The art of money: Melbourne Art Fair

After its absence in 2016, the biennial Melbourne Art Fair (M.A.F.) returned this year, spread across two venues in the Southbank Arts Precinct: Riding Hall, the newly refurbished stables at VCA, and Vault Hall, a bloody great tent erected on the ACCA Forecourt. M.A.F. saw forty galleries display works by the brightest and best in their respective stables, demonstrating the strength of the current Australian contemporary art scene to those who filed through.

The Fair is a tricky beast. Its very nature resists its interpretation as a traditional exhibition, whilst in appearance it is essentially a large and rather formless group show. Perhaps it is best to classify M.A.F as an Event, stylised with a capital E. It warrants this distinction because of the Fair’s lack of singular focus, its accompanying public program, its inextricable link to capital and the spectacle of the entire thing. M.A.F is not so much about the work shown, but about the relationship between art, artworks and money. This is part of what makes it so engaging and fascinating as an Event. This warrants future exploration, but it is first pertinent to discuss (some of) the works that were on show.

First, the larger of the two venues: Vault Hall. This housed the majority of galleries showing work at this year’s Fair. Enclosed in individual, gallery-assigned booths, the sheer amount of art in the room was overwhelming. Coupled with the volume of people present, plus the need for spatial hyperawareness, sensory overload was imminent. What was immediately obvious circling the room was that a substantial proportion of the galleries chose to display relatively safe-bet, low-risk options in paintings. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these works blended into one another, becoming an amorphous mass of abstraction. It was disappointing, because the works themselves are undoubtedly strong, but the sheer volume and general trend towards abstraction made it difficult for pieces to stand out.

There were exceptions: Lottie Consalvo’s works (Dominik Mersch Gallery) were exceptional – very simple and bold, the broad brushstrokes captivating the viewer, reflecting the contemplative time focus of her practice. Consalvo’s works were almost mesmerising enough to enable a disassociation from the surrounding zoo. Daniel Boyd’s works (STATION Gallery) also proved a stand out. Boyd’s work was also being shown in the brilliantly curated A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness, over the other side of the tent wall, at ACCA. His practice investigates Eurocentric notions of Australian history, with the mottled surfaces of the three works shown continuing his use of archival glue as medium. Boyd’s practice really deserves a separate piece about his lenses of Eurocentrism and the way his choice of medium really facilitates that interrogation, but this will suffice for now: it is brilliant.

Other works which warrant mentioning were Mirka Mora (William Mora Galleries), Julian Hooper (Gallery9), and Pierre Mukeba’s impressive large-scale paintings. These glorious, oversized canvases dwarfed everything in the room, resting against the walls of the GAGPROJECTS booth in a manner that seemed almost casually self-assured of their power. Combining a gentle painting technique with applied ‘African’ fabrics, his works were a standout, deserving of their place in the centre of the room and a subsequent acquisition by the NGV.

Another big draw in Vault Hall was the work of Sam Jinks (Sullivan+Strumpf). The uncannily realistic ‘Reunion’ forced you to stop and take a second look at it, to double check that it wasn’t a performance work of some kind. The piece, made of pigment, resin, silicone and human hair, had a crowd in front of it for the entire evening. Also worth mentioning were Dale Frank’s obnoxiously ostentatious sculptural works, which also sat in the centre of the room. In an interesting curatorial decision by Roslyn Oxley9, these works were shown without a booth of any kind, enabling the movement of people through the works and guaranteeing that all present would see, and be forced to engage with them.

Over to Riding Hall. This section almost seemed vestigial, but proved a welcome respite from the scrum that was Vault Hall. The newly refurbished stables are gorgeously done, and the more relaxed set-up of this part of the Fair demonstrated an elegance that should ease any doubts over its current stewardship. What I felt was the strongest work of the Fair was shown here – Karla Dickens’s series In the ‘Hood (2017). Represented by Andrew Baker Art Dealers, these balaclava-like hoods were printed and embroidered with various European iconography. Bookended by Dickens’s poems, this powerful work offered an insight into the difficulties faced by Dickens, as a queer, mature, Aboriginal artist.

At the end of the room was Chiharu Shiota’s large-scale installation commissioned by Anna Schwartz Gallery. The Crossing (2018), comprised of an endless tangle of white wool and books, resembled a vortex, both physically and in feeling. This beautiful work is awe-inspiring in its scale and scope, being at once both delicate and overwhelming in its composition and scale. Shiota’s work is endlessly impressive – I was granted the privilege of viewing her 2015 Venice Biennale work, The Key in Hand, earlier this year at Penny Clive’s art space in Hobart. There are similarities in the two works, but the intimacy presented in The Crossing makes it a deeply affecting work. Schwartz’s choice to show Shiota demonstrates her prowess as a leader in Australian contemporary arts.

What is most striking about M.A.F. is the transparency of the financial aspect of it. Finances are crucial to M.A.F.’s existence – it was a lack of funding and the withdrawal of a number of key contributors (including Anna Schwartz Gallery) that prompted the Fair’s 2016 absence. The Fair subsides on funding from Creative Victoria, the Council for the Arts and the fees paid by galleries to show works. As far as I’m aware the Fair doesn’t take a commission from any work sold, and as a result, runs on a shoestring budget. This year’s success demonstrates the remarkable capabilities of the organisational team.

Surveying the room during the Vernissage, the sheer amount of wealth concentrated here could potentially cancel a small nation’s debt. The Fair is essentially a large marketplace, the works on display all for sale. This is part of what makes them so hard to engage with. In this arena, they almost cease to be works of art; the transparency of their commodification transforms them into objects. This is not the place for a discussion of the ontologies of art and art objects, but it warrants consideration – do large scale art events detract from the actual artworks themselves? I imagine it’s a double-edged sword for artists, who on the one hand, would be pleased to be shown in this forum, and have the chance to make some money and join a collection, be it public or private.

The flipside to this is that it seems like it would be disheartening for some, with the brazen ‘shopping’ attitude of some collectors – sauntering the aisles, inspecting price tags and holding court amongst themselves – off-putting to say the least. This was not the only behaviour that was troubling – shout outs go to the drunk barrister who bailed me up over my appearance, the very drunk woman holding her shoe in one hand, crying near the Sullivan+Strumpf stand, and the old fellas who told my friend that she ‘was the best work of art in here’ – this last example echoed by another female friend’s experience, who said she had been harangued all evening by older gents who wanted to chat her up, trying to impress her with their shows on ABC. Perhaps the organisers foresaw this animal behaviour, and it partly informed their decision to hold part of the Fair in a big tent, also home to circuses?

From an operations standpoint, the Fair cannot be faulted (besides the very expensive glasses of wine). All feedback that I have heard since has echoed this sentiment, proving that the M.A.F is in very capable hands. As an experience, the Vernissage is fascinating, and the people-watching is probably worth the price of admission alone. But more importantly, the Fair raises important questions about the relationships between art, artworks/objects, and capital, and the divide that exists between artists and art collectors. Large-scale art events such as M.A.F. detract from the artworks themselves, but offer the opportunity to view art in an entirely other way, through the lens of capital.

Perhaps the best way to sum up M.A.F is with the photo that did the rounds on social media, of Katy Perry posing on Darren Sylvester’s Filet-O-Fish couch (header image: Neon Parc).

Jaxon Waterhouse

Jaxon Waterhouse is a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania.

More by Jaxon Waterhouse ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays