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Art Fairs: Why Do They Make People Uncomfortable?

At the ALAC art fair, Night Gallery showed Samara Golden's Rape of The Mirror: Bedroom, an installation with a video projection, mirror, and other materials
At the ALAC art fair, Night Gallery showed Samara Golden's Rape of The Mirror: Bedroom, an installation with a video projection, mirror, and other materials
Courtesy of Night Gallery

"We have this enormous audience of almost 11,000," said Tim Fleming, director of Art Los Angeles Contemporary (ALAC), held at Barker Hangar and one of three art fairs in L.A. this past weekend. "And we can do anything with them, within reason."

This year, at the Thursday night opening of his fair, audiences encountered 25 tons of dry ice stacked in pyramids and lit with road flairs at dusk. Activist artist Judy Chicago had done the same thing in 1968 with Disappearing Environments -- for which she and artists Lloyd Hamrol and Eric Orr built a village of ice, lit it up, then waited for it to melt -- and its restaging launched Pacific Standard Time's Performance Festival as well as the fair.

The Performance Festival's curators, Glenn Phillips of the Getty and Lauri Firstenberg of LAX Art, approached Fleming last summer to ask if the fair would host the event. "At that point, no one knew how long the dry ice would last. They wanted a location people would revisit again and again," Fleming said, "and I think it helped that they knew what we did last year."

Last year's ALAC program included performances by Liz Glynn, an artist key to the planning of the current Pacific Standard Time festival, plus a magic show by Glenn Kaino and a parade of monsters costumed by artist Marnie Weber, though none of those performances had been "potentially hazardous" like Judy Chicago's flares and ice. "I swallowed a bit of the artwork," said Fleming, who still had smoke and mist in his lungs and eyes when he rushed off to meet with a group of bankers Thursday night. By Saturday, the still-steaming pyramids had turned to mounds. By Sunday, kids were kicking around what had become small grimy lumps.

Since starting his fair in 2010, Fleming has wanted to host an event that's decidedly cultural, where commerce is key but downplayed. Programming performance, the least commodifiable medium, helps bring together that mix of intellect, history, and spectacle, that, along with dealers with reputations and art objects with sway, are what you need for what Fleming calls "the art transaction" to take place. But what is the art transaction, exactly? And why does it seem to make people uncomfortable?

Judy Chicago and Materials & Applications' Disappearing Environments installation outside the ALAC fair at Barker Hangar
Judy Chicago and Materials & Applications' Disappearing Environments installation outside the ALAC fair at Barker Hangar
Photo: Donald Woodman

This year's fair included 70 exhibitors from 11 mostly American and European countries, and the closing press release reported strong sales (they never disclose specific numbers). But among artists and other cultural producers -- people who make, but rarely buy or sell directly -- art fairs tend to be squirm-inducing. If you went to any of the performances or openings held away from Barker Hangar this weekend, you likely overheard someone saying they hadn't yet stomached ALAC or they'd done so reluctantly. Artist Amir Fallah tweeted Sunday, "I guess I'll go. . . But I'm not going to like it."

"Isn't it just that it's too much information?" asked photographer Jonas Becker, who finds fairs particularly uncomfortable because they expose the system in a much more blatant way than a gallery or museum show. You pay to get in and once wandering the aisles, you can instantly distinguish who belongs to which strata: collectors and curators have a different look than artists and academics, tourists and students. You can also ask "how much for this?" with a forthrightness you'd never use at a blue-chip opening, and no one pretends they're not there to sell.

That said, at ALAC, few people from any stratum actually talk money. Three women sitting in the concessions tent Sunday discussed discounts, but not how big of one they'd gotten. They discussed instead how uncomfortable negotiating made them. "I can never even ask for a discount," said one. Price hadn't come up a day earlier either, when three men at the same table tossed art historical references back and forth while comparing smart phone photographs of the small Samara Golden works one had bought and the others had considered. For them, at least in their moment at that table, the art transaction was about acquiring evidence of well-informed taste.

"It's an educated audience. People know what they like," said Finola Jones of the Dublin Gallery, Mother's Tankstation, at ALAC for the second time. "That's why I came back." David Castillo, a dealer based out of Miami, was at ALAC for the first time and happy with the relationships he'd begun. He had overheard some complaints about sales from other gallerists, but, to him, unpredictability is part of the game. "It's not iron clad," he said, "not even if you have famous artists."

A magazine ad framed by artist Brian Kennon, who runs 2nd Cannons publications and exhibited at Art Los Angeles Contemporary
A magazine ad framed by artist Brian Kennon, who runs 2nd Cannons publications and exhibited at Art Los Angeles Contemporary
Courtesy of the artist

Night Gallery, a Lincoln Heights space that's only open from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., was non-commercial and artist-run until this past fall. Now they have LLC status. "Neither of us like bureaucracy," said co-director Mieke Marple, of herself and partner Davida Nemeroff, explaining that, if they had become a non-profit, they'd have to deal with board members and grant-writing. "The direct sale lets us to do what we want more easily."

There's something particularly appealing about that approach to the art transaction: as a means to other ends.

"The more time you spend in the 'official' art world, the harder it becomes to think you can make it in other ways," said critic Jennifer Doyle, during a discussion held Saturday in the Ruskin Theater across from the hangar. Doyle was talking with French theorist Sylvère Lotringer, since both recently wrote about artist-activist David Wojnarowicz for a book published by Semiotext(e).

In 1990, the American Family Association appropriated Wojnarowicz's exquisitely rageful images of bodies, made in response to the AIDS crisis, the politics of the late '80s and his own pending death, to prove the NEA had funded pornography. Wojnarowicz sued for violation of artist's rights and won. But he was awarded only $1, because the jury had difficulty understanding what the value of his art was and couldn't tell if he had actually suffered damages.

Those of us working in art's institutions and niches have a tendency to assume "the market" and the professionalization that's coincided with the emergence of the art fair this past decade has made the rebelliousness of an artist like Wojnarowicz nearly impossible. But that way of thinking may be far more limiting than any art fair itself could ever be. "That hangar over there is not the whole art world," said Doyle.

Follow @cgwagley and @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.

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