How to Art Fair

Image courtesy the Miami Herald.

Nobody likes them. Even if you do enjoy an art fair, it would be gauche to say so.

You go because it’s your job. Or not quite your job, but some vague networky aspect of your job. No one likes to talk about this, so you’ll say that one of your friends is having a big show, or you have to give a talk or guide a tour. If you’re a collector, most of this doesn’t apply. Being rich is grand in general, even more so at an art fair. You’re the only one actually invited to the exclusive party, the private dinner.

You find an extra room in your friend’s vacation rental, an extra bed in a friend’s hotel room, a bit of floor in a friend’s squat. You really only sleep in beach hammocks at the end of parties and only shower in other people’s rooms. Besides, you’re there for two days with a redeye both ways and you won’t be sleeping anyway.

If you’re actually working the fair, in that you’re tethered to a gallery booth or that of a publication, there’s some question as to why you got a room at all except as a kind of temporary isolation tank.

Is there a party? A roller disco, a conceptual art porno, bottomless champagne cocktails for a car cast in solid gold that’s sold in an edition of five to emirs and oligarchs? Is it at the pied-a-terre of a Russian heiress, a slightly seedy yacht club, a converted police garage? There’s always a party. You’re invited but it’s only for a single, non-transferable place in line and you had to RSVP three months in advance. You didn’t, so you’re standing with three other friends, all of them with invitations to three different parties, and so you end up drunk at some dive with sand on the floors.

You won’t really see any art.

Are you a VIP? A VVIP? A super VVIP? You can tell by the color of your card. Are you a worker? Booth or publication? Even then, nobody likes you snooping around too early. Are you a member of the press? Sorry, accreditation closed two months ago.

And then there’s the general public opening. For the dealers, the fair might as well be over. Any of the high power ones usually leave their underlings to answer the questions of hoi polloi who were fleeced for way too much money to brush against this idea of the artworld.

There will be row after row of white walls, lined in hallways it’s easy to get lost in, your only guide a series of letter-number combos that make you feel like you’re in a parking garage looking for a car you know isn’t there. You’ll clutch a brochure like a life-raft. You’ll see only an array of names, things you sort of recognize, but mostly you’ll be reconfirmed in the things you know. You’ll start picking out patterns. Spend too long at art fairs and you’ll be able to write “trend” reports. Conceptualism is out, neo-neo-expressionism is in. Abstraction is out, figuration is in. Paintings always sell, and yes, you pay by the foot though no one admits that. This is all complete nonsense. Worse, that doesn’t make it any less true.

Every ten steps you either run into a person you know or, worse a person you recognize but don’t know whether it’s appropriate to greet them. Every person you run into you exchange a standard set of information: when did you arrive? when are you leaving? what have you seen? what are you doing later? For those with an iota more attention, you might get a “what have you been up to?” No one has to answer this question; you’re at an art fair. The crazy amount of activity is enough to distract anyone from life outside the bubble. Still, it’s standard professional practice to name three things in the last year. This depresses the hell out of you, so you talk about hikes you’ve taken instead. Intellectuals have a soft requirement to look disgusted by the crass display of capitalist greed, though they’re free of this stricture if they run a museum, because they’ll be too busy begging for donations to look outraged.

You have that fair brochure in your hand and you attempt some kind of methodical row-by-row recon. You will see it all. One third of the way through, you stop for an overpriced drink and panini. Halfway through, you start to fade. Your feet hurt and you can’t see anything anymore. It’s just a blur of color and signs and nervous well-dressed art dealers playing it cool though they just spent fifty thousand for those few square meters and that long, long weekend. Tired, wasted, hungover, exhausted, punch-drunk from all the images and objects, conceptual paintings and performative objects, modified documentation in posthumous editions and signed photocopy artworks. You make a dead run for a few final highlights, things people said you must see before you leave, old friends who wouldn’t forgive you for not making an effort to see the things they crossed an ocean to show.

The pro curators spend ten seconds at every booth, asking just a question or two before rushing to the next, barely breaking pace. The more laid-back ones, the old hands, don’t pretend they’ll see anything. They just do a brief round of the solo projects and then go say hi to a few far-flung associates. But this is how the wise ones do it, and it takes years of research and self-restraint.

You lack these things so despite good advice you still run yourself ragged trying to see everything, go everywhere. Wandering those long boothy aisles, you lose your place, and your carefully annotated brochure. You’re adrift. Is it dinner? You forgot to eat. And so you just give in, relenting to the tides of energy around you. You give in to whatever anyone tells you at some point and end up drinking tequila watching the sunrise. You may or may not be wearing your clothes.

Getting on the plane, you’re only half glad you took photos of things you saw and wished to remember. It’s there in your phone but you wish the experience had just been enough, that the artwork left some lasting impression on you, a real and deep memory, enough that you wouldn’t need a snapshot. But it’s only a blur of impressions, too scattered to inspire, too foggy to enlighten. The manic lingers. Perhaps that’s just enough.


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