Leaving Las Vegas

By Mikkel Carl

Even if you are well versed in contemporary art, its ever-expanding territory can easily make you feel out of breath. This year alone there is the Venice Biennale, Documenta in Kassel (and Athens) as well as the Skulptur Projekte in Münster, the latter centered on art in public space. Also, you have an ever-growing number of international and regional art fairs, making people constantly talk about “fair fatigue”. I’m not quite sure whether the analogy here is metal fatigue meaning that the entire structure of backpacking galleries, VIPs, artists, and other interested parties, is, in fact, seriously threatened.

Code Art Fair 2017. Photo by I DO ART Agency

No matter what, I’ll begin with a short hitchhiker’s guide to this particular galaxy. With a successful branching out to Miami plus surroundings (Latin America) and the hostile takeover of Art Hong Kong some years ago, the Art Basel franchise is now a worldwide Bermuda Triangle. Meanwhile, the focus of Frieze originating in London must be to hold down the fort at Randall’s Island some way up New York’s East River. For one thing, this is because The Armory Show is once again gearing up along with the lesser known, but notably resourceful ADAA, the young and hip NADA, as well as Independent initiated by gallerist Elizabeth Dee. The latter opened five years ago in the old Dia building, and even though there is no longer shelter from the storm, with the recent expansion to Brussels (long proclaimed to be the new Berlin) at least, it is now a franchise too. Seeking to improve their ability to compete, the “local” Art Bruxelles has cut back, but they still haven’t cut to the bone if you ask me, which of course nobody does. ABC in Berlin tried something similar, and look where that got them. Two years ago everybody seemed to live together in bliss with each gallery individually negotiating the fundamental challenge it is to sell art works in a not so white cube i.e. a large open warehouse with no additional walls. It appears this format is primarily attractive to artists or perhaps the organizers didn’t manage to attract enough outside collectors because some local galleries way below average were given card blanche. So now Art Cologne is taking over, and it will surely be interesting to see what they will come up with. Surely, they don’t want things to end up the way they did with Officielle; the bastard brainchild of FIAC, where the old-time Paris fair flushed their newly acclaimed ‘street cred’ right down the drain by having “surplus” galleries pay full price for half the fair. Of course, that didn’t go well and squatting a run-down inner-city mansion Paris International founded by five gallerists swiftly carried out the sentence, and with elegance, we otherwise find only at Liste – the protégé of Art Basel Basel, housed in a former brewery, allowing their audience quite the tour. But the list goes on (and on): Arco in Madrid, Art Rotterdam, Zona Maco and Material in Mexico City, arteBA in Buenos Aires, Untitled and Nada in Miami, etc.

Code Art Fair 2017. Photo by I DO ART Agency

But, what about up north? It goes without saying that Chart was the first new kid on the block showing the late Art Copenhagen what these streets are made of. Sometimes the fair feels a little too hot to handle, and apparently, it is so successful that there isn’t elbow room for everybody at the table. Last year Croy Nielsen was designated what I would dare call a walking area, and despite the nationality of Henrikke Nielsen it seems a bit of stretch to call Croy Nielsen, which recently relocated from Berlin to Vienna, a Nordic gallery. But along the lines of Market in Stockholm that is the Chart tagline and to have roots in the community is probably not a bad strategy in times like these where “the global” apparently has lost most if not all of its sex appeal, and where “New Nordic” is the new black. Growing up in the nineties I feel a bit unsympathetic to the idea of a distinct Scandinavian sensibility, so luckily for me, Chart is now accompanied by Code art fair – your gateway to the world.

Mikkel Carl, M23, New York. Code Art Fair 2017. Photo by I DO ART Agency

Believe it or not but Code is the first international art fair north of Berlin. Up here when the progressive tax system takes its toll, and the super rich doesn’t amount to 1% but probably rather 1%o. Still, a lot of people’s spending powers ought to be sufficient for a small art collection if they cancel the second skiing trip and the third flat screen TV is put on hold – at least if the artists are not ‘blue chip’.

