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Letter From Paris: The FIAC – The Hunger, The Hype & The Hysteria

Matthew Rose goes to the Art Fairs in Paris and reports for us!

Jack Pierson's inevitable sculpture, The Show Must Go On, 2008, let folks know this was indeed an art fair. Private collection.
Jack Pierson’s inevitable sculpture, The Show Must Go On, 2008, let folks know this was indeed an art fair. Private collection.

Perhaps the perfect metaphor for the contemporary art fair is the media-fattened story of the Balloon Boy (in the US), which swept across the airwaves on a gust of excitement only to be lanced by the truth.  It was for the money, after all, and the 10 year-old boy (Little Falcon) supposedly trapped in the Warhol-like silver balloon was safe on the ground busy in makeup getting ready for his star turn. It was, of course, a hoax. “They put on a very good show for us, and we bought it,” said local sheriff, Jim Alderden.

Mediated, high-flying, attracting tens of thousands for a gawk at the wreckage, the art fair asks us to pull out our iPhones, film it, e-mail it, eat and buy it. And this global consumption of images seems to satisfy. This bodes well for all art dealers, who can slather on the butter and promise no heart attacks. But what is happening more and more, artists are the ones managing and stimulating global demand for their images – and they’re doing it by using every digital and cyber tool available.

Katia Raymondaud, art consultant, at Perry Rubenstein's space between two FAILE pieces.
Katia Raymondaud, art consultant, at Perry Rubenstein’s space between two FAILE pieces.

New York art dealer Perry Rubenstein, launching his newest art find, the street-to-gallery duo, FAILE, at the Faire International de l’Art Contemporain (FIAC, October 22 – 25), was stunned that hundreds of e-mails he received prior to the fair came from people responding to FAILE’s list (not the gallery’s). FAILE’s operation is massive, with a full net shop, offering prints, collages, assemblages on par with the likes of Banksy and Shepherd Fairey. FAILE’s followers wanted more images, more text, more stuff. Not necessarily to buy, but to see. “These people – from all over the world – know every bit of imagery in FAILE’s work.” Rubenstein’s younger artists are using the Internet to feed an image frenzy and make a collection, vaulted in a folder on an iMac somewhere.  With FAILE’s prices for their silkscreened collage/assemblages ranging from $7,000 to $45,000 per piece, owning a digital copy satisfies…the…hunger.

The FIAC comes on the heels of Frieze, the London Contemporary Art Fair, which pulled in 60,000 art lovers who picked over 165 galleries from 30 countries, showing off works from 1000 artists. Little has changed in the last two years. The FIAC boasts 210 exhibitors and 4200 artists represented (dead ones, included) and more visitors than ever. As for the 4200 artists, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly.

Art lovers snapping iPhone photos of blue chipper Rachel Whiteread's installation at Luhring-Augustine's stand.
Art lovers snapping iPhone photos of blue chipper Rachel Whiteread’s installation at Luhring-Augustine’s stand.

Most of the blue-chip artware ends up in the Grand Palais with its high-domed metal naves, thousands of glass panels and historic address in the heart of Paris. The younger galleries, with “edge,” are parked in a massive tent in the Cour Carré du Louvre – also a good address – the entrance garnished with chain-smoking French people. Inside, however, there are way too many things to look at – it’s a Costco on steroids, and nearly impossible to grasp which way it’s all going except that it’s louder and more crowded.

And like the trophy car for sale parked just inside a Costco, there was the mountainous pool table by Stéphane Thidet from Galerie Aline Vidal. Sans titre (Je veux dire qu’il pourrait très bien, théoriquement, exister au milieu de cette table…2008) seemed as if it were designed for a video game.

Stéphane Thidet's Sans Titre (with parenthetical explanation in French), 2008. Photo: Max Mulhern.
Stéphane Thidet’s Sans Titre (with parenthetical explanation in French), 2008. Photo: Max Mulhern.

Other larger sculptures were decidedly retro including a pair of 1960 Frigidaires kissing with their lights on, a massive pile of raw red pylons (melted and fused) by Anita Molinero (typical of her work), and a Peugot-sized rectangular box (without wheels) in heavy fiber glass outfitted for sleeping (a double) and looking out (or in) – a room with a view to spy the history of the future.

A large rubberized half a house housed a gallery – a structure of “durable development” by architect Edouard François – was quite stunning; touching it felt like handling a bicycle’s inner tube. Another work was quite fun: An exploding door and frame that echoed Duchamp’s Nude descending a staircase. A half-hearted theme seemed to emerge: Big and noisy or big and silent – useless inventions, contemporary domestic life run amok.

For an artist, the channel surf of circus-like concepts, effect-driven execution and off-the-wall prices inspired critic Blaire Dessent’s  to comment: “For an artist seeing what goes on at an art fair is like witnessing your parents having sex: You know it happens but you just don’t want to see it!”

The French would have you believe they invented sex, of course, so one of the most cynical works that danced out of the young Gaullic brain trust was a series of framed hotel stationery sheets with the artist scrawling across the blank page: “Je suis un artiste” or “Sono artista” or, because this is really an international fair: “I am an artist.” The dealer offered this earnest art history lesson on his hot property: “The artist has been working hard on this series since…1989.”  Really? I wondered if the artist had yet been born in 1989.  I nodded. Okay, so, how much for these samples of French genius?  “1800 euros.” For the set of six?  “No, each.” No crap.

I’m all for “nothing” as a subject, and absolutely take Beuys’ admonition to heart – “Everyone is an artist” – but I don’t think this particular group of nonsense qualifies as good art. (I wonder if it would have been possible to print these up in a big offset stack, sign them, and give them away for free – or 10 bucks a pop. Would there be any takers?  Methinks not.)

Pippi Longstocking takes on the Wall dividing Israel and Palestine. Video by Rona Yefman at Sommer Contemporary, Tel Aviv.
Pippi Longstocking takes on the Wall dividing Israel and Palestine. Video by Rona Yefman at Sommer Contemporary, Tel Aviv.

But there were more than a few good reasons to do the kilometers of art, and one Rona Yefman’s 2008 video at the very cool Tel Aviv gallery, Sommer Contemporary Art.  On a monitor affixed to the wall was the live-on-videotape action adventure of a young girl in pig tails trying to pull apart the massive concrete wall dividing Israel from Palestine. “Pipi Longstocking: The Strongest Girl in the World at Abu Dis.” No, she couldn’t do it, but you had to wait the two minutes or so to find out that “Yes, we can’t.” It was sad, funny and true and worth the price of admission.

Christopher Wool's ... house painting? (Circa 1990.)
Christopher Wool’s … house painting? (Circa 1990.)

The really sad truth is I really enjoyed the FIAC, the general nonsense of the opening with paid-for pretty girl hostesses, champagne, collectors strutting about, the madness of the works, the grueling and transparent effort to gain attention, and the bizarre sincerity of the dealers in hawking this year’s art crop. I was drawn to two things at the end.  One was an older painting by Christopher Wool, which reminded me yet again of the strange edifice contemporary art really is…and the other, a wonderful gallery from Belgium, with a name that at least acknowledges their inner hysterical conflict of art and commerce: SORRY WE’RE CLOSED.  [Yes, click it].

Matthew Rose is an artist and writer based in Paris.  His most recent project, A Book About Death at The Emily Harvey Foundation in New York City, relaunches at the Queens Museum of Art, in Queens, NY.