The Fun of the Fair: Sydney Contemporary

Depending on who you ask, anywhere between eight thousand and thirteen thousand people attended the vernissage of the world’s newest art fair, Sydney Contemporary. By the end of three and a half days, the fair had attracted almost twenty-nine thousand visitors eager to see the offerings from eighty-three Australian and international galleries, presenting the work of more than three hundred artists. The physical scale was vast, making good use of Carriageworks, a former industrial site well suited to enormous events and to the presentation of contemporary art.

Shaun Gladwell, Storm Sequence, 2000, single-channel video, sound, 8 min, image courtesy Sydney Contemporary

Shaun Gladwell. Storm Sequence, 2000; single-channel video, sound; 8 min. Courtesy Sydney Contemporary

Acerbic art critic Charlie Finch once declared that art fairs are to looking at art what porn is to making love: “a wide variety of partial impressions which … shatter the whole experience.” One might ask whether the world really needs another art fair. Sydney, however, has embraced it with enthusiasm. Galleries saw an opportunity to make contact with new buyers and extend their global reach, and locals came out in force to look.

Kim Joon, Bird Land - Chrysler, 2008, digital print, 47 x 83 inches, Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Hong Kong, New York, Singapore

Kim Joon. Bird Land – Chrysler, 2008; digital print; 47 x 83 in. Courtesy Sundaram Tagore Gallery

Fair director Barry Keldoulis said, “We see the Asian art fairs, such as Art Basel Hong Kong, being complementary to Sydney, as while they will include some Australian galleries, they will never be a comprehensive overview of what’s going on in our country.” Before the fair opened there was a palpable feeling of nervousness. The art market has been far from buoyant, and a number of galleries have recently closed or merged. However, Tim Olsen, director of Olsen Irwin, said that sales were extremely strong, defying the climate on the street. This new kid on the block appears to have been a commercial success.

Lin Jingjing, Public Memory 1, image courtesy the artist and De Sarthes Gallery, Beijing and Hong Kong

Lin Jingjing. Public Memory 1, 2011. Mixed media on canvas; 88 works each 38 x 46cm. Courtesy the artist and De Sarthe Gallery, Beijing and Hong Kong

Despite the presence of works by aging wunderkind such as Gilbert and George, Damien Hirst, and Jake and Dinos Chapman, it was younger local and international artists, and in particular the works shown by the Asian galleries, that were of most interest. Beautiful tin “crowns” by Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan were a standout at Filipino gallery The Drawing Room, and de Sarthe showed interesting mixed-media works by Beijing-based Lin Jingjing.  Edouard Malingue presented Charwei Tsai’s evocative Incense Mantra series of video and still images as well as works by painters such as Wang Zhibo, shown at this year’s Armory Show to considerable acclaim and strong sales, and the Scottish minimalist Callum Innes, revealing this gallery’s global focus. The galery 10 Chancery Lane presented the edgy work that makes it such an interesting addition to the Hong Kong art scene, including a sculpture by Chinese modernist Wang Keping, the subject of a major show at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art soon, as well as woven paper works by Dinh Q. Le and blue and white porcelain urns painted with subtly subversive scenes of contemporary Vietnam by Bui Cong Khanh.

So what drew the international galleries to make the long and expensive journey to Sydney? According to Edouard Malingue, “Australia is reaching out to the rest of Asia, so it makes sense that Asian and Hong Kong galleries come visit Australia.” China Art Projects showcased Shanghai-based collective Island 6, which uses animatronics, video, electronic data, GPS, and SMS technologies in surprising ways. With Melbourne gallery Niagara, China Art Projects also presented new work by Liu Zhuoquan. His installation Chang’An Avenue reinvents the ancient nei hua technique, with black crows painted inside the glass shades of lamps replicating those in Tiananmen Square. China Art Projects’s Tony Scott said he was anxious to present a major new work to Australian audiences after Liu’s success at the 18th Biennale of Sydney. “We felt he would be well received in a venue like Sydney Contemporary,” he said.

Liu Zhuoquan, Chang'An Avenue (detail) 2013 12 street lights, mineral pigment, image courtesy the artist and China Art Projects

Liu Zhuoquan. Chang’An Avenue, 2013 (detail); twelve street lights; mineral pigment. Courtesy the artist and China Art Projects

The parallel curated exhibition ranged from meditative video works by Charwei Tsai and Liu Zhuoquan to a giant inflatable ball by Sueng Yui Oh. Aaron Seeto, of Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, said, “These works come from all around the world and from artists at different stages of their careers. Being able to work with such a diverse group of artists with Sydney Contemporary in Carriageworks is a rare opportunity.”

So was Sydney Contemporary a success? Some believe the fair tapped entirely new markets. Painter Craig Waddellshowing with Gallery 9told me that for him and for his gallery the fair was a financial success. He said, “It was a great vibe with lots of people wanting to discuss my work―including students, art teachers, and first-time viewers.” Certainly, it’s the first time that contemporary art has brought Sydney traffic to a standstill. And that has to be a good portent for the fair’s future.