About two thirds of the way through my self-guided walking tour of Sydney Contemporary, I ran into an artist friend. Conversations at Australia’s largest and now dominant art fair usually begin with asking what you’ve seen. For my friend, the question was different: was there too much beauty? Her concern was that, being somewhat philosophically opposed to the naked commercial forces at work at such events, and yet ambivalently accepting of them as the reality of selling and buying art, she was worried about being seduced by all the loveliness.
Sydney Contemporary 2017 arrives after its one-time rival, the biannual Melbourne Art Fair (MAF) was cancelled in 2015 after scuppering a 10-year co-management deal with Art Fairs Australia, the company behind Sydney Contemporary, and after three key galleries pulled out of MAF at the last minute to sign up to a (rumoured) exclusivity deal with Sydney. Although MAF will return as a reduced, tent-scaled event next year, Sydney Contemporary has meanwhile gone annual. Australia’s limited gallery scene and its cash-strapped gallerists will now need to prioritise.
With that kind of commercial imperative at least partially informing the thinking behind the choice of work on display at Sydney Contemporary, there is much loveliness to be experienced. Seduction is on offer, and if you can’t afford it now, Art Money – a loan agency that lends people cash to buy art – has a stall set up near the entrance. For cash-strapped art critics and other window-shoppers, there’s plenty to see.
The highlights of Sydney Contemporary are split between those works by artists you might already know but go beyond expectation, or artists unknown to you who have a mature and interesting practice. Of the first category, Catherine O’Donnell’s Urban Perspective installation at May Space is a delight. O’Donnell draws on paper with charcoal, producing exact, delicate 1:1 scale drawings of the windows, doors and screens of suburban fibro houses.
The Japanese artist collective teamLab’s Continuous Life and Death at the Now of Eternity, at Martin Browne Contemporary, represents the state-of the-art in digital media: a real-time animation that responds to the seasons outside the exhibition halls through a series of algorithms that produce a gorgeous field of seasonal flowers floating over a gold leaf background. This suggests both the super-flat aesthetics of traditional Japanese landscapes art, and the way those aesthetics can inform experiences of space in digital media.
An artist who I had never heard of, the painter Nicholas Blowers, has three landscape paintings at the Nanda/Hobbs stall. Where much realist Australian landscape painting deals with the merely picturesque, Blowers’s trio of images deal with nature in collapse, riverbanks and waterways tangled with dying trees.
The art fair experience is sweetened by the opportunity to see projects created specifically for the event, works that are perhaps not saleable in themselves, but are by artists represented by commercial galleries at the fair, or might soon be. Curated by the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Rachel Kent and Megan Robson, Installation Contemporary places around the fair some arresting works, including Shoufay Derz’s elegant copper sheet pierced by quills, Richard Lewer’s series of personal declarations (“Sometimes I just want to punch people”) and Hayden Fowler’s Together Again, in which the artist lives with a dingo in a cage that was also reminiscent of my own living room, complete with a dog asleep on the couch while a disoriented man scrabbles around on the floor looking for the remote control.
There is always a sense of self-consciousness to these kinds of projects, not so much on the part of the artists who are simply doing their thing, but for the art fair management who want to be seen promoting non-commercial projects and maybe even widening the scope of what Australia’s collectors are willing to support. The Indonesian artist Uji Handoko Eko Saputro – aka Hahan – is presenting Speculative Entertainment No. 1 (Sydney Edition), which takes that idea to an extreme. Art fair visitors are invited to buy sections of one of Hahan’s large paintings for twice the price of their art fair ticket. Once purchased, visitors can then auction off their segment for whatever they can get, speculating on their investment, with Hahan taking a 10% commission. As a gesture toward the market – and in effect empowering the artist to directly profit from it – it is a neat idea, only compromised by the fact that it’s a sponsored event.
My friend’s question about the seduction of the market lies at the heart of the art fair experience. We like to entertain the idea that art is special, that it’s even spiritual in the right circumstances, but to be surrounded by even the most enlightened dealers and collectors, their wares displayed just so, is akin to being like Jesus confronted by the moneylenders in the temple. Sure, we could kick over the tables and drive them out, but why not stick around, have some lovely wine and look at some art?
• Sydney Contemporary is showing at Carriageworks until Sunday 10 September