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Middle East

Purple Prose : Abu Dhabi Art Fair / Art Fairs In General


All I can remember about the Abu Dhabi Art Fair 2013 is purple.
Purple klieg searchlights traced the already lilac sky as sunset descended on Saadiyat Island, the chi-chi location of the Fair. Saadiyat is a beautiful beachfront area outside Abu Dhabi’s dense and vertically vertiginous downtown and is a bit like the “vibe” of going to the Southampton Art Fair to chill after the more intense line-ups of the Armory, Basel, Frieze, et al.

purpleprose 1

Purple (not red) carpets greeted Shaikhs and Shaikhas, dealers, hookers, advisors and already tipsy hangers-on at the packed to the rafters VIP cocktail opening.

All “swag” was emblazoned with the Abu Dhabi Art Fair logo, in yup, purple. In the VIP “lounge” one was invited to “lounge” on the floor strewn with cushions in, ...purple.

Upon leaving this fairy-lit tent, one felt the urge to take a “wash the wealth off” shower” - so covered was one with the scent of avarice competing with the scent emanating from banks of hothouse orchids, in... say it with me now.... PURPLE.
One can only hope that 2014 may be bathed in a more soothing tone as most of us that lived through the 1980s gratefully had come to the incorrect conclusion that Purple (along with Prince’s Purple Rain, shoulder pads, perms and wrap dresses) were gone for good.

Even using Art Dubai as a comparison on the OTT richter scale - with its Sushi bar, Cartier Tents, and floating party barges on the canals at the Maadinat Jumeirah Hotel - the Abu Dhabi Art Fair seemed, where art is concerned, more akin to an idea of a substantive art fair, wreathed in smoke and mirrors, than a real one. Even at Art Dubai, perhaps because of the physical spreading out of Dubai Modern, Contemporary Halls and the media and Art Prize spaces, one can at least choose what to concentrate on, and what to miss.

As example of why Abu Dhabi could be great, but is not quite there yet, can be illustrated by an experience I had in one of the art tents. As I circled, slightly lost and visually off-balance, I caught a glimpse of a tiny, gorgeous statue on a pedestal in a perspex case.

The problem was that the case was encircled by booths replete with neon-sign art, installations of neon-colored piled-up sheesha pipes, and literally mirrors all around.

I walked up to the case to get a better look. When I peered in to get a better look, there- completely dwarfed by the visual cacophony around them - were three of Giacometti’s rare, miniature maquettes.

purpleprose 2Miniature Giacometti Sculptures

The one that I had nearly missed was the Swiss master’s Walking Man - the sculpture that stunned the art world by selling, at full-size, for over $100 million. The sensation of seeing this jewel in the junkyard was a bit like straining to hear Puccini playing softly on a radio in the middle of a techno rave.

I tried to ask the dealer, French, or perhaps Swiss, a few questions about them. He shouted in French. I shouted in English. We both gave up and he, with a quintessentially French world-weary shrug, Gauloise dangling, gave me the instantly recognizable French facial expression that translates to: “Tres, tres, difficile, But what can ya do?”

However, there is a (color-aside, and yes, pun-intended) serious point about not only the Abu Dhabi Fair, but Art Dubai and the satellite fairs run by Art Basel - plus perhaps as importantly, the smaller, fledgling fairs cropping up in Beirut, Singapore, Vancouver - or pretty much any spot on the atlas with two or more hotels, and within 100 miles of anyone with a Black Amex card.

purpleprose 3The Chair Tumbling - Installation - Abu Dhabi Art Fair 2013

Do buyers, sellers, academics, and anyone else grouped under the umbrella “art professionals” learn anything useful about each other at these events?

The argument for Art Fairs is that the currently sagging Contemporary art market needs to move “merch” - and can no longer do so in a bricks and mortar gallery in one of the traditional art capitals. The less convincing argument from dealers is that everyone does them, so so must I.

The problem with this argument is that by dragging the same “merch” around the world, to show to the same “buyers” - at intervals not long enough to refresh inventory and push re-start - there is always the risk that the head will catch up to the tail.

There is not enough fresh material for the market; and as the material that does exist is continually “shopped” at Fairs, at auction, online, sellers run the risk that even “newbie” collectors will suss out the fundamental hole in the age-old economic model of supply and demand.

As transparency is also buttressed by access to more and better price information - via the net - anyone with a brain should begin to see that either prices have to come down on what is available, or nothing more will become available.

When this happens, the contemporary art market, still a small one, compared to other industries, will march itself right around the globe into a final implosion - or perhaps better, a margin stalemate, fueled by cultural misunderstanding as well as Macro-Econ 101.

Leaving the commercial aside for the moment (which is, in fact, the nature of their business - COMMERCE. Sorry boys and girls.), there is perhaps a more valid argument for the Art Fair merry-go-round to continue.

purpleprose 4Works by Lalla Essaydi - Image, Abu Dhabi 2013

To take it to a revolutionary level, if it was up to me, art fairs would not be commercial events at all.

