It shouldn’t be news that the ‘art fair’ phenomenon works entirely on the level of capitalization and commodification of art – nor that vital political and social content gets particularly flattened and politely repackaged for sale in this context. The art fair as a system of commerce and control, indeed, in many cases seems to militate against the very content it puts forward. It is saddening but not suprising, for example, that any response or reaction to this week’s appalling New York grand jury verdict was virtually absent – at least in my experience at the fairs – from discussion or action, even and especially, by artists.
This is a vast topic destined for another post, but I want for the moment to look at one work at Art Basel that I think embraces a strategy to begin confronting art fair structure on the level of its architectural form.
To me this show ‘stopper’ at Art Basel was Urs Fisher’s installation at Sadie Coles Projects. Hundreds of organic, pellet-shaped green pods suspended from the hall roof engulfed the space. Distributed densely but evenly throughout the booth, it created the effect of a kind of invasion and colonization of a space usually reserved for easy human interaction. Even the walls of the booth, hung handsomely with Coles’ other artists, were virtually inaccessible to viewers – except as viewed through, and altered by, the suspended arrangement of same-sized, weird, quasi-teardrop shaped things.
Visually arresting with its photosynthetic early-spring green, and formally non-hierarchical with its distribution beyond the easy edges of the booth space, Fisher’s work drew an awe-seeking crowd hungering, it seems, for sublime rapture. But this effect was countered by another one, for those same sublime-seekers were frustrated in their appeals to ‘get in’ to the space: Fisher’s pods had excluded them, reserving the large box of the booth for itself. The result was a subtle critique of the art fair space of commerce. Who’s in? Who’s out? Do I ride the aisle, or do I need access? Either way, Fisher’s work frustrates, situating the art fair goer in an untenable position – the aisle-huggers find their space and safe distance encroached upon, and the ‘art-divers’ are relinquished to the sideline. And always, the eye is brought back to the innocuous little suspended seeds, the soothing green sea of light and form.
Fisher’s work is memorable not because of its formal choices or even for the critique above, but because it was one of the few truly disruptive moments in an otherwise numbing experience – not because of the art, which to a work is fascinating, but because of the architectural choices: rows upon rows of evenly spaced boxes arranged in a organized, easily controlled grid of interaction, human movement squeezed through passages, caught up momentarily in pods, squeezed again into a tireless, lazy momentum. If you want engage with art, you need to fight through the ennui-enducing stupor of this mode of circulation, where everything and everyone has been reduced to a brush with brief sensory contact. This is the result, though, not of (in)effective architecture or space design (indeed there is absolutely no nod to contemporary architecture’s willingness to confront, engage and overturn these very issues in the fair design), but in allowing capital to effect the design, where every square foot and allocation of booth space for works is reduced to profit potential analysis.
In my view Fisher’s work was (perhaps unintentionally) able to help viewers confront and consider this space – the consideration of architectural space as space of artfair commerce – and open a portal into a real encounter with capital’s wish for that space.