubt that one would find a great number of images so appealing they would improve anyone’s living room. But in reality, what difference does that make? Some of these pictures can just as simply be forgotten once one has moved on to the next stand, no matter the fancy price tag. For an artwork, there’s no greater failure than being forgotten.