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Reinventing the Fair Experience at Art Cologne

By Quinn Latimer

Published: April 18, 2008

Courtesy Galerie Ben Kaufmann
Andreas Bunte's 16mm film, “Der Garten des M. Leretnac” (2008), is being shown by Galerie Ben Kaufmann.

Courtesy Sister
LA’s Sister Gallery, under the auspices of Rental, in New York, is showing Mary Weatherford's "January Caves" painting series from 2008.

COLOGNE, Germany—When Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture was designing Prada’s flagship store in downtown New York in the late ’90s, it spent considerable time investigating new ways to “reinvent the retail experience.” OMA’s research yielded the pivotal fact that shoppers feel more comfortable spending copious amounts of money in cultured environments — museum stores, say — than in straightforward commercial boutiques. Much of the store’s space, then (which in a nice coincidence had previously held the SoHo branch of the Guggenheim Museum), was given over to a performance theater and a large, clearly sculptural, curving wall. When the store opened in 2001 the New York Times architecture critic went as far as to suggest that visitors “think of this as a museum show on indefinite display.” But the anxiety betrayed by the architectural concept — which recasts consumerism as a cultural activity — comes to mind when considering the state of art fairs today, which increasingly draw the hype (if not the crowds) once reserved for biennials, and, accordingly, increasingly include curated components that depart from the rows of white-box booths that traditionally map the art-fair environment.

Case in point: Art Cologne (up through Sunday, April 20), which billed itself as the world’s first art fair when it began in 1967, is featuring numerous curated sections this year, from its New Contemporaries (19 newish international galleries selected by committee to show emerging artists) to New Talents (17 emerging artists who apply to compete for the Art Cologne Young Artist’s Prize, which is selected by an independent committee), to Open Space, a 50-gallery exhibition that seems to represent the pinnacle of art-fair anxiety at Cologne. Begun in 2005, this “open marketplace” and “sale-oriented exhibition” has proved influential: Similar concepts now appear regularly at prestigious fairs like Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach. This year's participants at Art Cologne — a majority of which are German, giving the section a rather Kraut-rock feel — fill 3,000 square meters (32,000 square feet) on the ground floor of the Koelnmesse complex, a level below the main fair. The area is delineated by an evenly scuffed white floor, outside of which the traditional fair, and its format, reasserts itself. As one young Berliner (and Open Space participant) from an upstart, edgy gallery remarked, laughing, “You want to stay within the white lines.”

Within those white lines the show reveals itself in urban clusters, giving each section of galleries a neighborhoody, congenial feel. The two standout metropolises? Berlin and L.A., each represented by a disproportionate number of galleries, although the quality of their art seems to justify such favor. Andreas Bunte’s elegant and intriguing black-and-white film projection, The Garden of M. Leretnac (2008), touches on ideas of planned gardens and landscape architecture as Gesamtkunstwerks and is housed in a hexagonal structure that nicely plays off the tinny temporary walls erected all around. “I envisioned the Open Space area as a landscaped garden, and this structure as the garden’s pavilion or pagoda,” explained the sweet and clearly satisfied artist. Bunte’s gallerist, Ben Kaufmann, expressed similar excitement about the show’s premise and the fact that it had allowed his artist to conceptualize such a work. He cited the helpful support of Art Cologne, noting the previous night’s party-cum-exhibition "Hotel California," put on by the alliterative pair Javier Peres and Patrick Painter, and the breakfast hosted that morning by Kasper Koenig (also alliterative). In a nod to the main fair upstairs, with its Picasso prints, interchangeable Expressionist paintings, and embarrassingly large Leni Riefenstahl prints of muscular African tribal women, he said, “Perhaps [Open Space] is not as well-integrated into the fair as it could be, but perhaps Daniel Hug will change that.”

Hug — recently announced as the fair’s next head — was much the topic of conversation among gallerists and artists alike as I moved through Open Space’s confines, where his L.A. gallery is also represented. Like Berlin, L.A. has a strong (if sunnier) showing in the Open Space section. L.A.’s Sister Gallery, under the auspices of New York’s Rental, is showing a trio of lovely, kaleidoscope-like paintings on linen by the Ojai-born artist Mary Weatherford priced at 3,500 euros ($5,500) each. Nearby, Hug has given his space over to works by Hanna-Mari Blencke, including an elegant print appropriately titled Songbook of Finances (2008) — a joke perhaps by a gallerist turned art fair manager? Monetary allusions are also ripe in a rigorous installation of works by English artist Fergal Stapleton, with London’s Carl Freedman Gallery. A number of seemingly monochromatic black paintings reveal themselves to be, on closer look, tables set with small change and cheap baubles, “objects of no monetary value,” the gallery informed me (the paintings go for 1,900 or 5,000 euros each, depending on size).

A selection of galleries teamed up to present works by single artists, with some fine results. Italian-born, Berlin-based conceptual artist Riccardo Previdi is being shown by Milan's Francesca Minini Gallery and Karlsruhe's Galerie Iris Kadel, with an inspired, cogent installation consisting of a huge flag — which is hung between two walls, its excess left to drape across the floor — made of stitched-together white and blue triangles, and a number of smaller prints depicting ’40s and ’50s Berlin that repeated the triangle theme (all inspired by the 1947 design triennial in Milan, which sported a similar flag at its opening). Like Kaufmann, Minini expressed gratitude about the Open Space project: “It gave us an opportunity to show a large-scale work that we could not have installed in a more enclosed environment,” she said.

Although there are some dissenters — one gallerist noted that last year’s Open Space had fewer participants, making the presentation of artworks that much more distilled — most gallerists seem happy to be showing, and selling, in such an atmosphere. And in curatorial terms, certain sections of Open Space succeed, at least in part, in giving off an air of intentionality. Other areas are less cohesive: In one corner Eric Bainbridge’s (represented by Workplace Gallery, in Gateshead, England) installation of minimalist sculptures shares space with feminist pioneer Alexis Hunter’s (represented by Zurich’s Karma International) images of burning high heels and a man’s crotch aligned with the now-departed Twin Towers off in the distance to suggest a monumental phallus. These images lead to studiously childlike drawings by the flamboyant Spartacus Chetwynd of London’s Studio Voltaire. What do these works have to do with each other? Not much, but then even biennials these days — which curated projects like Open Space clearly resemble — often yield similarly incongruous results. In the end, if one likes the work itself, and has the means to buy it, this doesn’t seem to matter much.