I believe that the last metaphor is quite significant, since it seems the house always wins, in this case meaning the art fairs and the large galleries. At the expense of small and mainly mid-level galleries, which of late seem to be unlucky at cards, and at love. The continuous rise within the housing market in city centers makes it hard to afford the exorbitant costs of participating in fairs, especially abroad, while also paying rent at home, where you rarely set foot. That is a catch 22 if there ever was one, the victim of which is all the art that doesn’t pay off on Instagram, which means more or less everything except painting. And perhaps performance art that seems to thrive and prosper through social media as it is essentially about (the artist) being present. But as a mid-tier gallerist, you may very well come home 30.000$ short because you have been traveling in style, whereas true globetrotters only have to flip a few of Anish Kapoor’s giant “salad bowls” and then everything will be all right. And if you think this is too much of a handful there will always be older and more financially resourceful galleries or younger daredevils eager to take your place at the table.

On top of this, there are white hallways as far as the eye can see, making visitors sort of snow blind not noticing all the tricks of the dealer at the black jack table. The high rollers occasionally take home a winning big enough to make it worth their while, but the regular casino guest (I’m still talking about art fairs) feel faint boxed in by spot paintings and yesterday’s arty party not exactly helping. Thank god for Nike Free, but please tell me: “Where is the nearest emergency exit?”

Code Art Fair 2017. Photo by I DO ART Agency

Generally speaking, I think art fairs ought to be smaller and more tightly curated. The booths may be a little more reasonably priced and perhaps a more progressive system could be applied to further differentiate between standard galleries and Gagosian, Zwirner and the other 1%. The fairs may also very well be shorter, including fewer days where only the fair is making money while gallerist assistants are acting tour guides on their own dime. But most essentially it is necessary to anchor the fairs architecturally so that as a visitor you feel grounded, present here and not just anywhere.

The latter is basically the opposite of the Art Basel’s grid where you seriously face getting lost and dying of thirst before the walls come down on Sunday evening (if it wasn’t for the crap reception perhaps this might be something Google Maps could look into). Compare this situation with FIAC, which is also immense, but here you can orientate yourself simply by looking up at the sky. Hell, I even prefer the party tents ‘en suite’ housing Frieze.

According to these parameters, both Danish art fairs are doing well. Chart has its baroque castle right in the city center and if we come in peace Crystal Hall at Bella Center looks somewhat like a mix of FIAC’s Grand Palais and the skewed late seventies utopia of Centre Pompidou. The skylight is crazy big, and the small decorative trees from back when this thing was built, is now stretching across the aisles. Aisles wide enough for you to stay clear of strollers, that is, while also enjoying overall vistas of the individual presentations. Concerning this, I guess there are both pros and cons, if you are a gallerist, as you have to pay far more attention to the overall installation of the works. But to the visitor, it is pretty awesome that the booths may act as small exhibitions in themselves.

Code Art Fair 2017. Photo by I DO ART Agency

It is often said that the better, or at least the more expensive, the fair is, the thicker the walls are. Regarding this particular issue Code has plenty of room to improve, and besides, I know what you are thinking: “How do I even get to this remote suburban location?” The crazy thing is that Ørestaden, as the area is called, is actually already part of Copenhagen. From Kgs. Nytorv, where Chart is located, it takes 9 minutes by metro. That is closer than hipsters’ paradise Vesterbro, where – since Nils Stærk and Nicolai Wallner had to relocate – really nothing is going on.

It may come out a little bombastic, but I feel that Code, due to lots of natural light, and the occasional leaves falling, has an almost zen-like encompassing of the season, the daily weather and the hour of the day. When the sun is high in the sky, some works will be brightly lit while others reside in the shadows until your eyes adjust accordingly. This is contrary to the case with those terrible spotlights most art fairs have, almost obliterating any meaning that poor thing up there on the wall might have left, and as a visitor, you contemplate the possibility of starting to smoke (again) to justify leaving the crab game and step outside for a moment. Yet, if you truly want to enter the heart of darkness, Code has its very own, enormous cinema: Three cheers to “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.”

About Mikkel Carl
Mikkel Carl is somewhat of an art-world multitasker. Besides making and exhibiting his own artworks internationally, he also serves on boards and committees including the Danish Arts Foundation’s Committee of Visual Arts Grants Funding, and works as an independent curator at galleries and institutions around the world. One thing seems to connect his activities: the relationship between language and perceptual experience in the field of art.