The contemporary art market – mad as a rubber crutch


The contemporary art market – mad as a rubber crutch

MONDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2008

by Tom Flynn

Getting a press pass to Frieze Art Fair is like trying to book afternoon tea with Osama Bin Laden. I got in by digging a tunnel in the childrens’ playground at the far end of Regent’s Park and emerged beneath one of the tables in the fair’s restaurant, Le Caprice, where the toffs were shovelling down the lobster and fizz.

There’s little point in asking the dealers whether they’re doing any business at Frieze; at any rate not the New York or London dealers. Most of them looked crazed and paranoid as if a 747 was about to crash through the roof. The meltdown in the financial markets has already worked its way through to the art market, which traditionally takes at least a year to feel the reverberations. This is because unlike previous bull markets in this sector, this one has been driven by the same locusts who brought Armageddon to the banking system.

But the correction has now begun. The fact that this year the Frieze organizers, determined to protect their investment, broke with protocol and issued a lengthy post-fair press release full of gushing encomiums from the participating galleries indicates that the slide is on.

“This market downturn will be a good thing,” one leading London art insurance broker told me this week. “It will mean a return to quality, criticism, and excellence and hopefully goodbye to all the flaky speculators.” He cited the case of Richard Prince, whose work vaulted in price from £300,000-£400,000 to £3-4 million in twelve months, a market leap with no rational explanation. Meanwhile, one of the thrusting young provincial UK auctioneers currently riding the wave of the over-hyped ‘Urban Art’ movement, told me, “Art criticism is dead. We don’t need the critics any more. The auction market is now the most reliable arbiter of an artist’s quality.”

He must be wearing glasses made from mud. Or perhaps a cardboard pair like that given to me by a representative of German group Perplessi while I was wandering around Frieze (which I model here right). Most of the art looked better while I was wearing them, probably because I couldn’t see a thing with them on.

A few minutes later, the charming Sunitha Kumar Emmart of Bangalore-based Galleryske, handed me a small rubber crutch (shown above left), which I will treasure forever. This little artefact seemed symbolic of the whole contemporary art market and almost as significant as the unholy mess being created on the booth of crazy Buenos Aires gallery Appetite. Here, artist Diego de Aduriz was keeping busy rearranging mountains of detritus – consumer trash, cardboard, string, plastic bottles, foam, paint, etc.

When he got bored with that, Diego wrestled with his associates using shaving foam (left), which seemed eminently sensible.

“These days have been exciting and intense,” Appetite gallerist Daniela Luna told me afterwards. “People’s response was awesome. I think almost impossible to forget for anybody who presenced many of the performances [sic]. It had amazing moments, some sublime, some even dangerous or violent…”

I did presence the performance. Diego offered a refreshing contrast to the repressed profile of the average Frieze art dealer. Here he is (right) getting to grips with a crucifix made out of cardboard tubes.

After three hours of aimless wandering from booth to booth like a catatonic flâneur, I was beginning to feel the need for something more supportive than a rubber crutch. At that point a woman handed me a type-written sheet before dissolving back into the crowd. It read:

“I know I said I wasn’t going to come to London but how could I not reach out to you now that we find ourselves in such a crisis. I can imagine what you are thinking, that this hysteria has nothing to do with you, that, again, American arrogance poisons the planet, that this trauma hurts brokers and politicians but not those of us who have to work for our money and have far too little of it to lose. But you’re wrong; this kind of mess can’t be so neatly explained. I’m sure you are suffering. Things are spiralling so far down that I fear you are collapsing under the weight of the news. Where are you my love? Why won’t you send me some word?”

OK. If you’re out there, here I am. Come and get me!