PRINT October 2005


ART FAIRS MAY NOT BE NEW but these days they are certainly more: more frequent, more crowded, more lucrative. With Miami and London joining Basel and New York as obligatory circuit stops, with artists decrying the constant pressure from dealers for fresh work, and with dealers bemoaning the drain on quality stock (never mind the toll of constant caravanning on the flagship operations back home), bristling under the big top has become an art-world way of life. Last season, indefatigable Chelsea cheerleader Jerry Saltz professed to sitting out the Miami and Frieze fairs “because these events make me feel existentially adrift.” A bit, in this particular case, like the head Heather boycotting her prom because the whole thing gives her a bad feeling, but, suspicions of disingenuousness aside, one knows what he means.

Maybe artists are simply made of sterner stuff than newspaper critics. I can’t say for sure, but while our sidelined scribe was nursing his battered sensibilities, artists—artists of a certain sort, anyway—were not only making the scene, they were literally commandeering the booths. I’ll stop short of heralding the great age of “Art Fair Art” (a toxic proposition, by most lights), but if you braved any of the recent fairs, you’ve guessed where this is going.

At Art Basel this past summer, Rirkrit Tiravanija, a newcomer to the new genre (if not to its contextualist spirit), bricked up the entrance to the otherwise-empty booth of Berlin dealer Neugerriemschneider, inscribing one cobble with a flourish of noncompliance: NE TRAVAILLEZ JAMAIS. Adapted for Basel from a 2001 gallery exhibition, Tiravanija’s theatrical work stoppage was but one of a fresh crop of responses to the concentrated context of the fair. Eight months earlier, at the second installment of London’s Frieze Art Fair, the Wrong Gallery (that near-simulacral organization whose home base consists of two glass doors in Chelsea and very little else) joined forces with Noritoshi Hirakawa to serve up an even more cold-blooded take on the art fair’s ecology: In plain view of the exposition’s dining concession, a hired model, hefty tome in hand, sat guard beside a recently minted bowel movement, ready to field questions regarding the dietary habits that yielded her mercifully tidy production. Call it the severe strain of Art Fair Art. I’m starting, after all, with the sensational over the substantial, but the double point I mean to make holds generally: While such maneuvers have nothing to do with the manageably marketable object, neither can Art Fair Artists be said to be squeamish when it comes to the touchy codependency of art and commerce, or the PR game they play like a hand of cards.

Artists, of course, have a way of pressuring the protocols that constrain—and sustain—their vocation, and so, at a moment when the art fair has achieved an unprecedented centrality in the marketing of contemporary art, it is not so surprising to find the “talent” nipping at the hand that feeds it. In this respect, Art Fair Art owes a good deal to a century of contextual experiment—from the readymade right through to the dematerial feints of Conceptualism and its offshoots in the present (namely institutional critique). Yet if in the context of this studious lineage Art Fair Art comes on a bit like a bull in a china shop, it is because the dominant gene in its artistic DNA comes courtesy of more mercurial parentage: I am talking, of course, about that great enabler/disabler of art today, Andy Warhol, but also about such dark-horse publicity whores as Yves Klein and Salvador Dalí. From AFA forerunner works like Guillame Bilj’s 1994 booth-as-lighting-fixture-emporium to John Armleder’s long-running, self-manned mini-stall at Art Basel, Art Fair Art has always been at least as enthralled with the shop window as it is skeptical of its tyranny. This, before my reader gives up on me, is the place for an apology: No shortage of lame art (and worse criticism) has been propped up on the overburdened pillars of the Warholian academy. The sublime Warholian sellout is easy to grasp but tougher to master (just ask Mark Kostabi!). The fact of the matter is that while it’s an after-Andy truism that the art system (of which the fair is simply the moment’s rawest, rudest manifestation) can be “performed”—as opposed to passively exploited (e.g., “regular” art) or actively analyzed (e.g., “institutional critique”)—there are inspired “performances” and there are rote and merely one-dimensional ones.

