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CT Art Fair on the slab

What makes a ‘good’ art fair? This is not a question I have posed to myself, as I most often work from the premise that they cannot be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because it would be pointless to apply any form of judgement to an event where its only measure of success even in art terms is tied to the sales figures at the conclusion. This could of course be said of any commercial exhibition, where the ‘success’ of the show might be reflected via the accumulation or absence of red dots. However, in the context of an exhibition, there is a discernable ‘body’ or statement that can be weighed in on and the sales at the end are only a reflection of the viewer’s perception of the value of that ‘body’. This is not the case with art fairs.

What is this ‘body’ that the art fair presents? There are small curated stands, featured artists and the like presenting a little flesh for the critic to pick at, but they are distractions from the real business of the art fair to some degree. If I stick with this body analogy in relation to the fair, these sorts of stands could be considered to be the fingers or toes – the touchy, feely extremities used to tickle and create connections with viewers.

At the Cape Town Art Fair (CTAF) this year this came in the form of two stands embracing juxtaposing art ‘periods’: the Past/Modern and Tomorrow/Today. These remained commercial stands and embracing the art fair model, present discrete stands belonging to different galleries. In this way Smac Gallery for example, used their stand in this area to show a collection of period works and galleries such as Johans Borman Fine Art, who are known for dealing in 20th Century work were accommodated in this area only. This Past/Modern idea presented a sly way of presenting works that would not fit into the rest of the fair so easily and with a special carpet covering the area, the (perceived) value of the works was enhanced. Is this is what it has come to – special carpets for valuable art? It was a bit of spatial (or décor) practice pinched from museum culture. Pity there was no other museum rigour in operation, pulling the exhibit together into a tighter show that was a little more descriptive than “past/modern”.

This is the thing with art fairs – the display mimicks other kinds of art events but in a very diluted hyper commercial manner. So it looks like something meatier than it actually is. Like the Tomorrow/Today stands – which ostensibly was designed to act as a platform for art from the continent – the new holy grail in the art world. Unfortunately, this remains an elusive goal; the stands that stood out were produced by locals, Kyle Morland and Lady Skollie. Exactly, why after the cold reception of ruby onyinyechi amanze’s (all lower case people ‘cos that is how she rolls) show at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg her work was showcased at the fair is anyone’s guess – a curator who maybe selects art via email?

It was a surprise to see that the Stevenson Gallery had taken a stand in the Past/Modern area and more amusing to discover that they were presenting Steven Cohen as a live relic with a guest appearance by the artist on the opening night. In a way it was a relief to see that the gallery has come to terms with the fact that Cohen and the ‘tenets’ (he has them) of his practice is of another era. This was driven home to me when I recently found myself cringing at Cohen’s unconscionable gall in parading his white privilege in a township setting in the Chandelier performance work, now on show at the SA National Gallery as part of Haydn Proud’s predictable exhibition on local art (that is another story worth tackling). Cohen wants to make his audience cringe, but when you cringe because you can perceive the artist’s blinkered ego at work it is not good. Whatever the politics surrounding that work, the titular chandelier and shoes from the exhibition were on show, as was the artist – clothed. Had he been paid to wear clothing? Not perform? Did he refuse to perform, or was he performing himself in an outfit that brought the Joker to mind? Whatever was at work, it made me cringe. Again. I would have much preferred to see Cohen reperforming Le Coq/cock in front of Ed Young’s Wank.