Two years ago, the Frankfurt trade-show company asked local gallerist Michael Neff to overhaul its art fair, which had become a regional mediocrity. Neff’s tactic has been to radically rethink the notion of a fair. For this year, he announced a fair without walls, as in: Sculpture only. And no booths. Rumor had it Neff even forbade seats for the dealers. Curious, I packed into the Deutsche Bahn early yesterday and rode off to Germany’s finance capital.
Walking into the sprawling convention center’s cavernous Hall 9, one had the impression of entering an indoor sculpture garden. Arranged along the perimeter of the hall, with a shrouded cafe area in the middle, were roughly 100 large sculptures (and some freestanding installations) spaced at quite decent intervals – one could see them from all angles, without even having to stand atop adjacent works. (Images here.) And indeed the only walls were in the Dennis Loesch sculpture reproducing small sections of Frieze Art Fair booths complete with gallery signage. The closest thing I’ve seen to this at any other fair are the open areas within Art Basel’s Art Unlimited. Rumor has it Neff heavily influenced the selection of work each gallery brought and this fair looked most like a curated exhibition, right down to the dramatic (over-dramatic?) spotlight bathing each piece in the otherwise darkish hall. Almost all of were quite recent pieces by younger contemporary artists – although there was a Carsten Höller and a Gunther Förg, and a very cool security-cammed Valie Export piece, conceived in 1973 (but only now executed). The size and ambition of the artworks were refreshing; these were not the domestic-sized sculptures one commonly sees in art fair booths, appropriate for placement in a finacier’s soft loft, but not too intrusive.
Of course, there’s a reason why you commonly see such works in fairs, which is that they are far more saleable. After all, few private collectors have the space for such major installations and sculptures. And if one thing was clear, it was that the dealers in Frankfurt were not counting on selling much. One I talked to was planning to go home the next day, leaving a price sheet with instructions and her cellphone number beside the piece. And there were a lot assistants minding the wares. Even on the opening night, one missed the buzz of money-making in the air. There are two primary reasons why a gallery participates in any fair: to sell works and to raise/reinforce its profile. Clearly, this fair had been deliberately tipped toward the latter.
Among the artworld folk with whom I chatted, there was a lot of neither-fish-nor-fowl bewilderment in terms of how to judge an event that 1) uses the paradigm of a marketplace but operates within onerous, self-imposed, commercial constraints, and 2) looks like exhibition but lacks any clear unifying thread except the medium of the pieces. Will this innovation survive long-term? Maybe if Frankfurt can manage to attract the entire market segment for such works. But even if not – or if Neff declares some equally radical idea for next year – then this event may still well prove to be an incremental mutation toward some future form of the fair-meets-exhibition artworld hybrid.