Compare, for instance, Tiravanija’s too-tidy tour de force with the mad and massive sleeper Anthony Burdin staged in Michele Maccarone’s booth at Frieze last year. To Tiravanija’s credit, there is something pure and brave (and expensive!) about closing up shop or, at any rate, turning an entire booth over to one elegant act of refusal. Yet to the Burdin camp, the stunt could only have appeared a slicker rehash of the L.A. artist’s earlier effort. Shut down by fair authorities when the volume of Burdin’s master mixing proved unpalatable to neighboring merchants, Maccarone’s padlocked pen served as a bunkered base for the “recording artist” throughout the exposition’s duration, a coil of razor wire strung atop the enclosure’s temporary walls in a fuck-you flourish. Both refusals count, of course, as much as coy come-ons as rebuffs. But where Tiravanija’s more absolute (but ultimately more familiar) move left his customers to circulate and schmooze—or simply move on—Burdin’s “Keep Out!” clubhouse was a ruse to make us want in. And inside is where he redeemed the AFA genre from the hovering charge of superficiality. If Burdin’s parrying with the collecting class—and the art-fair public more generally—stands apart, it is because his attention-grabbing ploy remained first and foremost a portal onto a broader culture (he would say “industry”—recording industry) in which his investment is anything but glib.

Far from ending where it began—in a line of frustrated shoppers banging at the makeshift gate—Burdin’s “performance” triangulated the proceedings, engaging the fairgoer on three related fronts: First, there was the circumstance of the barricaded booth (and the buzz it generated); second, the last-minute live show of Burdin’s signature “recording art,” which fair administrators added to the special events docket as reparations for shutting him down (more buzz); and last but certainly not least, there were the intimate acts of seduction that the artist/dealer duo performed during private audiences with newly won fans like me. The Burdin “trap” was as much a masterstroke of managed publicity as Tiravanija’s tomb, but one with a wildfire improvisatory edge. If Burdin’s signature plea that all is “performed” and everything a “performance” (including my own managed tête-à-tête in the darkened booth) is, on the one hand, no more than a commonplace of life as much as of art, when adopted in earnest it suggests an impossible wager—and an ethical imperative—with ramifications in practice both dangerous and exhilarating. Once inside the booth (and PR loop), the cat-and-mouse game that began in front of the boarded-up stall took on an urgency and intricacy that laid to rest any initial suspicions that the gesture was merely smug. One by one, the artist collared his captive fans and forced them down the rabbit hole into a strange new wonderland that begins with his covers of his own covers of rock anthems and then spirals out in a viral rhythm of sampling and rebranding that re-enchants the contracts and conventions by which artists produce and ply their wares. It is a spiral that includes the fair (as any art that makes its way through the machine of culture these days in some way must) but—and this is key—is not limited to it.

The news (and bad news, I suppose, for the apologists of solipsistic pen-and-ink fantasies and School of Tuymans oils, or whatever other back-to-art-basics merchandise fills the stalls these days) is that Art Fair Art (and, more important, the post-Pop performative efforts of which it is a subset) evinces, contra the bad-boy bum rap, a measure of complexity and contradiction. If one protests too much, it is because this complexity, where it does occur, is all too readily discarded with the bad-boy bathwater. And yet one wants it both ways. One wants, that is, to make a case for the conceptual traction of this art and for the tonic scumminess of the bathwater, itself the very lifeblood that courses through Art Fair Art’s veins. What I respect about Art Fair Art and what may finally set it off from so-called institutional critique (of which it is a subset, near neighbor, or antagonist, depending how you parse things) is that it is predicated on the realization that art, particularly art that presumes to stand in some critical—or better, simply revealing—relationship to the institutions to which it is bound, cannot exist at a supposedly purifying distance from the point-of-purchase universe. Where critical hand-wringing over the evils of the fair has done little more than serve up a few crowd-pleasing indictments of that old bogeyman “the market,” the Art Fair Artist penetrates commerce’s inner sanctum, “performs” the fair by donning the guise of the carnival shill, and in so doing defamiliarizes the fair by making the usual mercantile, critical, and social exchanges strange and even (who would have thunk it!) magical. Poor choice of words perhaps: Capital (AFA’s greatest subject, as it was Warhol’s) is nothing if not bewitching, though, it must be said, some artists make the chimeras dance.

