Review: Sydney Contemporary

Sydney Contemporary, Carriageworks, September 7 - 10, 2017

It is often said that the worst time to see art is at an opening: people crowd; drinks are drunk; and vision is inevitably obscured. Indeed, it is said that those who are actually interested in what hangs on a gallery’s walls are better off returning the next day. Yet it struck me, as I was herded around Sydney Contemporary with the rest of the media, that perhaps the opposite was true of an art fair. Without the crowds, drinks and excitement, my preview at Carriageworks felt incomplete. As a rogue hoover made its way around the largely unoccupied exhibition space, I could not help but feel that I was missing out on the real fair. Because despite its purported focus, art was but one of a series of competing concerns that governed the fair’s operation. Here, financial imperatives and cultural capital coalesced to create a space that existed uneasily between the spheres of public programing and commerciality.

Walking us around the space, Fair Director Barry Keldoulis was keen to reiterate that this wasn’t a “meat market” of storeroom work, but rather the finest pieces available. In many ways, the art fair’s success rested upon this very idea of it as more than just a mercantile enterprise. Because while a minority of collectors attended the fair to purchase work, the overwhelming majority of attendees treated it much as they would a short exhibition at one of Sydney’s other public institutions. Of course, the fair had been engineered to encourage this very kind of engagement. By locating the fair at Carriageworks, its architects ensured a transference of institutional gravitas, while intimating that the commercial works that presently occupied the space were the natural continuation of their immediate predecessors. The divide between these two spheres was collapsed even further by the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Chief Curator Rachel Kent and Assistant Curator Megan Robson overseeing the fair’s ‘Installation Contemporary’ section. The confluence of these elements transformed the fair into a hybrid space that contained all the optics of a public show despite supporting private commercial interests.

The centrality of commercial imperatives was further concealed by the provocative performance pieces that provided enclaves of stimulating difference throughout the fair. In one instance, Hayden Fowler paced around a metal cage, strapped into a VR headset, with a dingo keeping him company. The provocations continued elsewhere with Garth Knight’s durational performance piece Effloresce. As we approached Knight’s work, Keldoulis jovially remarked, ‘here comes the nudity’, and his words soon proved to be true. Inside Knight’s room stood a performer, covered only in the rope and string that bound her body, and connected her to the rest of the tangled room. The work was confronting, uncomfortable, and a conspicuous departure from the tone of the rest of the fair. However, one commonality persisted: Knight’s work, like all of its neighbours, was carefully designed to draw in a crowd and perhaps even catch some headlines. And on both counts Knight succeeded.    

An interesting tension arose out of the art fair format, and specifically the fact that the participating galleries were at once co-dependent and competing. In the case of the former, everyone benefited from the presence of big names and large spectacles. However, this benefit was also qualified by the latter aspect, and the reality that these same galleries were competing for many of the same buyers. Walking through the fair there were an array of responses to this particular issue, one of the least subtle but most creative being Uji Handoko Eko Saputro’s work Spectulative Entertainment No.1 Sydney Edition, which comprised a 7.5 x 2.6 metre painting that was divided into 1,619 square lots and sold to the crowd using megaphones and unbridled enthusiasm.

Elsewhere others seemed to have relied on controversy to stoke the interest of the masses. At the Hugo Michell Gallery booth, I spied Justine Varga’s unmistakable photographs prominently displayed. The announcement of Varga as the winner of the the Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture garnered broad attention earlier in the year, after she came under fire for not picturing a sitter or, indeed, using a camera in her work Maternal Line. But, when I spoke to Hugo Michell himself, he appeared to resent the implication that Varga’s work had, in anyway, been included because of the recent controversy, insisting that her inclusion was determined well in advance. Instead, he suggested that, ‘It’s nice for people to actually see [the winning photograph], because at the end of day, most people—negative or positive—were looking at the image on the screen.’ Of course, Michell was right—Varga’s photograph was striking in person and really did deserve closer inspection. However, a cynical part of myself couldn’t help but fixate on the seemingly incidental convenience of this heightened attention. Like the rest of the fair, it seemed that there were always multiple interests at play.

Ultra Boost

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Justine Varga, Droit, 2017 from Photogenic drawing, c type photograph, 165.4 x 121.6 cm. Copyright Justine Varga. Image courtesy of the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. 

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Justine Varga, Masseuse, 2017 from Photogenic drawing, c type photograph, 175 x 121.8 cm. Copyright Justine Varga. Image courtesy of the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. 

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Justine Varga, Lachrymal, 2017 from Photogenic drawing, c type photograph, 163.5 x 122 cm. Copyright Justine Varga. Image courtesy of the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. 

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Justine Varga, Maternal Line, 2017 from Photogenic drawing, c type photograph, 157 x 122 cm. Copyright Justine Varga. Image courtesy of the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery. 

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Hayden Fowler, together again, 2017, live virtual reality performance with dingo. VR designer, Dr Andrew Yip. 

Joy Lai

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 Hayden Fowler, together again, 2017, live virtual reality performance with dingo. VR designer, Dr Andrew Yip.

Joy Lai

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Garth Knight, Effloresce, performative installation, 2017, dimensions variable, hemp rope, sandstone, wood, chalk, human bodies.

Garth Knight

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Garth Knight, Effloresce, performative installation, 2017, dimensions variable, hemp rope, sandstone, wood, chalk, human bodies.

Garth Knight

Tai is a writer and curator, who holds a Masters (with Distinction) in Art History from the University of Oxford. He has previously written for a variety of domestic and international publications, including Art and Australia, Art Monthly Australasia, Art Guide Australia, Oculus, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Vault. He is currently based in Sydney.

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