After attending both the Moving Image Contemporary Video Art Fair at the Waterfront Tunnel and The Independent in the old Dia:Chelsea building, I realized that art fairs and the art contained within them are suffering from the same problem as many recent major museum exhibitions: It’s nearly impossible to appreciate the art by itself without a detailed explanation of the artist’s background and motivations.
In both of these fairs, I found myself either standing reading highly detailed wall text or trying to find some badged gallerist to give me a vague explanation of the work. Before reading or listening to information about the artist or the piece, I would in most instances brush right by the pieces, writing them off as slightly boring, conventional or cold. However given explanations, certain works and I’m sure many others if I had the time and energy to ask everyone, became illuminated and even fascinating.
While I liked some of the work at both fairs and generally enjoyed the Independent, the art’s inability to stand alone without the artist’s bio and artist statement handy is worrisome and raises many questions about art’s apparent inability to stand alone since I’ve noticed a similar pattern in other institutions, notably the New Museum’s The Ungovernables, as pointed out by Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine.
For example, I would have unquestionably walked by Loredana Sperini’s small sculptures at the Freymond-Guth Ltd. Fine Arts booth at the Independent had I not randomly thought that the painted figures oddly resembled the mix of delicate, fragile figural sculpture and huge globs of paint in Michael Alan’s Living Installation, a performance piece involving sculptures as well as live performers. At first I was only slightly fascinated by the possible aesthetic connection between New York and Berlin, where Sperini lives and works. Even then it wasn’t until I decided to ask the director Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth about Sperini’s technique that I understood the power of the work and its incredible background.
Apparently outside of Berlin, there is still rubble from theWorld War II bombardments that people sift through to collect historical objects and other valuables. Sperini constructed these sculptures from broken and possibly bombed porcelain pieces. Fully understanding the medium and technique, these miniature sculptures have a hard-hitting, deep emotional and historical weight. After learning about Sperini’s process, I fell in love with the works that I probably would have forgotten about a few minutes later had I not asked more about them.
Even though I learned to love Sperini’s works, the pieces that I deeply responded to were the ones which required no supplemental explanation, such as Czech artist Eva Kotatkova’s dark and playful take on constructivism for Meyer Riegger. A fascinating installation with multiple collages on wire sculptures, opened wooden books and the walls painted black, “Re-Education Machine” was unquestionably the most fascinating piece in the fair. While her Czech-background and birth during the Velvet Revolution certainly illuminates the work, it was not completely necessary to understand the criticism of education and politics projected by the pieces.
Not as intriguing as the Independent but at least a little more accessible, the Moving Image Fair was tolerable until I realized that there is an insane amount of videos included in the fair. Hosted in the Waterfront Tunnel, the Moving Image Fair overwhelmed me with a seemingly endless amount of works lining both sides of the long, dark, crowded and frankly a little bit hallucinatory building. The amount of work made it almost impossible to relax and appreciate each individual film, turning what is normally a relaxing video art-viewing into a semi-torturous experience. Every time I wanted to focus on one film, I would become too distracted by something going on beside, in front or behind me, making me feel frustrated and unfocused.
Moving from video to video to video and reading the posted descriptions next to the televisions, I realized that the Moving Image Fair’s unfortunate installation points to a disjuncture between selling and viewing video art. Normally video art required the viewer to slow down, maybe sit down and take in a time-based work no matter the length of time the viewer chooses to watch. However, fairs tend to be fast-paced, which is completely antithetical to the idea of video art.
Even with the installation issues, I still found comfort in viewing some of my favorite artists’ work such as Hunter Reynolds’s “Mummification Heart Transformation” (2012), a psychedelic and moving film that uses footage of one of Reynolds’s Mummification performances last year.
Merging Downtown legend, opera singer and potential alien Klaus Nomi’s “The Cold Song,” which Nomi performed shortly before his death of AIDS-related complications, with Reynolds’s own wrapped performances that reference his own living with HIV/AIDS, the video becomes a somber and yet vibrantly colorful musing on illness, death and rebirth. The combination of Nomi’s haunting voice with the physical endurance of the Reynolds’s performance was powerful and jarring even in the cacophony of the fair.
Leaving the fairs and also speaking to other fair attendees, I wondered about this trend of inaccessible art. What can we glean from art that is near impossible to understand without knowledge of the artist? In art history courses, either rightly or wrongly, students are sometimes taught to understand the works independently from the artist’s life. Art should be able to be understood on a certain emotional level whether you know where the artist was born or not. And at this point, I’m unsure of whether to blame the curators, fair organizers or the artists themselves for this alienating trend.
The Moving Image art fair (269 Eleventh Ave. at 27-28 Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) and The Independent art fair (548 W 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) both continue until Sunday, March 11. They are both free.
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