Sydney Contemporary 2017

September 15, 2017
Hahan, with his soon-to-be carved up mural
Hahan, with his soon-to-be carved up mural

It was both pleasing and wryly amusing to learn that sales at this year’s Sydney Contemporary Art Fair topped $16 million. For a commercial gallery sector feeling unloved and unvisited this figure represents a resounding endorsement.

Nevertheless, before breaking out the champagne it’s worth putting that achievement into perspective with a glance at Day One of this year’s Art Basel in June, where über-gallery, Hauser & Wirth, unloaded a single painting by Philip Guston for US$15 million. Other multi-million dollar sales that day included works by Sigmar Polke, Mark Bradford, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, Robert Rauschenberg, Cindy Sherman, Xu Zhen and El Anatsui. And this is only from galleries willing to broadcast their success. At all art fairs more is concealed than revealed.

Over the past couple of decades the disparity between the Australian and international markets has grown to outlandish proportions. In respect to the money that changes hands in centres such as London and New York, art dealing in Australia might be viewed as a hobby rather than a profession.

Sydney Contemporary provides the first tangible sign that we may finally be getting ready to take the art thing seriously. It’s not just the improved sales that encourage me to say this, it’s the incredibly up-beat nature of this year’s fair, which seemed to infect dealers and visitors alike. I don’t know how director, Barry Keldoulis, got everyone so revved up. Perhaps he should try his hand with the Wallabies.

In Australia there is more than enough money for us to be front-line players internationally. There are at least 60 billionaires in this country and a veritable horde worth $100 million or more. Many wealthy collectors are already fixtures on the art fair circuit, although they show little enthusiasm for the local product.

For Australia to realise the potential of its art market, requires a cultural transformation. It begins with the government relaxing the onerous restrictions on buying art for superannuation that wounded the local industry when introduced under Labor. Rather than correcting a poorly regulated business it has cost the commonwealth a huge amount of revenue. When people stop buying they stop paying GST. When the incomes of artists and dealers sink below a certain threshold they no longer pay tax.

Furthermore the superannuation strictures meant that a truckload of work was dumped on the resale market, bringing down prices. Applied to any other industry such vandalism would cause outrage, but the Coalition – the so-called party for business – has done nothing to correct its predecessors’ imposture.

As for local consumers, they need to stop thinking of art as a decoration for the hallway. The value of global art sales in 2016 was estimated at US$56.6 billion by the UBS Art Market Report.

In the air of excitement hovering around this year’s Sydney Contemporary there was a sense that attitudes are beginning to change. In only its third year the Sydney event has completely supplanted – indeed, killed off – its long-established Melbourne counterpart. While Melbourne is aiming to revive the fair next year in a designer tent, it seems that Sydney is a much safer commercial proposition.

This may be some compensation for the fact that, in terms of exhibitions and attendances, the National Gallery of Victoria is palpably superior nowadays to any other institution in Australia.

At the fair, dealers were speaking about the sales they had made in semi-disbelief, suspecting they might be dreaming. Justin Miller had done a roaring trade during the preview, while Sullivan + Strumpf (veterans of many art fairs), claimed to have had their best-ever first day anywhere in the world. It was surprising that the love was so widely shared, not limited as usual to a few shrewd or fortunate traders.

Catherine O'Donnell, 'Urban Perspective' (detail), May Space

Catherine O’Donnell, ‘Urban Perspective’ (detail), May Space

Everywhere one looked the galleries were making a tremendous effort. It was brave of Brenda May to fill her booth with a massive wall drawing of a house by Cath O’Donnell, but the effect was stunning. Over at Sabbia, Honor Freeman contributed a circular installation of 656 worn, coloured cakes of soap, made out of porcelain. Defying the humble image of “ceramics”, it was as much a museum piece as anything on display at the more cutting-edge establishments.

Honor Freeman, 'Soap Score', Sabbia Gallery

Honor Freeman, ‘Soap Score’, Sabbia Gallery

It’s impossible to keep singling out individual artists and galleries because there was more quality than I’ve ever experienced at an Australian art fair. Although the event may have been modest in scale, with a mere 90 galleries in comparison to Art Basel’s 242, the atmosphere was crackling.

The freestanding installations which have become a feature of most contemporary fairs were among the highlights, with nothing better than Moment By Moment Heartbeat by Heartbeat – a collection of densely-patterned screens by Japanese artist, Maio Motoko, presented by Lesley Keogh. It was also hard to resist the off-beat humour of Richard Lewer’s Confessions, scrawled on black and yellow panels – “It’s true I haven’t made dinner for a very long time”, “I really hate Christmas”; or Brendan Van Hek’s neon installation, Horizon (warm white, white), which gave the impression of if sunlight was beaming in through a high window.

It was great to see a strong turn-out of galleries from New Zealand, South America, Singapore, and even Dastan’s Basement from Iran. According to the dealer, Tehran has more than 200 commercial galleries, a statistic that shows how foolish it is to portray the Persians in terms of narrow political clichés.

There was a perpetual crowd around Speculative Entertainment No.1, by the livewire Indonesian artist, Hahan, which invited visitors to purchase a small, square segment of a vast painting being gradually dissected by assistants. One could keep the fragment or attempt to sell it on for a profit, taking part in an elaborate game that explored the interface between art and money.

Sydney Contemporary may have been a commercial event, but with works by more than 500 artists it was also the most dynamic and varied exhibition to be seen in Australia this year. Even if they weren’t buying, most of the 30,000 visitors weren’t complaining. Investment is all very well, but for most of us the primary appeal of a work of art is not to the wallet but the heart.

Sydney Contemporary
Carriageworks, 7-10 September

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 16 September, 2017