Repetition Is Strength
Despite the explosive growth of art fairs in recent years, many, if not most, dealers still tend to view them as something like colonoscopies: drawn-out, unpleasant experiences that they nevertheless have to endure to guarantee their health. Plenty of others in the industry also bemoan the circuit's reliance on "art-fair art"––the predictable mixture of branded artists and instant-impact work that dominates booths from New York to Beijing.
But even if there's value to both buyers and sellers in focusing on unsurprising inventory (as I've written before), is there more room for creativity in the standardized format of the art fair itself? At least at the top level, these events consistently bring together some of the greatest talents in contemporary art. Isn't it an enormous missed opportunity to essentially shoe-horn their works into a never-ending series of blue-chip cubicle farms?
This is one of the questions raised by benevolent provocateurs Elmgreen & Dragset's new exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. Opening Sunday, "The Well Fair" is a satirical installation that takes the form of a typical art fair: a gridded sea of rectangular white booths, each one exhibiting works chosen (theoretically) to tell its own story. Rather than being sourced from other artists, though, the works are all selected from Elmgreen & Dragset's past 20 years of high-concept mischief-making.
Not surprisingly, Michael Elmgreen explained to The Art Newspaper that the duo's intention was to create an immersive riff on the endless déjà vu experience of the standard fair––and to ask if there might be another way forward:
[Art fairs] could definitely improve and be developed into something more challenging. As it stands, the procedure of the art fair is rather repetitive––like decorating the Christmas tree the same way every year.
Elmgreen is right, of course. But as I suspect he and his partner both know, there's a reason that fair organizers keep building the same hamster wheel.
The industry works hard to diamond-dust over it, but underneath the spectacle and rhetoric, art fairs are still what they began as: trade shows. With a few possible exceptions, they do not exist to push boundaries, upend expectations, or inspire creativity. They exist to move product.
Why is this important? Because the trade show's job is to streamline the pitch process into its most ruthlessly efficient form. And one dependable way to do that is to create an environment that filters out every other stimulus except the potential deal. (Incidentally, the same principle guides casino design.)
For buyers and sellers alike then, the perverse appeal of art fairs is that they know exactly what to expect almost every time: an urbane sprawl of miniature white cubes all hocking recognizable product. Locking the format in place means both sides can just get down to business. And at these events––at least, outside of "The Well Fair"––business is all that matters.
So again, Elmgreen is correct: Art fairs are "rather repetitive." But they're repetitive by design. Because in this environment, repetition is strength.