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Annie Buckley

IN THE INTERNATIONAL LAND
OF CONTEMPORARY ART THE
EMPTY PACK OF GUM IS KING


Most Angelenos inclined towards contemporary art know where to go in town to see it. There’s the old stronghold of Bergamot Station in Santa Monica; the galleries lining the Wilshire corridor; the still-hip Chinatown scene--lit by red lanterns and international flair; Downtown’s Gallery Row district;  the rows and rows of galleries that have given Culver City a cultural shot in the arm in recent years; and the relative newcomer, Northeast Los Angeles, sprouting galleries amidst mobile fruit carts and panaderías. Though one can see similar art, sometimes even work by the same artist, in different areas, these regions provide a semblance of organization for viewers.

In the broader context, regions of the country and areas of the world traditionally offer distinct styles and forms, such as the slick, clean painting associated with Los Angeles art a few years past, the radical ceramics that came out of the Bay Area, or the painters of the New York School. Historically, countries the world over have provided wider, and arguably more pivotal, distinctions such as Japanese screen painting, African textiles, and Indian miniatures. But in this increasingly global culture spawned by international commerce, the Internet, and all varieties of technology, from cell phones to iPods to PDA’s providing near-instantaneous access to images and ideas from around the world, we might ask, have borders between cultural styles and forms been eclipsed by an international, trans-generational, multimedia contemporary art? While in the day-to-day goings on of the art world, it is clear that areas and neighborhoods, regions and countries still provide a sense of structure and a feeling of community, within the context of the now ubiquitous international art scene these are quickly erased. This realization dawned on me over the course of my first visit to Art | Basel | Miami Beach, the fair billed as “the most important art show in the United States,” though some would say the world.



Ed Templeton, "30 Seconds in my shoes. . .," Roberts & Tilton Gallery's booth installation at Art | Basel | Miami Beach fair in December, 2007.
Photo courtesy Riberts & Tilton Gallery.












Walter Maciel Gallery's booth installation at Pulse Miami fair in December, 2007.
Photo courtesy Walter Maciel Gallery.
“Does this belong to you?” I overhear a collector ask on the first day of Art | Basel | Miami Beach. She is referring to a nearby work of art and when the dealer responds that it does, the potential buyer continues coyly, “and how much would it take to make it mine?” The dealer’s response is too quiet to overhear but the customer persists, “How much is that in US dollars?” This little scene is typical of many in the seemingly borderless free zone of the fairs, where sales are paramount and regional distinctions are all but invisible. Though I started out wondering how the Southland would fit into the international scene, I came away realizing that it’s nearly impossible to say how any one area or country fits in, but rather that there exists a distinct culture called contemporary art. With this in mind, the parties and social events throughout the week of the fair attest to a community beyond area, language, nationality, or style. In an atmosphere that feels like a fantastical international stock exchange crossed with the swirling colors of a carnival--complete with costumes and side-shows, old friends and new acquaintances--parties and soirees surrounding the fair are like the festive gatherings of a far-flung clan brought together in one place for a week. Champagne flows, cell phones ring, money changes hands, and best of all, the shared language of art is everywhere. Despite the party shenanigans and the overwhelming amount of art, literally too much to see in one week, there is something fascinating about seeing so much work, from so many places, together under one roof, or, if we include the more than twenty satellite fairs this year, numerous roofs but one locale.

Art objects, normally treated and exhibited with such deference, lean into corners, hang close together on temporary walls, wait in stacks behind desks for a space in the booth to open up. Art as precious object takes a back seat to art as commodity, but this same lack of preciousness, wall texts, even, in some cases, a visible listing of the title or artist’s name, starts to create a picture of art today, at least the art for sale in this booming market. Bennett Roberts of Los Angeles’ Roberts & Tilton, one of the few Los Angeles galleries to exhibit at the main fair (many were present at satellite fairs) says via email, “Since even many young galleries now have international programs, the Internet has collapsed all the borders. The galleries in a fair could be from anywhere.” In contrast to the sense of locale galleries tend to have in their hometown or country, Roberts says, “An art fair has an anesthetizing effect on a sense of uniqueness and place.”

This was made abundantly clear as galleries from the USA set up shop next to galleries from India, Europe, South America, Africa, or Australia, most exhibiting the work of a multi-national array of artists. I stumbled upon the work of Canadian artist Jonathan Pylypchuk in the booth of Tomio Koyama Gallery from Tokyo and was happy to learn of the works of Australian artist Timothy Horn, who resides in Massachusetts, at Hosfelt Gallery, of San Francisco and New York, exhibiting at Aqua Wynwood. Also catching my interest at Aqua were color-coded photographs of ordinary objects by the Swedish-born, London-based artist, Helga Steppan, exhibited at Man&Eve from London. One of the most memorable artists at the main fair was Mounir Fatmi, a Moroccan artist living in Paris, whose excellent and provocative photographs, video, and sculpture were exhibited at Lombard-Freid Projects of New York. Fatmi’s work stands out not because it was compelling--indeed the vast majority of works in each of the fairs I attended were engaging, whether for their beauty, intelligence, or craftsmanship--but because of its interrogation of weighty ideas, a rare endeavor in the atmosphere of the fairs. By stringing together religious books, whose colorful covers boast titles in multiple languages, with wires referencing the complicated, handmade explosives of suicide bombers, Fatmi’s work courageously takes on a powder keg of current events.

