Art Basel / Versus Biennale and Other Thoughts

This summer, we are right in the thick of the major global art fairs, mostly concentrated in Europe, but we are also right in the thick of the Venice Biennale. In assessing the disparities in the functions of these two models – the art fair versus the biennial – Paco Barragán’s Metropolism article sums up the conceptual differences quite well. Firstly, behind the art fair is the pretense of commercial sales; behind the biennial is the traditional pretense of a “discourse” on art. Barragán notes that in today’s biennials, “the peripheral areas…are those attracting the attention,” keeping in mind the Middle Eastern components to this year’s Venice Biennial. Also, harkening back to Velthius’ writings on “The Venice Effect”, the Bienniale’s influence on the art market is suppressed by the 1968 ban on sales on the pieces, yet it still highly relevant; as the saying goes, “See it in Venice, buy it in Basel.” Secondly, biennials “continue to invite the same small clique of curators, who continue to show the same artists,” while art fairs such as the Art Basel invite hundreds of galleries that represent thousands of artists, bringing them together at one fair, and not so much attributed to a specific overarching thematic concept. Finally, although biennials are usually identified with the namesake of their location (e.g. Venice, Prague, Sydney, etc.), they ironically lack a focus on a local interest. They tend to attract international audiences to the location with disproportionate local participation and emphasis, which loses interest “from local authorities with non-cultural agendas, so that they can quickly fall out of favour with each change of political power.”

This notion of political appreciation brings to light one of the differences between the Art Basel in its traditional location in Switzerland and the newborn Art Basel Hong Kong. The political situation in China allows for the primarily Asian-represented Hong Kong exhibition (over half of the 245 galleries were from Asia) to be a channel for political artwork, as shown by artists such as Chen Shaoxiong. Additionally, as Nick Simunovic, the director of the Hong Kong branch of the Gagosian Gallery, says, “Collectors [in Hong Kong] are more thoughtful an reflective.” The consensus of the organizers and artists at the Hong Kong fair seemed to be that the audience in attendance seemed to be less frenzied about purchasing the pieces, and more about viewing and contemplating them. The acquisition of the Hong Kong fair was a strategic move to bridge the gap between Western and Eastern artists as well as buyers; according to art economist Clare Mc Andrew, “China alone accounts for 25 per cent of the global art market, up from five per cent in 2006.” The Asian art market cannot be ignored, and some galleries have been bridging the East-West gap through artist’s representations, such as the Taka Ishii Gallery, which was represented at Art Basel Hong Kong. Taka Ishii, being Japanese, does represent mostly Japanese artists such as Takashi Ishida (Art Basel image shown below), but also represents European and American artists such as Sterling Ruby (Art Basel image also shown below). In the historically Eurocentric context of the art market (evident in the mostly-European concentrated location of art fairs and biennials), galleries such as the Taka Ishii gallery function to reverse the view of the Eastern and Western connection from being a retrospective rationalization of Asian artists to being a real collaboration.

What is somewhat disappointing about the national representations of art fairs throughout the world is the Eurocentric concentration of the audience, artists, and locations. While the Hong Kong acquisition may have been a step in the right direction in disassembling this concentration, I would like to see an art fair of international proportions in a third world country. I obviously have a bias being from Jakarta, but I do think that the city would be a great site for a step towards a broadening audience and social commentary on the economic situation of the developing country and of the art market. Additionally, the location draws in an audience from Australia and New Zealand because of its geographic location. Indonesia is a growing economy with an increasing upper class interested in a somewhat established art market in Indonesia and particularly in Jakarta, and there have been numerous notable contemporary artists coming from Indonesia, several showing in the Venice Biennale this year.