In 2005, designer Tobias Wong, working with fashion label Ju$t another Rich Kid, created a pair of unlimited edition gold-dipped ‘coke spoons’ using readily available objects often employed for drug administration: a Bic pen top (Coke Spoon 01) and a McDonlad’s stir stick (Coke Spoon 02). While Bic apparently took things in stride, the sovereign of addictive junk food was offended by this riff on their golden arches, and served Wong with a cease and desist notice. He duly came up with a replacement. Presented in a velvety black case, Coke Spoon 03 is a small gold cylinder (useful for rolling bills) engraved with five words in simple, cursive script: “All I want is more.”
This self-implicating comment on addiction, consumption, perpetual dissatisfaction and the fundamentally gratuitous nature of luxury goods could well be applied to New York’s art fairs, as the most recent Armory extravaganza palpably demonstrated. Launched in 1994, the fair quickly outgrew its Gramercy Hotel roots as more and more galleries applied to participate, and more and more people packed the aisles. It was accordingly transplanted to the piers. Now in its 18th year, the Armory is an over-ripe seedpod that has burst, scattering smaller versions of itself around the immediate vicinity. Its offshoots include Scope, Volta, Independent, and Moving Image. The hope, evidently, is that an antidote for the unmanageable glut of Armory can be found by launching more fairs.
The intention in creating—or importing—a new fair to coincide with the Armory must be some combination of desiring a piece of the pie and believing one can build a better fair (or, at least, provide something that is currently lacking). While the Armory leans heavily towards more established careers, Volta highlights emerging and so-far-overlooked artists, and is based entirely on solo projects. Independent states on its website that it was launched specifically as a fair run by and for gallerists. Scope, also in the emergent vein, presents itself as the young, hip fair, and in its pursuit of cool-over-corporate has gone so far as to instate a 26-year-old intern as director. Moving Image gives video art its own forum.
When it came down to it, the overall spectrum of work was not radically different from fair to fair. The exception was obviously Moving Image. Each of the others offered a thoroughly sifted mix of various media, from paintings to plug-ins. A number of trends were discernible across the board, in particular: early modern influences; tiny screens embedded in paintings and sculptures; a form of Juxtapoz magazine-esque Art Brut rendered in delirious color; serial miniatures. The underlying motivation appeared to be an effort to combine the perceived integrity of by-gone eras with the excitement of modern technology. And one can of course make sweeping generalizations: the work at the Armory was the most polished and confident, Scope’s was the most vibrant and devil-may-care, Independent had a certain rough, quirky character and Volta, true to stated form, seemed most like an Armory in waiting.
What was most viscerally demonstrated by this commercial conglomeration, though, is the impact architecture has on the way we experience art. It was very difficult to get past the low ceilings, fluorescent lighting and flimsy trade-fair walls at Volta—it was worse than the unending swathes of gray at the Armory Contemporary, by far. Scope, on the other hand, was set up in a bright tent that allowed plenty of natural light and featured polished wood floors, putting one in a much more agreeable frame of mind. Independent’s vertically stacked spaces at the tall ex-DIA building in Chelsea were most like a familiar gallery environment, which eased the heavy sense of ‘Marketplace’ that permeated the other three. Installing Moving Image in the Waterfront New York Tunnel was inspired. The series of screens both standing freely and suspended throughout the dim, brick, cavern-like space was evocative; it’s hard to imagine there could have been anything less engaging than flat screens placed in otherwise empty booths. In 1976, Brian O’Doherty published a hugely influential series of essays in Artforum, which were republished in 1999 as Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. In them, he thoroughly analyses and emphasizes the crucial role particularities of a gallery space—both physical and socio-economic—play in our comprehension of art. This perspective is now generally accepted. Regardless, unless prompted by an explicit designation of site-specificity, we rarely consider the structure of a given building when we discuss the art inside it. Armory weekend is a vivid reminder of how important this relationship is.
To return to the disheartening commercial spectacle of the contemporary art fair, it is worth considering that as damning as Wong’s Coke Spoons are, their very act of self-criticism asserts, paradoxically, that the potential artworks have to offer culturally valuable ideas is not automatically erased by their insertion into an economic market, no matter how voracious. This is not to say that the intention of all or any of the artworks displayed at the fairs this year was to criticize the commodification of art. But Wong’s pieces, which are now part of SFMOMA’s permanent collection, and which in an ideal (or at least more fun) world would be included free with every Armory purchase, do have a robust criticality that is broadly applicable. If we believe that art can transcend something so fundamental as object-ness there must be some potential for it to withstand a trade fair, even while situated inside of one.
However. Given that, as everyone is wont to lament, art fairs are a frustrating and anxiety-inducing environment in which to situate art, even (or particularly?) for the buyers and sellers, the pertinent question is, ‘How can we do this better’? How can we balance the need for galleries and artists to obtain the financial investment necessary for their existence with a respectful setting that emphasizes the qualities of art we value as opposed to inflating its vulnerabilities? It could be interesting if it were feasible for galleries to share space more often, if the many hundred flimsy walls could come down, allowing curation to extend beyond the white booth. As a first step, we need to continually question our quest for more. Ideally, art can offer more understanding, more questioning, more maturity, more experimentation, more ideological freedom, more social responsibility. It is far to often co-opted into providing more status symbols, more spin, more pretension, more ostentation, more contrivance. Ultimately, the most important thing major art fairs could afford us is a learning experience.