Thoughts on VIENNAFAIR

Published on Artslant

Although in its press release it boasts ‘success in its chosen path’, the feeling on the ground was much more sceptical. Many galleries at the VIENNAFAIR were restless and unconvinced. Some even said they were not going to come again. And yet this year the VIENNAFAIR, which has as its focus the galleries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) with the support of Erste Bank, hosted more galleries than in its previous six years, especially more from its focus region.

This year Erste Bank subsidized the participation of about forty-five galleries from CEE, and as a result many galleries that had never before been to a fair were able to introduce their program to an international audience. We saw a gallery from Kazakhstan, and a gallery from Georgia, some from Hungary and seven from Romania, an unprecedented amount to exhibit at one fair. Poland, however, sent the most – a total of thirteen galleries.

Additionally, a special section of the CEE focus was dedicated to Istanbul, which was represented by four galleries. And as if that were not enough, there was an additional program within the galleries of Vienna sponsored by departure, the Creative Agency of the City of Vienna, which ran parallel to the fair and featured exhibitions with a CEE focus curated by internationally known curators.

However, despite such a strong gallery presence and ambitious program, many said that the international audience was lacking. ‘Where are all the Belgian collectors, where is everybody? There is almost nobody here and the few people that do come don’t even enter the booth,’ said one Romanian gallerist who is here for the second time.

‘Although we sold something, I feel quite dejected. Nobody is coming to visit the booth, nobody asks any questions, there are very few people to talk to,’ said another Romanian gallerist, also attending Vienna for the second time.

This sentiment was echoed by Nadine Gandy, whose eponymous gallery will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in Bratislava, where it moved from Prague a few years ago. ‘You’re the second person I have spoken to this whole fair,’ she told me on Saturday afternoon. ‘I don’t think I’ll be coming back to this fair. For what? I would rather bring collectors to the gallery than to waste my time waiting for someone here.’

But others had a more tempered reaction. ‘We broke even at this point, so for a very young gallery that’s been around for only six months, that’s not bad,’ said Michal of BWA Warszawa who opened his own gallery after leaving Lokal_30.

Another gallery with no expectations was Laika Gallery, a gallery from Cluj, Romania that shows mostly figurative painting and drawing. ‘This is our first time at a fair, we really had no clue what to expect. There were a lot of people on the opening night but today we’re seeing lots of families who are coming out as a sort of entertainment. We’ll see.’

Beyond the slow traffic at the fair, the work on view was generally a hodge-podge of quality. Although the majority of booths were risk-adverse and exhibited a selection of works from their roster without a strong curatorial sense, there were a few that stood out.

SABOT, a Cluj-based Romanian gallery that represents Alex Mirutziu and Vlad Nanca among others, also exhibited the paintings of Radu Comsa, who has moved away from the post-socialist realism of his more famous Cluj colleagues like Adrian Ghenie and Serban Savu, to a more geometrical abstraction. His paintings are read as a group and their display brought out the layering of the paint and the juxtaposition of shapes in a refreshing way.

The Kazhak gallery, Tengri-Umai Gallery, impressed us with the photographs by Yelena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev, a series called Photo for Memory. If a Mountain Doesn’t Go to Mahomet… Taken on a research trip around the southern part of their country, the artists pretended to be commercial photographers and offered volunteers options of backdrops with which to photograph themselves – The Kremlin, the World Trade Center Towers (which at the time of their project in 2002 had already been destroyed) and the Eiffel Tower. Although the majority of subjects didn’t recognize the towers, they did understand that the backdrop was of a world far away, the new world, full of possibility. The majority of men chose to pose with New York. These photographs are touching and sad: two very different worlds colliding for a brief moment, offering some humour and hope.

(Yelena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev, Photo for Memory. If a Mountain Doesn’t Go to Mahomet…, courtesy of Tengri-Umai Gallery.)

Bucharest’s Ivan Gallery played it safe with important artists from the pre-1989 generation who are now starting to receive well-deserved international attention: Geta Bratescu and Paul Neagu. Both showed works from the 70s, highlighting the private experiments that took place during a period when these would have been labelled decadent, and censored.

(Paul Neagu, Courtesy of Ivan Gallery)

One of the solo exhibitions that drew my attention was at Gandy Gallery from Slovakia an installation by artist Denisa Lehocká whose work featured small sculptures, drawings, works on paper, stitched fabric mixed with drawings and collage elements that created a very mysterious and enigmatic piece clearly alluding to feminity but steering clear of any overt meaning or message.

(Denisa Lehocká, installation view VIENNAFAIR, 2011, courtesy of Gandy Gallery.)

Rudolf Bone, another artist from pre-1989 Romania who is now starting to re-emerge after a period of retreat from the art world, exhibited a sculpture at Plan B, also from Cluj, created during a performance on opening night, a sort of drawing in space with a malleable plastic line material. The piece was elegant and graceful, light and yet very present. This piece was the result of his performative battle against the material, his will to liberate the form from the volume.

Unfortunately, I was only able to stay one day. Even then I managed to attend two panel discussions dealing with the current situation in the focus region. Luckily Saturday was not a complete indication of the fair’s performance and based on discussions with the same gallerists, Sunday brought more interested visitors and collectors. Nevertheless, it seems that next year the fair’s organizers should be a bit more careful to schedule VIENNAFAIR on a different weekend from Art Amsterdam, or risk becoming what one gallerist called, ‘a very local fair, important only for Vienna.’

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