With so much art to see, most attendees grow exhausted at some point. For my part, I couldn’t relax in Miami before making peace with the fact that I would not, could not, see everything, and opted instead for a more Zen-like approach, attempting to fully experience what I did have time to see rather than bemoaning what I missed. Walter Maciel of Los Angeles’s Walter Maciel Gallery, exhibiting at Pulse Miami this year, says, “Viewers looking at art in my booth at a fair [rather than in the gallery in LA] are retaining a lot more information from viewing other booths, and therefore they are looking with a comparative eye.” Indeed, it’s hard not to compare, and at some point, all you can do is remember the works that really stand out. To my mind, these reflect the same spirit of fluid borders that characterizes the fair.

Rather than galleries or countries, styles or media, it is art that stands out in my memory from Miami Beach, such as the gorgeous and richly colored felt circles on dark grey wood in a large-scale wall piece by Bharti Kher at the combined booth of Gallery Nature Mort of New Delhi and Bose Pacia of New York, the intoxicating aroma of Paul McCarthy’s naughty chocolate Santas drawing weary viewers to Hauser&Wirth’s booth from across the hall to bask in the warm scent of chocolate, or the intriguing wall sculptures made with rubber studded with shiny red seeds by Miguel Ángel Rojas at the booth of Columbian gallery, Alcuadrado. At Aqua and Pulse, the satellite fairs I attended, Kelsey Nicholson’s paper bird sculptures at the booth of Berkeley gallery Traywick Contemporary, exhibiting at Aqua Wynwood, spring to mind as well as the gorgeous and surprising gold surfaces of embroidered paintings by Angelo Filomeno at Galerie Anne de Villepoix from Paris at Pulse Miami, a side fair that garnered considerable buzz this year.


Traywick Contemporary (Berkeley, California) booth at Miami's Squa Hotel, December 2007.
Photo courtesy Traywick Contemporary.


















Taylor De Cordoba's room installation at Miami's Aqua Hotel, December 2007.
Photo courtesy Taylor De Cordoba Gallery.

Heather Taylor, co-owner of Los Angeles’ Taylor de Cordoba Gallery, and exhibiting in Miami for the first time this year at the Aqua Hotel, explains, “There's something really retro about the hotel and it was interesting to see the artwork hung in what is basically a domestic space.” Taylor adds that, “We really viewed the fair as an exhibition--a micro-version of our gallery transplanted on the east coast.” Certainly the multiple mini-versions of galleries from around the world make these fairs an impressive place to take the pulse of contemporary art. But lest we be seduced by the sunny glow of internationalism, one of the most talked about--for good reason--booths in Miami is a reminder that globalism is not all intercambio and opportunity.



John Baldessari, "Noses & Ears, Etc.
(Part Four): Altered Person (Color),"
2007, 109.9 x 140.3 x 7.6 cm
Photo courtesy Mai 36 Galerie, Zürich.











Xu Zhen, "ShaghART Supermarket"
booth installation at Art | Basel |
Miami Beach, December, 2007.
Photo courtesy ShanghART Gallery.
Potentially alone in his ability to use the context of the fair as an opportunity to challenge social, economic, and artistic conventions is Chinese artist, Xu Zhen, whose installation at ShanghART Gallery from Shanghai was the show stealer at Art | Basel | Miami Beach. Zhen’s installation consists of a mini-convenience store, complete with all the necessities of day-to-day life in industrialized nations the world over: gum and soda, ice cream and candy, band-aids and shampoo. The items are neatly stacked and carefully sealed, but each is decidedly empty. Beyond the initial one-liner, that all our consumption amounts to nothing, the work plays with the notion of art as a commodity while skewering the world’s unceasing appetite for cheap Chinese products. That Chinese artists are also the current apple of the art world’s eye adds another layer to this charged work. The day I attended, a man tried to buy a pack of gum using a hundred dollar bill. While this wouldn’t have bought a thing in the vast majority of booths at the fair, here the bill was too large. Handing him the pack free of charge, the salesgirl explained in a singsong voice with an ironic grin, “Chinese products are so cheap, you can’t even buy them!” One of the strength’s of Zhen’s work is its ability to simultaneously critique and celebrate the contemporary art market. Walking away with a plastic bag containing two empty packs of gum (purchased for the grand total of $1.00), I had to smile at being both duped into purchasing nothing and ingeniously snatching up work from a successful booth at this exclusive fair—all for just one dollar.

But for fair attendees looking for a sense of context and structure within the increasingly international land of contemporary art, delineations like borders and cities still provide potential roadmaps. Each booth holds a small sign with the name and city of the exhibiting gallery. Heather Taylor saw that viewers took notice, “When viewers heard our gallery is in Culver City,” she explains, “some became really intrigued. They clearly had heard about Culver City becoming a hot area for contemporary art and walked in for a second look.” In a land without borders or categories, reputation still counts for something, and it seems that of Los Angeles’ is still on the rise.