“As we are only documenting these works, we have not even tried to install this work here at the fair,” chanted a pair of perfectly enchanting children as I entered the booth belonging to the Wrong Gallery at the inaugural Frieze fair back in 2003. Titled This Is Right, the demonstration was the work of AFA old master Tino Sehgal, who trained as a dancer and economist, his apologists love to remind us—as if it were a badge of integrity in the flimsy world of art. The baby dealers bounced about the booth, fulfilling their unlikely charge by helpfully offering dimensions, edition size, price, etc., for five different works available for sale. But as one reached for a camera to capture this refreshing version of the art of the deal, the youthful merchants collapsed to the floor yelling, “We don’t think it is appropriate to take pictures of our work!” Conceptual art, perhaps, but, in its crisp theatrics and surplus charm, somehow unlike any I’d ever seen before.

Sehgal loves a fair. Well, he never said that, but, as early champion Jens Hoffman noted, he is at least as fascinated by the fair’s mercantile machinations as he is repulsed by its commercial imperative. Thus, it’s telling that Sehgal bristles against his critique-minded apologists who, in a more purposive version of knee-jerk antimarket sentimentalism, carry on as if the market were indeed an evil from which one could simply exempt oneself. If, for instance, Sehgal uses a word such as “deproduces” (with all its Marxian flavor) to characterize the ephemeral enunciations that constitute his practice (he leaves behind no objects, permits no documentation, and only sells his work by verbal contract in the presence of a notary), he nonetheless chafes under the pressure of efforts to bring his art in line with the antimarket idealism of historical Conceptualism. In fact, he is ever careful to pair the term “deproduces” with something like its dialectical counter “produces,” his placeholder for the new spaces his gestures may—and often do—open up. The point for Sehgal, as for Burdin, is to work the market, not to disappear it. But if for Burdin all is “performance,” Sehgal refuses the term as a designation for his scripted interventions, wary as he is of the necessarily domesticating undertow that attends an art-historical tag like “performance art.” If surface differences between the artists abound—if Seghal, for instance, is more conventionally bookish than Burdin, his art more tidily in line with the Conceptual pedigree—a closer look at the pair reveals a shared purpose.

My point is not to polemicize against the institutional critique to which Sehgal’s debt is obvious and real (the “them” to my AFA “us” has to do not with the “critique” but rather the “institution” it has itself become). Rather, I mean to claim for Art Fair Art (and the broader post-Pop performative impulse of which it is a part) a more incisive purchase on what it entails to play the game—in this case, the fair, with its concentrated audience and PR particulars—as opposed to retreating to the sanctity and safety of the ivory tower. Sehgal, like any Art Fair Artist worth the price of a VIP preview ticket, goes for the rudest wound. It’s telling that rather than setting his sights on those sitting ducks, the gallery and the museum, he has tackled not just the fair but that newer “institution,” the peripatetic freelance curator. In this respect, he is, it seems plain, a step ahead of the well-meaning IC academy. Here Sehgal is improbably allied with institutional-critique spokesperson Andrea Fraser. Another strong artist who’s not afraid to get down and dirty with her context, she makes her best work precisely when testing the polite protocols of the critical clique over which she presides. A recent piece in which the artist copulates with a collector has occasioned all manner of hand-wringing among her apologists, many of whom undoubtedly feel she’s gone and spoiled everything with her “tacky” stunt.

