London Art Fair
London- River Thames- Regatta by Sir Peter Blake (2012) at the Paul Stolper Gallery
2012 was a significant year for anniversaries, most notably the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, only the second British monarch, after Queen Victoria, to have celebrated such an honour during their reign. We also celebrated the bicentenary of Charles Dickens, a man whose name has become a byword for Victorian life, its attitudes and its morals. To hear someone or something described as “Dickensian” (nearly always pejoratively) vividly evokes scenes of prison hulks, debtor’s prisons and orphans consigned to workhouses. This year will not be found wanting for cultural anniversaries either. 2013 marks the bicentenary of the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, the German composer Richard Wagner and the centenary of the English composer Benjamin Britten.
This week marked a smaller yet recognisable cultural milestone – the 25th anniversary of the London Art Fair. This fair held in January each year celebrates modern British and contemporary art; its continuing success is demonstrated through the 130 galleries showcasing their work at the fair and encompassing the full spectrum of artistic expression from traditional painting to sculpture, installations, photography and prints.
Few would dispute that the artistic, media and cultural landscape now is very different from 1988. A time when Margaret Thatcher was approaching her dénouement, Germany was divided by the Berlin Wall and little known artist called Damien Hirst, a second year art student at Goldsmiths College, was arranging an independent student exhibition called Freeze, in a disused London Port Authority administrative block in London’s Docklands.
Twenty five years later and it was Hirst’s name that came up most frequently at the first event I attended at the London Art Fair: a debate organised by The Arts Desk entitled: “Crazy Art Prices” – Do Auction Prices Matter? One of the themes discussed by the panel comprising Mark Hudson and Melanie Gerlis was whether the financial value of a work of art had a bearing on the critical appreciation of that work and if it was possible to completely exclude from one’s mind the prices achieved for works at auction or indeed at a private sale. In an increasingly market-orientated world, could art not simply be regarded as yet another commodity to be bought, sold, traded and leveraged? Gerlis disagreed with this notion. It might fulfil all the criteria applicable to a commodity, but essentially there is something more to art – each work of art is unique. One may profitably sell a number of paintings, all within a particular period, but each one will be individual and have its own inherent value – in essence each work of art could be regarded as forming its own individual market. Works of art have an unerring ability to wrong-foot amateurs and experts alike with respect to their popularity and the prices achieved.
Which bring us to Damien Hirst – the man whose one-man sale of new works at Sotheby’s grossed a record-breaking £111 million; this was in September 2008, days before the global financial crisis precipitated by the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Has the Hirst effect on modern art poisoned the public’s perception of art? Is the money he has made such an overwhelming factor that one cannot view his work without the thought of it creeping into our judgement? Yes and no. For some people Damien Hirst will always be the paradigm of the contemporary artist as con-man. These are the same people who annually scoff and splutter indignantly their way through the Turner Prize or who sneer at Tracy Emin and the shameless effrontery of her unmade bed. For others, Hirst was simply a product of his time; the rising wealth and changing tastes coincided, with a little help from advertising guru Charles Saatchi, to make him phenomenally rich. His art is still his art. However, as art history demonstrates, it is only after a suitable period of reflection that one can tell if an artist like Hirst will be considered a great artist or whether he will fade away; the prices paid for his works will not be the indicator of longevity.
This sentiment is echoed by Ben Street, art historian, writer and curator in the foreword to the Catlin Guide 2013: New Artists in the UK when he says “Only a mug would try to characterise the art of his or her time. Sensible art historians of the past have waited a good century or so before slapping a name on a period”. The Guide is the result of a search to find 40 promising new artists who have graduated from art school and to give them a platform for their work. There is no application process. The artists are initially selected for the ambition, skill and integrity shown in their work during the most recent series of BA, MA, MFA and PG Dip final exhibitions. One of the selected young artists, Conall McAteer, has already been gathering attention with Crate, a painstaking physical reproduction of a the type of wooden crate most often seen in the previous generation of computer games that would be familiar to anyone who remembers the graphics of Street Fighter and Doom. McAteer explains that “the temporality of Crate is designed to evoke a sense of mortality. In the virtual world the recurrent textures are immaculate and immutable, they never wear out. Left unpreserved, the hardwood veneers will age: the walnut will silver, the cherry pinken, and the oak darken. The image and form will possess a life cycle.”
The joy of London Art Fair is that there is such a diverse range of work that, whatever your particular penchant, you are certain to find something that appeals. My love of books drew me to a series of works at the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery stand by Phil Shaw called Londonensi Subterraneis. Shaw spent a year collecting books which featured the names of every Underground station. Each line is then recreated with each of the books as if on a shelf. It is a wonderfully clever and refreshing take on an institution that celebrates its own 150th anniversary this year. Other highlights include “Spring landscape with a pond and house” by Ivon Hitchens exhibited by Waterhouse and Dodd, a work that has been in the same private collection since it was acquired from the artist in 1975 and is coming to the market for the first time.
A debut appearance from the Brighton-based gallery Ink_d, a set of themed Art Projects spaces and Photo50, an exhibition focusing on British photojournalists and documentary photographers amongst many, many others all serve as a reminder of our vibrant and diverse art scene. Art may be bought and sold for a profit or a loss but its ability to provide aesthetic pleasure, to stir your emotions and to make you reassess how you view the world is the reason it will never be a mere commodity.
The London Art Fair is on the Business Design Centre, Islington, London, N1 until 20 January 2012.
quipx attended the London Art Fair courtesy of The Macallan Masterclass, one of the sponsors of the event.