The Parisians in the 19th century had the Salon at the Acadamie des Beaux Arts to swan about while looking at the latest art, but 21st century Australians have the Melbourne Art Fair.
This biennial art fair held at our very own 19th century Royal Exhibition hall allows dealers, collectors, observers and even actual artists to come together in the spirit of free market competition and show, spruik, sell and shop their wares — and have a hell of a good time while they’re at it.
Well, at least they do on the opening night (Wednesday) when the 3,500 or so guests begin scrambling onto its timber-floored halls at the 6pm start and some of us had to be politely moved on by 10pm when the supplied booze was running dry.
This night is officially known as the “vernissage’ which is the fancy way of saying that for $150 a ticket you can consume all the Domaine Chandon you want and indecorously leap-frog over fellow guests when you catch sight of a mini-burger, mini-spring roll, mini-lemon tart or mini-brownie emerging from a subterranean kitchen.
The idea of this “preview” before the public arrives the next day is to promenade around the two level hall taking in the art –and art lovers — on offer. The 70 private galleries at this art mall mostly come from Australia, but also include a modest number from Japan, Singapore, China, New Zealand and one from Chile.
A visit to an art fair is a great way to get a measure of what the art world might be on about at that particular time. The last MAF I attended was when the GFC was still raging and the artists were responding by making art that was big, shiny, glitzy, and appeared to be made for people who could still afford to decorate their homes as if they were living in a 1980s night club.
This year I could see no discernible trend other than the art appeared to be still mostly fun stuff. Almost all of it was apolitical and most of it was unambitious in theme and execution, with some exceptions. A ‘”supermarket” aka “The Last Suppermarket” by Ken and Julia Yonetani filled with household goods and pastries, fruit, crayfish, oysters and meat made entirely from blindingly pristine white salt and staffed by check-out chicks in white lab coats proffering shopping trolleys where you could buy pick up a single salt oyster for about 100 bucks.
Michael Zavros’ work at Auckland gallery Starkwhite’s stand appeared to be ambitious by virtue of a hulking red Rolls Royce parked in the middle. Identical twin male models in dinner suits were on hand for photo opportunities with select guests and a handsome chocolate cake with perfect gold icing was served to celebrate Zavros’ 40th birthday. On the wall was his lovely painting of multiple poodles; while on another was his lushly coloured photograph of his young daughters playing in the back of the said Rolls.
So were the Rolls, cake and expensive models an ironic comment on vulgarity and excess? Zavros paused, and then said he had begun having “conversations with Rolls Royce about six months ago”. So, I guess not then. Still, I had fun, and the cake was delicious.
One of the features of the night was an upstairs area for “Collectors” only. These people were mingling inside what appeared to be the Qantas Chairman’s lounge crossed with a Manus Island detention facility as they sipped non-domestic sparkling wine. What was interesting was that when rich people are herded en masse they don’t look so rich, shiny and special anymore — especially when held inside a timber holding pen.
People watching is far more satisfying when you watch them being fussed over by art dealers and their assistants who tend to be young, beautiful and dressed as either pale 1940s film stars or tanned footy fiancés on the Brownlow red carpet. And when you tire of that you can bump into artists who are happy to talk about how they make their work. I had a great chat with two artists from Mars Gallery. Jason Sims made op-art light boxes that make you instantly happy, and Daniel Agdad had made intricate models of 19th century structures and inventions entirely from tiny bits of cardboard.
In the bulls eye of the two intersecting halls that make up the Exhibition Building are the stands rented by Australia’s two most important private galleries — Anna Schwartz from Melbourne and Roslyn Oxley who is the Anna Schwartz of Sydney.
Scwhartzey’s “brand” is a winning combination of her art, her artists and herself. Women near me were on the lookout for Anna just to see what she was wearing on Melbourne art’s night of nights. Was it Comme des Garcons? I’ve no idea, but it was black and topped off by a jaunty black beret made from what looked like very high quality and very chic plastic. If the French had to wear bicycle helmets they’d be wearing what Anna was.
This year she is showing work by Erwin Wurm, best known for his life-size “fat cars” one of which is at Hobart’s MONA. At MAF he is showing a number of more modestly scaled sculptures that reveal his very Austrian sense of humour.
One could keep perambulating and consider buying a Robert Motherwell water colour for $192,000 or go the $10,000 range and pick up one of William Mackinnon‘s oils at the Utopian Slumps stand. I was taken with these views of the Mornington Peninsula, which are sort of like Howard Arkley meets Del Kathryn Barton after foraging on a Red Hill roadside for magic mushrooms. By 10pm all but one of his handful of large, slightly spooky narrative paintings of roads at night and modernist houses in the bush were sold. By yesterday they’d even sold those held inside the makeshift stock room. And the weekend sales haven’t even kicked in yet. Happy days are here again.