Sydney Contemporary 13

Carriageworks, Sydney
19-22 September 2013

‘See, Love, Buy Art’ was the slogan for Sydney Contemporary 13 (SC13). But it may as well have been written, ‘See, Talk, Buy Art’; for there has never been so much conversation in Sydney about contemporary art—almost a match for the singeing onset of climate change this Spring.

And that may be the legacy of (and prospect for) this first ‘high-art’ fair in the city. The loving (and the buying) were estimated to be a little less than hoped-for; but the teeming verbosity of the opening night, when more than two-thirds of fair owner, Tim Etchells’s predicted 15,000 total attendance turned up in one fell swoop, did actually lead many a gallerist to exult that a new clientele had come into their lives, some with wallets open. And the eventual total of 28,800 visitors was significant in (a) topping the numbers at Etchells’s equivalent new London art fair in the northern Spring, and (b) justifying his claimed loss of half a million dollars to get this first Sydney Contemporary up.

Now he simply has to keep his fingers crossed for two years that Sydney will not have moved on to some new fad before SC15 can occur. For an essential part of the deal to set up SC13 was that he also manages the established Melbourne Art Fair and ensures that the two do not get into pointless competition. So they will alternate, both in the hands of artistic director Barry Keldoulis, the former Sydney gallerist.

Why would a man at the cutting edge of selling art by the likes of Claire Healy & Sean Cordeiro, Joan Ross, Jess MacNeil and Jonathan Jones move on to a vending system that he himself admits has ‘a meat market aspect’ and is used by some of his colleagues to ‘get rid of old stock’? The response from Keldoulis: ‘As a gallerist, I realised that more and more dollars were being spent at art fairs (of which there are now 180 in the world, according to Etchells). People are time poor, and enjoy cultural tourism—so it was to my artists’ detriment not to participate. I tried the Sydney Affordable Art Fair (Art Sydney, which ran from 2005 to 2007, again courtesy of Tim Etchells), but I found I just could not offer quality art at under $5,000, its limit. Quality is what collectors want, and artists too want it around them. That’s why I went into Hong Kong from the beginning—it gave my artists exposure to curators, writers and collectors over the years … much more than just sales. And the quality of presentation at art fairs continues to go up—Tolarno, for instance, chose to show a new suite of Rosemary Laing’s works here, in preference to it debuting in their gallery.’

Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art matched that with a solo display of new Juan Davila works—large, abstract and pastel, just to confound expectations.

In the end, 83 galleries signed up to pay on average $25,000 for the gamble of the first SC13. One third came from overseas—just one from Europe, one from South Africa, many from New Zealand, and an interesting sprinkling from Asia—Hong Kong, Singapore, The Philippines, Japan, Indonesia and India. Fortunately, many an Asian gallery seems to be run by the French—so European art by such names as Gilbert & George, Fabienne Verdier and Bernar Venet came with them. Meanwhile it was the Kiwis at Gow Langsford Gallery who hit the headlines with a Damien Hirst butterfly work priced at $900,000. It remained unsold, but allowed them to shift a number of $6,000 prints by the artist, and not be ashamed to carry $149 Hirst skull snowdomes as well.

It was nigh on impossible to get an overall sales figure for SC13—dealers were both playing their cards close to their chests, and hoping for the connections made to bear fruit in coming weeks. Tim Etchells gaily drew the number $30 million out of the air. But some more commercially-minded journalists persisted, and here is a cross-section of their researches: Paul Yore’s technicolour tapestries sold out at Neon Parc, including The Glorious Dawn (2012) acquired by Artbank. At Starkwhite (NZ) Rebecca Baumann’s coloured flip-clock installation Automated Colour Field (Variation 2) (2013) sold out an edition of five and a Ross Manning kinetic sculpture sold four from its edition. A rare video success—Joan Ross’s witty pastiches were selling like hot cakes at Michael Reid. Fehily Contemporary sold out an edition of Abdul Abdullah’s cheeky photograph, It Doesn’t Matter How I Feel (2013) and chalked up considerable sales across Abdullah’s painting and photographic practice. And, talking multiculturalism, Tristian Koenig from Melbourne was happily selling glittering figurines by Korean Suji Park, now resident in New Zealand, and appearing in Heide’s ‘Future Primitive’ show in November/December.

Many of the overseas contingent returned home happy: Gow Langsford wrapped up a successful few days with the Sunday sale of David McCracken’s stainless steel sphere Nice Round Figure (2013). The gallery also sold a suite of Dale Frank tondos, ‘Within the first 45 minutes’, at $30,000. The Paragon Press (London) showed works on paper with editions from Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor and Jake & Dinos Chapman and managed sales for all of them. Whitestone Gallery (Tokyo) presented works by contemporary Japanese artists including a large showing of works by Yayoi Kusama. Haruka Ichikawa from the gallery said she was particularly impressed with the amount of curatorial interest. Gallerists from 10 Chancery Lane (Hong Kong) and Starkwhite (NZ) also noted the number of international art consultants who were present throughout the fair, while the largest contingent of international collectors appeared to be from New Zealand.