They would be more like culture /art speed-dating, where people who make art, sell art, buy art and put together art collections would meet and discuss calmly and soberly what it is that they do want and how much they are willing to sell it for and or pay for it

Then, in Part II, those who are selling, could sell. They could in a post-party atmosphere then discreetly and deliberately and with laser-focus sell works of art to those who are buying what they want to buy, not what they are “told” to appreciate.
I realize that this Utopian simplification of the contemporary art market and art fairs will never come.

Indeed, who really wants it to? As much as the collective “bitching” about having to “do’ art fairs goes on, everybody does them. And moreover, they secretly enjoy the invites to the sought-after museum dinners, and the people-watching. And in some cases, if they were given truth serum, they would admit that even with all the downside, Fairs give them the opportunity to see a great deal of art and people who love art all in one place at one time.

Therefore, I will leave my kill-joy solution to the side for the moment yet without leaving behind my fundamental thesis, best illustrated by a recent conversation I had with one of the most sophisticated and seasoned art dealers in the world. We were talking about his participation for the first time at Art Basel Hong Kong.

He told me that he had asked colleagues what sort of pictures he should bring. In unison they gave him what he now realizes was a knee-jerk, cliched response: “Anything that reeks of ‘Brand’.” Think Prada paintings for Chanel sling-back collectors.
And so he brought “obvious” art, more suited to retail shoppers than to connoisseurs. What happened surprised him. None of these sold. In fact, he sold just one piece, a “gem” small, watercolor by Cezanne. So much for stereotyping the Chinese art collectors of Hong Kong.

And perhaps lesson learned re: pre-judging the tastes and appetites of any group of which little is known by the “old school” New York, London or Zurich dealers and auction houses.

This brings me to the essential question. Why do dealers guess at cultural predilections or taste? Why would they not do their homework and just ask? And ask the experts from the region where they are hoping to sell rather than the experts from the region from where they are to begin with.

If one assumes that things will remain as they are today, with art fairs mushrooming - auction houses morphing into private dealers, artists pulled - as they have always been- between market forces and their personal creative needs, the final question is:

Does physically bringing art from one geographical region to another, and physically bringing the clamor from one geographical region to another, actually teach anyone anything about something about which they knew little before?

Do the “players” want to learn? Do they have the patience, and/or the ability to take off blinders of cultural stereotyping and learn to “read” their audiences by listening, rather than by preaching?

Or is it in the nature of the beast to arrogantly assume that what one likes oneself, others should like it too, and if they don’t, well then they don’t “get it” or they haven’t been “educated.” This is the cynical view. I am hoping that the reality lies, at present, somewhere in between.

One watches and wonders whether the whole thing a farcical disconnect where cliques of Euros stick with cliques of Euros, cliques of Middle East royalty stick with cliques of Middle East royalty, cliques of LA hipsters stick with cliques of LA hipsters - circling each other, ever closer, but never getting to know one another any better through ART. Remember art? This universal medium that is supposed to transcend geopolitical boundaries, create, ugh, I am going to say it “dialogue” and promote understanding and, if a perfect world, grow the worldwide market through respectful and peaceful co-education.

In short, is the contemporary art market still Junior High? Or, is it High School (i.e. more tolerance, more listening, more cross-over, “Electives”!!!).

Or, miraculously, is it, or will it ever be, University or Post Graduate Seminars- where the fundamentals have been mastered- and the complexities can finally be addressed, debated and enjoyed. The answer varies depending on who one is talking to.

It has by now been written about “ad nauseum” by art-world journalists that everyone agrees that there are too many art fairs. (These articles of course sourced by journos on expense accounts, at art fairs, quoting aforementioned art professionals, also on expense accounts, at art fairs. (Moralistic harumph over.)

I believe that now that above Conventional Wisdom re: “too many fairs” has been beaten with a stick, perhaps now this traveling circus should focus not on the number of fairs, but on the nature of them.
For more information on this year's Abu Dhabi Art Fair, visit the website:
Wednesday 5 November 15:00 – 22:00
Thursday 6 November 15:00 – 22:00
Friday 7 November 14:00 – 22:00
Saturday 8 November 14:00 – 22:00

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purpleprose 5His Excellency Shaikh Rashid bin Khalifa al Khalifa with Marina Abromovic.

purpleprose 6Image Courtesy :: Carpenters Workshop Gallery, Studio Job @ Abu Dhabi 2014.

purpleprose 7Grigorian Marcos - Wedding Bouquet, 1965 Exhibited @ Abu Dhabi 2014 Image Courtesy :: Leila Heller Gallery.

About the Author

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart has been a professional in the art world for 30+ years. Her career has included work as a journalist, editor, public relations professional and non-profit management consultant. She bega...