When I told one longtime Sehgal supporter of my article’s conceit, he quickly retorted that, for Sehgal, “Art Fair Art was finished,” a sentiment that the artist later refused to endorse as a general truth, though he did concede it had run its course as far as his own work is concerned. Oh for the high-period of Art Fair Art! There was Sehgal, of course, and Burdin’s bunkered recording rituals, and Piotr Uklański’s ballsy tag BOLTANSKI / POLANSKI / UKLANSKI graffitied across the back wall of Gavin Brown’s booth (did the flowering of the Leipzig School precede or follow the Warsaw Renaissance? this ethnic triumvirate seemed to tease). Through the murky lens of our current belatedness, even relatively tepid examples of the genre come with a patina of priority, whether Roman Ondák’s artificially created queues in London last year; Pawel Althamer’s personal pup tent attached to the Frieze big top in Regent’s Park; or Vanessa Beecroft’s mise-en-scène featuring a cast of a nude woman made “to be placed on the desk of a powerful man,” in this case a booth-bound hired model.

Can it be that the glory days of this still-youthful genre are really already behind us? This month, the third installment of Frieze, mother fair of the AFA movement, will offer a fresh opportunity to assess the state of the art. The Wrong Gallery (aka Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick) will once again bring their three-ring schtick to London at the behest of the fair’s organizers. As officially appointed commissioning agents instrumental in nurturing the AFA renaissance, the trio has orchestrated a multiyear meta–Art Fair Art “performance,” which, when taken in toto, may well constitute the Rokeby Venus of the genre. If their presentation of Hirakawa’s exalted dump was a tad too—yuck!—easy, the tale of their invented family as creative cell and ubiquitous behind-the-scenes puppeteers is the real mirror of our tent community.

Cattelan, as his ubiquity and reach suggest, has learned Warhol’s lessons well. The Andy I have in mind is not the painter of icons, but the Andy of the extra-white-cube prestidigitations, or, more to the point, the Andy who managed the delicate ecology that enabled him to accommodate both the paintings and the business art machinations under one indelible brand, claiming in the process his whole world for his capacious art. By fair time this month, the second edition of the Wrong Times, a self-published broadsheet, will be circulating in the aisles of the Regent’s Park tent, but Cattelan’s branding triumph does not end at the fair turnstiles: A concern that goes by the bad pun Cerealart will shortly offer a mini Wrong Gallery for home use via the web (whoever purchases the “toy,” explains gallery principal Subotnick, “becomes a Wrong dealer”). And, in a business-art coup that should secure Cattelan’s status as the Richard Branson of the Passerby set, London’s Tate Modern is letting the opportunistic virus loose among its esteemed holdings. Early in the coming year, the museum plans to transplant the Wrong Gallery’s original glass door from Chelsea to a wall on the third floor where it will reopen for business (art) with an exhibition program involving invited artists and, perhaps, work from the Tate collection. In a testament to Cattelan’s Svengali-like might, the museum’s in-house coordinator Ann Coxton has sportingly assumed the title of Gallery Janitor, ceding curatorial control to Cattelan and crew.

The ABC’s of art in the post-Warholian, postperformative present are simple: The success of Cattelan’s one-in-every-home routine depends on a reciprocity (I almost said “dialectic”) between the broad proliferation of extra-art activities and the museum-ready icons that provide the freewheeling brand a graphic and institutional identity. Like Andy, Cattelan never forgets a simple, structural truth (and I mean this without cynicism): The whole viral apparatus hangs on a picture hook—on a couple of wooden bars stretched up with canvas and stamped with a soup can—or, in his own case, on a stack of taxidermied beasts or an army of waxwork Mini-Mes. The much-discussed spike in his auction prices was only the extravagant payoff of this well-managed system, and, as such, the best joke on the need for an object to hang the art on, for an “oeuvre,” in short, to hold the whole evil empire in poise.