Not all was plain sailing, though, with website, artinfo.com prematurely reporting that Singapore-based Art Plural Gallery had sold a painting by Fabienne Verdier for $70,000 and a work by French-Argentinian artist Pablo Reinoso for $46,000 on opening night. However both sales later fell over, leading gallerist Frédéric de Senarclens to note ‘buyer resistance’ at $20,000. However, the joint Sophie Gannon and Jan Murphy Galleries stand seemed to have no trouble shifting Danie Mellor works at $44,000, a rare Cressida Campbell at $55,000 and the cuddlier animals in Julia DeVille’s stuffed and bejewelled menagerie.

Plenty of big names, new names—of both artists and galleries—for Sydneysiders. But was there resistance to works that failed to shout ‘Contemporary’? That thought came up twice—at the venerable Watters Gallery stand, where four staff were kept busy talking to punters about such late luminaries as Tony Tuckson, Richard Larter and John Peart—with no sales recorded and one tyro punter wondering aloud whether a cerulean Tuckson might be ‘a Whiteley without sailing boats?’. Then at Indigenous specialist Tim Klingender Fine Art, a masterful display of Wandjina barks of the same vintage as the Watters trio was much admired, but unbought. Meanwhile, more decorative Aboriginal art by the likes of Wentja Napaltjarri, Sally Gabori, Nonggirrnga Marawili and, above all, Reko Rennie did seem to fill the bill.

Perhaps context is everything. Hot young marble manipulator, Alex Seton was on one of the Fair’s many popular talk-fest panels and let it be known that the work of his that Jan Murphy had brought to SC13—three apparently crushed-paper balls made from marble, bronze and stainless steel—was part of a much larger project, and in Sydney, ‘the context in which I work is totally missing; without information about how these identical forms came about, they’re just three decorative balls. An artfair is no place to view art—end of story!’.

Not a popular view; and certainly not one fostered by Lisa Havilah, CEO of Carriageworks, the 1890’s railway shed complex that provided for many ‘the best venue for an artfair in the world’. One huge hall and two smaller ones had light and air for all, even though the big space only became available in August when George Miller moved his film animators out. For a multi-arts venue on the fringes of Redfern, whose performances tend to be at the cutting-edge, it was a godsend to attract such a wide spectrum of punters, especially as Anna Schwartz’s permanent Sydney gallery is now there, and Havilah has added a strong visual arts element to the program, including huge installations from Song Dong (Waste Not) and Ryoji Ikeda (test pattern [No 5]).

Personally, I rather fell for a Bernar Venet work on paper, but could not imagine buying it without any idea of the totality of his work. But then I discovered two of the artist’s sculptures on different stands—a fact that allowed Gary Langsford (of Gow Langsford) to suggest this gave SC13 ‘a real sense of grown-up internationality’; and I had at least something of the necessary context.

Mind you, there may be pitfalls in ‘context’ as the Financial Times witty cultural columnist, Peter Aspden discovered: ‘When I criticised Martin Creed’s work (people sprinting up and down the august halls of Tate Britain) at a recent panel discussion in London, I was accused by one antagonist of not having studied its “context”’. I encountered similar hostility when I wondered—during a panel discussion on the Anti-Aesthetic—whether the elephant in the room (unmentioned) was an ‘installation’, Untitled (2013), by Tully Arnot and Charles Dennington, situated behind the panel and consisting of old beer bottles linked by electric cables that drove small fans positioned to produce a really annoying sound when blowing into the bottles? The epitome of anti-aesthetic? Not, apparently, if you read the curatorial essay!

Or as Aspden put it: ‘The flip side of art’s infantilism [it is no surprise that art is so popular these days, when it is so easily consumed and digested] is the continuing portentousness of art world insiders…. This at least provides some entertaining gobbledegook.’

‘Over the course of the last 15 years, the art of the moment has become the dominant cultural force in much of the western world. Institutional behemoths such as the Tate and Guggenheim museums fill their spaces with the dream demographic: young people with money to spend. Auction prices spiral into lunatic realms. Art fairs combine the brashness of the supermarket with a conceptual trickiness that used to be the sole province of leisured intellectuals with too much time on their hands.’

Perhaps that ‘dream demographic’ likes to live on the knife-edge between cutting-edge culture and crass commercialism? On the one hand, reliance upon sheer numbers increases the risk of censorship—and SC13’s Etchells removed works by both Paul Yore (though Neon Parc Gallery quickly produced a ‘Free Paul’ T-shirt) and the gender-bending Tyza Stewart at Heiser Gallery. But numbers also allow delighted gallerists to show newcomers that art buying is not inherently different from buying shirts or potatoes. And this is reflected in the fact that entrepreneur Etchells also does fairs for fashion, brides and food; while the cutting-edge Carriageworks has just taken over management of the Eveleigh Farmers Market that abuts their railway sheds.

Installation view of Sydney Contemporary 13. Photograph Gunther Hang. 

Installation view of Sydney Contemporary 13. Photograph Gunther Hang. 

Installation view of Sydney Contemporary 13. Photograph Gunther Hang.