Art & Photography

Invisible Art Fairs

Writer Jacob Charles Wilson imagines the art fair as seen by Marco Polo, the intrepid explorer of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities

Kate MacGarry gallery at Frieze London. Photo courtesy of Mark Blower/Frieze.

When Marco Polo arrived at the court of Kublai Khan, having travelled the art fairs of the boundless empire, he was called to report to the emperor on the magnificence of the work he had seen. But the famed Venetian had no riches, so he could not bring any treasures to the Great Khan. He had only what his tote bag and camera roll could carry. Returning to these blurry pictures and scribbled notes he had to improvise the descriptions of the works he had seen from the cards he hadn’t thrown away, scraps of press releases, and some art and culture blogs he followed.

All artworks are an expression of one thing, desire. Desire itself can take many forms but in this work desire takes its most purest and whole form. Many artists would desire to make a work such as this, at Isadore Gallery. The booth lies at the northern end of the fair, facing south. To the west is a sparkling neon sign as though lit by countless fireflies. ‘Desire’ speaks the sign, in cursive lettering. To the east of the booth another neon sign, ‘art’. The passion of the artist and their desire to make art is clear to all who gaze upon it. This pure desire is seen too in the viewer’s face and may be read as, ‘I desire this work’, while the gallerist herself desires the sale, the confirmation of desire. But the fates are fickle, and desire rarely finds a true heart. The viewer leaves, and the gallerist desires instead another bottle of wine. While desire is known at Isadore Gallery, sales are not.

At the base of all forms and modes of desire is memory, the memory of how things once were, good or bad. The memory of the bad drives the desire to seek the good, the memory of the good drives a desire to maintain its place. This work at Galerie Memento reminds us of memory. The work is vast, stretching 12 days travel in all directions. In a single day’s travel you will come across 12 mirrored boxes – each contains a box of coloured pills, each pill stamped with a single word: ‘memory’. As you pore over the boxes, opening them one by one, you are reminded of another work you once saw. The work was neither just as good, nor just as bad. Indeed, your memory of this artwork and that artwork overlap until, like a net carefully folded upon a net, the two memories appear almost as one, and you begin to question whether you dreamt seeing this work years ago at another gallery, or at least something that looked exactly like it, and you think you recall the name of the artist and the artwork being similar. Such is memory. While we talk of originality and repetition, the people of Galerie Memento talk of reference and homage.

At L’Esprit d’Escalier Art are the gallerists who hold memories of you, while you lack all recognition of them. When you first arrive you are greeted as a stranger amongst faceless strangers, but as you begin to walk around these nameless people come to recognise you. You shake their hands and kiss the air while trying to recall their unfathomable visage. As time in this gallery passes, you catch a glimpse of a dear friend, one whom circumstances have rendered apart, and who now lives and works in Berlin. You battle a massing crowd to reach this old companion, hands and lips of faceless people clamour around your body, trying to greet you as you conjure false memories and excuses to escape. As you reach your aged confidant you extend a hand – but catch yourself as you do – they turn and you know now that you have simply become one of the unknowable mass. Your friend can no longer speak your name, and simply passes you on to another faceless person.

There are times when strangers may be of great use to you. All artworks require a curator to place them in a gallery – a urinal in a pub is not an artwork, but a urinal in a gallery is. But an artist may travel for 40 days between the mountains and the desert and not find a curator for their work. It is then they turn to the strangers willing to exchange love for conferring the status of art. These are the directors, patrons, friends of the gallerist with whom arrangements may be made. The objects they confer the status of art onto need not look like an artwork, it need not display genius, nor design, it need not be relevant nor timely, it need not even exist so long as you can attend enough openings and dinners. That the artist is an artist and their art is art is only in the circuitous minds and the continued causal relationships of the gallerists. I know of one such artist exhibiting at Kassanova Kunsthalle.

Kublai Khan ran his long whisp-like beard between his jewelled fingers. He had heard these summaries before. The reports from petty officials who talked of ‘must sees’ and ‘highlights’.

“You come to me with summaries of summaries, a round-up of round-ups. It seems these are one and the same. The same artworks. The same magnificence. The same takes. Why should I listen to you before my most trusted ambassadors?”

Marco Polo fell silent for a moment, and the Great Khan continued.

“I think I understand your format, let me describe an artwork, and you will tell me if it exists? An artwork of great size and length, this piece draws a thimble from the deep well of history. It represents the latest work by the young artist living and working in the fashionable up-and-coming area of the city. The artwork explores issues of memory, desire, and subverts the gaze of the viewer.”

“Indeed Great Khan, such an artwork will exist, and such an artwork will be written on, just as you have described. I myself may talk of such a work, but you must see that my stories are unlike those of your officials, for whom sale prices are more important. You see, my stories are accompanied by stunning photo slideshows, click to see more.”