On the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, under the same bright blue, nearly cloudless skies, I walked through lower Manhattan to the Battery Maritime building at South Ferry. It felt strange to be headed to the Battery Maritime on this day for an art fair, not least because South Ferry–where the Staten Island Ferry docks in Manhattan, as well as the ferry to Governor’s Island–played a major role in the maritime evacuation effort twenty years ago, when all manner of watercraft (from ferries to private vessels to tugboats) ferried almost half a million people to safety. From South Ferry, the Staten Island ferry alone carried 50,000 passengers away from lower Manhattan. And now, twenty years later, in the second year of a global pandemic, I was about to walk up the Battery Maritime’s steps, and into an art fair.
I had not been to an art fair in almost two years. I barely remembered how to behave. But other people remembered. As I waited for security to check my vaccine card and ID, I could see well-dressed people up above, drinking spritzes. In the fair, people gathered in knots of threes or fours. They seemed to be looking at the art. They asked about the art. Sales are brisk, ran the reports. As I walked the fair’s aisles, I picked up price lists spangled with red dots.
This year, Independent was held at the Cipriani South Street. The space is beautiful but small. The booths felt cramped. Maybe that’s why paintings—and to a lesser extent, prints, drawings, and other flat things—dominated. Or maybe it’s because everyone is eager to return to business-as-usual. Paintings sell. Art fairs, after all, are just trade shows under a different name.
And I understand this need to pretend to be normal, pretend all is normal. To press on, as if to reassure each other that the underlying logic still holds.
I’ve long carried this scene inside of me—so long that I can’t quite tell if the scene is real, or something I dreamed up—where I look out a window (or was it across a courtyard) in Beijing’s 798 district–when it was still an industrial zone with factories, and not yet a fully fledged art district—and witness the curator from the Pompidou trying to traverse a river of mud.
The curator wore a white linen suit, and very expensive shoes. The mud clung. Those white pants were slowly turning brown, the mud transformed each pant leg into a gradient of color that was heaviest at the hem. The expensive shoes were losing their form, the mud clinging in odd lumps, erasing the heel, the vamp, the sole… Still, the curator continued. Around us, the factories made strange glottal, metallic sounds, releasing puffs of smoke, or steam, but it was not beautiful like the factories in Red Desert. It was wretched, and too hot. I was jet lagged and tired of visiting artists’ studios, but we still had a long way to go, and a long ride back to the hotel. Like the curator, I, too, slogged through the day. We were all playing the same absurd game. The rules made no sense, but we would all abide by them anyway.
Art is both part of the strange dynamo of capitalism, and a bizarre adjunct to it. All around us, crisis and reaction, call and response. And here–an attempt to be something else: order, clarity, business as usual. A chance to exist at an oblique angle to the larger world, the world outside of the art world. A chance to play the game thinking we still know the rules.
And now, some selections from the fair.
Fortnight sold out their selection of Sally J. Han paintings.
These small Martha Diamond paintings made me want to go home and experiment with paint.
Mrs. sold out their booth, a solo show of Hana Ward paintings.
This scene at Mrs. reminded me so much of my own gallery days–so many hours sitting quietly, in solitude, waiting for a piece of the action to come to you. Or maybe just browsing the internet, pretending to work but–at least in my case, I can’t speak for the person in this photo–looking for a new dress or a new pair of shoes.