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Fair-a-thon: The Experience of Way Too Much
by Charlie Schultz

Art Critic’s Warning: an experience of Way Too Much may result in the mental and visual impairment known as “art-malaise,” or “A.M.” Symptoms include eyestrain, inability to concentrate, short-term memory loss, stiffening of major muscle groups, emotional exhaustion, and general indifference. Children, pregnant women, and the elderly are at the highest risk.

I used to think the proper way to experience an exhibition of art was slowly, moving at a stroller’s pace and pausing frequently. Stillness seemed necessary if close examination was to be part of the point, which of course it was. After all looking at art was serious business, a solemn procedure, a moment for reverence and reflection. I picked up this behavior watching others and never questioned it until one afternoon back in 2008. I was lingering over a fine marble statue in one of the neo-classical sculpture galleries of the Tate Britain when suddenly zoom! a woman in a track suit sprinted past me. Half a minute later here comes a man, legs thrusting, arms pumping, head thrown back; swoosh! his footfall creating a great echoing racket in the high ceilinged space. When I asked a guard what was going on he informed me that the runners were part of Martin Creed’s latest effort, Work No 850. The best advice he gave me was to look both ways before crossing the hall.

Yuji Agematsu, Untitled (March 15, 2012), 2012, Mixed media in cigarette cellophane, approx 3 x 2 x .75 in. Courtesy of Real Fine Arts. At NADA NY, Booth 50, 4th fl.

I still walk, often slowly, through art galleries, but since that afternoon I’ve at least been conscious of my movement, aware that it’s only one of many ways to experience works of art, and who am I to rank methodologies? What I do know is that finding one’s limits, the edges of the old comfort zone, is more profound than setting them arbitrarily. Until you’ve spent an entire day in a museum, open to close, how can you really appreciate dropping in for the quick hour? Extreme positions have a tendency of informing one’s perspectives more drastically than moderate ones. This may be obvious, but it’s really quite rare for us creatures of comfort to willfully abandon the habits and routines that structure our daily doings. Well, this is an invitation to do just that, here’s a marathon experience for the art viewer: The “Fair-a-thon.”

Banks Violette, Untitled (88), 2011-12, steel, two parts, 79 x 47 1/2 x 12 inches each, courtesy Team Gallery, at Frieze C4.

First the facts: in a single afternoon you’ll visit three art fairs, and pass by 307 galleries; you’ll travel by foot, ferry, train, and bus; you’ll need $60 to cover admission fees, and let’s say $10 for transportation. You’ll see the work of more than 1000 artists and every continent will be represented. It could be fun, but it’s not going to be easy, though I can just about guarantee that you’ll be intrigued and perhaps surprised by what work ends up sticking in your mind when you finally come to rest, thank god, at an establishment serving adult beverages.

Here’s how it goes: the Fair-a-thon begins at high noon, when the fair grounds open. You arrive at the East River docks on 35th street and hop on the ferry that takes you to Randall’s Island for the Freize Art Fair, the biggest, grandest, and priciest of the operations you’ll visit today. Between the admission fee ($40) and the number of top notch galleries involved (182) you’re going to want to take your time here. Around 1:00 you’ll be tempted to watch Allen Sekula’s short film Art isn’t Fair, shot in an art fair and dedicated to Rousseau, who once proposed that the moral degeneration of mankind was a result of the development of the arts and sciences.

By 3:00 you’ve got to get moving. You hop on the “complimentary” bus that shuttles you to 125th street and then head into the underground, riding subway trains to Chelsea where you make your next two stops: first Pulse, then Nada.

Now Pulse can be a lot of fun, and after the Big Money/Big Names extravaganza of Frieze, a bit of playfulness is going to be a welcomed shift. The collaborative known as Inner Course will have built a psychic playroom complete with problem solving puzzles and arty exercises in drawing and sculpture. This is a good way to start your movement through the 58 exhibitors, and I would recommend concluding it at Rest, Dopamine Rising, an installation by Jennie C Jones that combines ambient sound with Gestalt therapeutics to simultaneously up your dopamine levels and reduce the anxiety you’ve been accumulating. Consider it a sort of holistic palate cleanser. 

You’ve been here for a little over an hour when you realize it’s time to hot foot it over to Nada, just a few blocks west in the old DIA building. This is the last stop on the Fairathon and the only one that is free; now that it’s getting later in the day the place will be humming with activity. There is a strong showing of galleries from the Lower East Side, many whose taste leans towards conceptually rigorous, M.F.A.-holding art makers—exactly the sort of artists whose work is often most at odds with the atmosphere of consumer-driven spectacle that the art fair is. The gallerists know this and many cater to it, which has given NADA a reputation as a place to come across artists on the threshold between emerging and established. The fair is consistently smart and hip, if a little too self-consciously so. Hell, the first time I saw the artwork of Theaster Gates was at NADA, and that was before his breakout as a superstar of the museum circuit and marketplace. One question you might mull over as you cross the final threshold is what single work grabbed you the most; the images this prompt pulls up on your mnemonic screen may be as telling as Tarot cards. 

Hans Schabus, Schacht von Babel, 2003, Digital chromogenic prints mounted on aluminium, framed, 35,5 x 55 cm; Courtesy of Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, at Frieze Focus, F1.

Here you are reflecting on the past, speculating on the future, but your body is demanding you to be present: it’s 7:00, the sun’s sinking, and you’re in Chelsea. If you’ve made it this far without developing the brain numbing condition of the dreadful “A.M.” then you’ve done stupendously well. If, on the other hand, you find yourself zombie-eyed and in the clouds, that’s okay too. The prize for the former is also the antidote for the latter: a seat and a stiff drink. You’ve earned them both.

Charlie Schultz

(image top right: Tracy Moffat, First Jobs, Housekeeper, 1975, 2008; Courtesy of Tyler Rollins Fine Art and PULSE Contemporary Art Fairs, C8.)

Posted by Charlie Schultz on 5/2/12 | tags: art-fairs nada pulse frieze

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