The Other Art Fair

This report from The Other Art Fair appeared at ArtDiscover as part of the critic vs. critic experiment:

An artist friend of mine once told me that an artist feels about as comfortable at an art fair as an animal at the cattle market. This was at the Armory Show preview in New York, where the odd artist could be spotted slinking away, as if to illustrate his point. Not so at The Other Art Fair or TOAF (which wins the prize for the worst acronym, surely), a fair teeming with artists who, for once, appear unabashed about being here. Now in its fourth edition, TOAF prides itself on giving artists not represented by any gallery the opportunity to sell their work directly to members of the public, effectively bypassing the middleman.    

Inaugurated in May 2011 at the Bargehouse in South Bank, since May 2012 TOAF has returned to Ambika P3 in Marylebone for its twice-yearly iterations. Part of the University of Westminster’s School of Engineering, the vast 14 000 square foot space that used to house industrial machinery is now used as a venue for degree shows but also for more ambitious exhibitions and art installations such as a constructed cinema in Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s The Happiest Man, which ended only a few days before the start of the fair, or Heiner GoebbelsStifter’s Dinge, a multimedia Artangel production that transformed Ambika P3 into a subterranean palace last autumn. It featured, among other, grand pianos that seemingly moved of their own accord and artificial mist drifting over a pool of water. The memory of the Artangel extravaganza still lingered for me in the raw, underground space as I visited the fair.

One would be hard pushed to find an edgier venue for a fair and, on the whole, TOAF made the most of its spectacular location, despite the obvious limitations of the genre. For the duration of the fair, Ambika P3 was colonized with stands varying in size between three and seven square meters (at a cost ranging between roughly £690 and £1450, to be footed by the artists) – a blank canvas that each of the hundred or so artists chosen by a selection panel (presided by Yinka Shonibare) could do with what they pleased. Most succeeded in making personal the generic space of the stand.

The hundred-odd participating artists were matched in number by as many identically-sized paintings made by more established artists, Dinos Chapman and Grayson Perry among them, who had been commissioned to paint a portrait of their own mother for the 100 Mothers installation, symbolically overlooking the fair from its elevated vantage point on the mezzanine of sorts through which visitors accessed the fair. This was also where the live band played on the evening of the well-attended preview. ‘It’s just like the Tube,’ I overheard someone say. The comment felt apt, not least because of the varied demographics of the fair.

If you were lucky, you were given a stand in the main cavernous exhibition hall that the visitor first glimpsed from above on entering the fair. Those not so lucky had been allocated a stand in the adjacent low-ceilinged space that inevitably felt more cramped. The more eye-catching and formally varied of the artworks tended to be showcased in the former, while a lot of photographic work was consigned to the latter (‘the photography corner’, as one artist put it). There were of course exceptions to this rule and some of my favourite works – such as Michelle Abbott’s beautifully mounted, delicate works on paper, sewn with coloured thread to form intricate geometric designs – had been thus relegated to the periphery of the fair.

The relatively small size of the stands may partly explain why so much of the work on view was of the hang-on-walls variety. If the city, as one reads in the fair’s brochure, is indeed full of artists ‘exploring every medium – be it moving image or sculpture, drawing or photography’, this formal variety didn’t really come across at TOAF. The only works that could be qualified as moving image, Derrick Santini’s rather predictable lightboxes which had a room to themselves, were for me among the low points of the fair. More surprisingly perhaps, sculptural works, though better represented, were few and far between. The one display that boasted an installation piece – made by Ant Pearce as part of a body of work using gold leaf and thread –positively stood out.

The Other Art Fair styles itself as ‘not just an art fair’ but ‘an art experience’. The experience certainly was different to that of visiting an ordinary art fair, even if it has things in common with such initiatives as the Affordable Art Fair. How many art fairs can boast ‘live’ tattooing by Italian-born, London-based Mo Coppoletta among their entertainment highlights? There is something engaging to the DIY feel of the fair and the presence of the artists – some are on their own, others have brought partners or friends along for comfort – is certainly conducive to discussion.

What do the artists themselves hope to get out of the experience? More than financial gain (given the cost of a stand, few will sell enough work to break even), they seem to relish the exposure, the recognition and the opportunity to share their ideas in public that the fair affords. A new breed of art fair, TOAF encourages a new breed of artist-entrepreneurs to don multiple roles – at once makers, curators, dealers and promoters of their work.      


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