Lame art (and worse criticism)? Except when it works: Cattelan has clones (like Warhol’s Factory minions, cuter than he); Cattelan has a magazine—or two or three (Permanent Food and, with Gioni and Subotnick, the Wrong Times and Charley); Cattelan is friends with the enemy (the art fair!); and Cattelan even has his own gallery (Wrong), which, it would seem to follow, makes him a dealer, or rather, in keeping with his admittedly unorthodox operation, an anti-, non-, or metadealer. Here one arrives at another AFA lesson: Once art is business and business art, the dealer as silent partner becomes—contra the taboo—an active collaborator, as, for instance, Jeffrey Deitch’s persistent AFA instigations make plain, and Maccarone’s full-dress burlesque of the Kelly-bag class makes poetry. (You have glimpsed her, I trust, working the aisles: Archetypal telephone screamer, glued to her cell, she sports, yes, a Kelly bag.) Artist John Armleder’s self-manned mini-booth at Art Basel claims precedence here as a slow-burn masterpiece of AFA’s Janus-faced artist/dealer symbiosis. For as long as anyone can remember, he has set up camp in a tiny stall on an outer ring of booths. There, year after year, the courtly figure with the single braid pours champagne to celebrate the work of decidedly unblue-chip talents in this decidedly blue-chip context, holding up a low-budget mirror to the big-budget market.

In true business-art high style, today’s artist/dealers and dealer/artists are fully complicit with the entrepreneurs who operate the fair, providing a validating service in the form of a new breed of “special” projects available only at the fair, thus insuring the attendance of not just shoppers but that market-wary middleman, the critic. Such projects have their roots in the booth-specific presentations that began to proliferate back at the Gramercy Art Fair (the Deitch-curated “Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Salon,” for example, or Thomas Hirschhorn’s foil-tentacled Swiss army knife), though I would stop short of classifying these earlier efforts as Art Fair Art, which, if true to form, must do more than simply use the fair as a stage. It must make the fair—its mechanisms and machinations—the subtext, if not the central plotline, of its play. Taking this value-adding strategy to new heights, Sam Keller, director of the fair of fairs, Art Basel, is nudging his Art Unlimited section even further in the fair-exclusive direction. Formerly a graveyard for objects too cumbersome for cash-and-carry sales, Unlimited’s application-only, top-dollar floor space is now allocated and organized by a (real!) curator, turning a once-dead museum attached to the live fair into a living museum, a museum that shows, you guessed it, Art Fair Art. Last summer’s Unlimited announcement card even featured a dour (read black-and-white) photographic teaser for Marina Abramović’s vanitas burlesque—a performance in which the prone, naked artist spent three hours embracing a human skeleton on a raised platform at the entrance to the champagne-addled vernissage, all within earshot of uniformed percussionists strumming a giant Doug Aitken sculpture-cum-xylophone. A humanized version of the Hirakawa potty project, Abramović’s stunt remains, to my mind, a billboard one-liner sans the complexity I have been militating for. It may have been compelling as theater, but it lacked the viral connections that emerged, for instance, from Burdin’s staging of both his passage through the fair and the rhythm of sampling and rebranding that motors his larger project, just as it missed the depth of infiltration (of the fair and art system more generally) reflected in Cattelan’s hall of mirrors.

Either all art today is Art Fair Art, as a colleague recently teased, or there is no such thing as Art Fair Art in the first place. Both are true, I will gladly own, as my purpose has never been, beyond the fun of striking a movement-making posture, to suggest that Art Fair Art is more than a local hiccup in the larger tendency of performing the present, which I do believe to be among the most serious currents in contemporary art. My investment in this new nonmovement, in short, runs no deeper than the unsentimental exploits of those artists who engage the fair as an inevitable part of their world. They pass through the fair and make art out of both it and—in a Möbius twist—its place in their own ascension into brand namedom. This is a passage that, in unusual cases, and on account of the depth and truth of what these artists perform, accrues a ritual urgency, recharming and remythifying our relationship to the world—including harsh climes like the fair—which is to say, they make it real.

Jack Bankowsky is editor at large of Artforum.