Here’s the thing about Art Brussels, Belgium’s primary art fair for contemporary art: you really, really want to like it. The earnestness and genuine desire of the fair’s directorial team – business director Anne Vierstraete and artistic director Katerina Gregos – are everywhere evident, as is their goal of creating a fair for “cutting edge” contemporary art. And it does, after all, position itself as the “‘discovery” fair, the “cutting edge” fair, the place where one can identify artists at the beginning of their careers.
But at its 32nd edition, held from April 24-27, it was not entirely clear that it actually works. This may in part reflect the over-proliferation of art fairs generally, a situation that makes it harder for anything but the most knockout gallery stands, showing the very best of the artist they represent, to make much of an impact. But sadly, too, it reflects the fact that an awful lot of the galleries at Art Brussels this year just didn’t seem to be trying very hard. And it reflects, too – and it pains me to say this – the fact that the fair’s organizers seem to be so busy trying to be different from all the other art fairs that they are not looking at the key features that they would be well advised to replicate – touches that make a serious difference in the way one experiences the fair overall.
Notably absent, for instance, and a source of many complaints from visitors, was adequate signage throughout the fair; and decent catering services --there was almost nowhere to eat, and VIPs were even asked to pay for their food in the VIP lounge during the VIP preview – a stingy decision on the part of fair organizers which may well cost them some repeat visits for next year. (And what, please, is the point of having a wine sponsor – in this case, Ruinart, if they charge guests for the wine even at the opening?)
Absent, too, was a solid sense of effort or excitement. Many galleries seemed to have given the fair only half an effort, and extremely few provided top-quality works, even in the “Prime” section (in which one could find, among a couple of big names like Marlborough and Gladstone, quite a number of less-than-prime galleries, generally known only locally.)
The result is a fair that, in the end, offers not very much. It is eminently miss-able in the crowded calendar of art fairs, save for the sheer pleasure of being in Brussels in the first place. The art is largely mediocre, even coming from the established galleries in what the organizers call the “Prime” section, and much, sad to say, of the art by “young discoveries” at “Young” and “First” (which comprise about half the fair) is just, in a word, bad. It has no place in a well-respected art fair like Art Brussels, which only leads visitors – and I was not alone in this – to wonder whether Art Brussels should be quite as respected as it now is. Indeed, if there is a quality threshold for galleries applying to the “Young” and “First” sections, it was, this year, at least, awfully difficult to find.
That said, there were some knockouts that made the fair worth the trip for those who do not always visit the smaller European fairs and are looking to find new trends and new galleries: a breathtaking cobalt blue Anish Kapoor hemisphere at Axel Vervoordt that is, as all such Kapoors are, thoroughly mesmerizing. It is the kind of work that makes me fall in love with Anish Kapoor all over again, losing consciousness in the universe within its depth. (Strong interest in the work, priced at €750,000, was evident from the first half hour of the VIP preview.) And at Lelong, David Nash’s powerful installation of bronze “Humps” – boulders that appear as if they were of burned wood, produced in editions of four – created a kind of superworld, an art landscape to become lost in.
Other offerings might particularly appeal to beginning collectors; to those with little opportunity to see the offerings of galleries from the Middle East (exceptionally strong here); and to fans of highly conceptual video-and-installment-based art . Any of these might indeed happily spend a day at Art Brussels and even bring some works back home. Because to its credit, Brussels does something other fairs do not, which is to provide a stage for experimental, non-conventional art, the kinds of Conceptual pieces you will usually find only in non-profit spaces on the outer fringes or collected and extolled by the kinds of organizations Americans and traditionalists (like me) shy away from. Brussels/London-based MOT International is a perfect example of this: their booth featured works by Turkish artist Nil Yalter (also featured at the stand of Istanbul’s Galerist), Dennis Oppenheim, and Ulay. And indeed, despite how difficult these artists tend to be for most, the gallery found new owners for a canvas by Elizabeth Price and for signs, videos, and installation works by Laure Prouvost.
The thing is not to sell
Spring was also very much in the air at this year’s edition, found in cheerful, pastel colors, ranging from Carlos Aire’s fun “This Is Not Just Fucking Business” (the phrase, each letter laser-cut from international currency, repeated over and over in blues and greens and reds) for €15,000 at ADL Galeria to a shower of Peter Halley paintings – including a trio in bright, make-you-want-todance neon blues, pinks, and purples at Galeria Senda and a robin’s egg-blue Anish Kapoor piece at Gladstone.
What caught my own eye, mostly, however, were the aforementioned Middle East galleries and artists from the region, such as the Egyptian Susan Hefuna at London-based Rose Issa (who sold one of her paper cut pieces during the preview); Sheren Guirguis at Dubai’s The Third Line and a wide selection of the offerings at Dubai’s Green Gallery. (Full disclosure: I ended up buying a work there by Caracas-born Alessandro Balteo Yazbek.) While all made sales the first night, Rose Issa explained, I think, what most brings these galleries – perhaps all the participating galleries -- to show at Art Brussels: “The thing is not to sell,” she said. “It is to make the artists known here. That is the most important thing.”