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Wading through the crowded opening of the Independent Art Fair, held in the former Dia:Chelsea building with its ridiculously narrow stairway, I found myself doing more reading than gazing at art. While this was partly due to the inclusion of Printed Matter, the seminal alternative book and zine store that sustained massive losses from Hurricane Sandy, it was also because the galleries and nonprofit spaces in the Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook–founded art fair leaned heavily on conceptual works.
Peering over fair attendees’ heads to read artist Jill Magid’s plan to have her body made into a diamond after her death at Zurich’s RaebervonStenglin booth, I began to question whether a fair is the right place for this type of art. As a whole, most text-based, as well as conceptual, art has an implicit institutional, market, or political critique. Can art that is meant to critique the market or institutions work in an art-fair setting, which is possibly the most consumer-driven experience?
In Magid’s amusing and morbid “Auto Portrait Pending” (2005), she displays various agreements, both beneficiary and corporate, assuring that when she dies, her body will be transformed into a diamond, made from her cremated remains. Along with the contracts, Magid also presents the ring in which her diamond will be set. Shocking and oddly unsettling, it anticipates her final and eternal self-portrait.
At Bureau’s booth, photographer Erica Baum, who has investigated our understanding of language by documenting library card catalogues and folded book pages, plays with the separation between text and song. Her photographs of pages from the rolls of player piano music give the minimalistic dots and dashes an abstract quality, even though they have a practical significance as the origin of the piano’s sounds. Placed alongside the musical notes, the backwards sentences in Baum’s photographs, such as “I Cling to Each Word” or “I’m Tired of Looking at the Four Bare Walls,” have a double meaning as both a possible artistic critique and song lyrics.
Another text-based artist represented at the fair is institutional provocateur Mark Flood, at Peres Projects. It’s hard to talk about witty, text-driven. contemporary institutional critique without including Flood’s work. Peres Projects exhibited several of his recent black-and-white pieces, including “Click and Redeem” (2013), which mocks the internet economy along with the immediacy of the art market. Presented alongside another acrylic painting, which reads “Mom Died,” the work took on a somber, if not outright dark, tone.
Not all the conceptual or text-based art was on the Independent walls; Broadway 1602 featured “ARTCASH” (1971) by members of Experiments in Art and Technology, an organization that included high-profile artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman. For “ARTCASH,” participating artists created money, such as Andy Warhol’s one-dollar and Rauschenberg’s twelve-dollar bills. Along with documentation from the original “ARTCASH” piece from 1971, which included quotes from Warhol and uncut papers of the original bills, Broadway 1602 printed more of the “art cash” and encouraged fair attendees to participate in a round of blackjack.
While I loved learning about the “ARTCASH” project, I did question whether the Independent was the proper place for this type of art historical work. Even though the issue of money in art is always timely, particularly during a week of countless fairs, the piece seemed rather out of place in the Independent’s ambience. Then again, maybe Warhol said it best in the quote displayed on the wall of Broadway 1602’s booth:
I didn’t want to sign my name but they made me. I made mine very easy to copy because everyone should have money.
While I noticed a lot of text-based and conceptual art, there were other works that caught my eye, such as Jack Lavender’s mixed media assemblages at London’s The Approach. I enjoyed his paintings filled with detritus that reminded me of scrapped-together bird’s nests, but it was Lavender’s hanging assemblages, constructed of found objects from CDs to cut carpets and chains, that added a colorful boost to the fair.
Although at first they seem like fairly nondescript abstract paintings, the works by Belgian collective Leo Gabin (made up of Lieven Deconinck, Gaëtan Begerem, and Robin De Vooght) at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery were absolutely fascinating once the silkscreened images were revealed, such as the house in the bottom left corner and the car in the top right of “Shoulda Stood Dip” (2013). By taking found images and placing them into traditionally abstract paintings, Leo Gabin plays with the notion of authorship and the assumed separation between the abstract and the real.
I enjoy conceptual art and text-based works, but I wonder whether their placement at an art fair like the Independent, which is highly trafficked given its accessibility in Chelsea and its free admission, makes sense. While these pieces do undermine and offer significant critiques of the art-world system that includes fairs, they also require time for the viewer to examine their documentation and process their meanings. At least in my experience, deep thinking does not often happen at art fairs, where the motivation is usually to see as many artworks as possible in a jam-packed space.
The Independent Art Fair took place March 7–10 at 548 West 22nd Street (Chelsea, Manhattan).