Sydney Contemporary 2023
Globally, art fairs have moved from a sideshow in the art scene to becoming the main game in the arts calendar, frequently making a critically significant contribution to the financial viability of many a commercial art gallery.
Sydney Contemporary this year boasts of representing 96 galleries (mainly from Australia, New Zealand and Asia), displaying the work of over 500 artists through several thousand artworks. Sydney’s Carriageworks, home for many art exhibitions, is not ideally suited for an art fair with many galleries squeezed into unsympathetic spaces, but somehow the whole crazy event just works.
Art galleries with deep pockets, for example, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, can stage a memorable display, such as the work of the Yolgnu artist Dhambit Munuŋgurr, but most are stuck in smaller and unsympathetic booths. A basic 30 square metre booth will set a gallery back $18,750 + GST, while the hire of a larger space, like 110 square metres, costs $68,750 + GST. Add to this freight, installation costs, furnishings, staffing, insurance and electrical connections and the total cost becomes formidable for this five-day event.
The benefits for a commercial art gallery are fairly obvious – visibility, sales and networking. According to Sydney Contemporary marketing, last year the event attracted over 28,000 visitors and art sales over the five days amounted to about $23 million. Public visitation does not come cheaply with a basic admission ticket $39, while if you wish to come to the art night, it will cost you $65.
This year’s iteration of Sydney Contemporary does not appear quite as ‘dazzling’ as some of the earlier events, but it is densely packed and, to some extent, it is the place to be if you want to take the pulse of the contemporary, non-institutional art scene. After four-and-a-half hours, I cannot swear that I visited every gallery or saw every artwork on display, but I was suffering from a severe case of visual overload.
There is some good art – even great art – tucked away amongst the stands, as well as a fair amount of rather thin, glittering dross. This year is less a case of large, stellar pieces that etch themselves in your memory and more the case of tucked away gems within the labyrinth of booths.
The highly promoted Antony Gormley installation, Wrestling with Modernism, is not displayed to advantage and you have to free yourself of the surrounding visual distractions to enjoy the undoubted power of the work.
Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s wooden Dead Horse is a virtuoso piece in execution, but a little tiring after the conceit of the materials is realised. Similarly, Alex Seton’s series of chandeliers in Trying to Reinvent Themselves and Their Universe is clever, rather than convincing.
Sam Jinks’ Iris – the messenger was originally commissioned by the Hellenic Museum five years ago, now other copies in the edition are for sale at Sydney Contemporary. The supersized, hyperreal crouching female nude with improbably huge golden wings gazing into a pool is over-the-top in any frame of reference. It is certainly exquisite in execution and would probably feel at home in some exclusive suite in Trump Tower in New York.
All of these pieces command immediate attention, a bit like hotel foyer art, and then are promptly forgotten.
Possibly betraying a personal bias, I found the Paper fair at Sydney Contemporary, (down the corridor from the main entrance), a breath of fresh air. Curated by the remarkable Akky van Ogtrop, within this large room and a foyer space, there must be about twenty booths that celebrate some of the best in contemporary printmaking. It is also here that you can pick up brilliant original contemporary artwork for a couple of hundred dollars directly from the makers at the Print Council of Australia and the individual printing presses from throughout Australia.
It is some of the smaller gallery booths, for example Charles Nodrum Gallery, Art Collective WA, Michelle Perry Fine Arts and Nicholas Thompson Gallery, that are more densely packed with visual surprises of a high order. Galleries generally grapple with the problem of whether to present a ‘showbag’ of artists from their stable, or to focus on a knockout single-artist show. My impression is that the new economic reality may have encouraged more galleries to adopt the first path in the hope that there will be at least something that may seduce some of the visitors.
In an art fair, where you are largely looking at the work of established artists represented by the major commercial art galleries, you are unlikely to discover new blood – young emerging artists. What you do find is artists that you know, but whose new work you have not seen recently. In this category, with great delight I enjoyed the recent paintings of Tim Bučković, the brilliant stitched collages of Eveline Kotai and the quirky knitted sculptures of Troy Emery.
There are a lot of things that I don’t like about art fairs, but if you are interested in contemporary art and have the need to feel the pulse of contemporary art, a visit to Sydney Contemporary is a must.
September 6-10, 2023
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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