The end of the (art) affair

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My tendency in the past four years that I’ve been writing about and reviewing local art has been to be kind. I stopped reviewing art I didn’t like unless my editors assigned it to me; I would look at art events and could not but appreciate the effort that organizers put into it, even when it was clear to me that celebrating local art in this way is the height of superficiality.

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Artists earn money in these events, after all, and that is reason enough to be less than critical. Or to trail one’s eyes elsewhere or critique, say, the art that’s just waiting to be placed in some hotel (or hotel bathroom!) or that museum that doesn’t allow photos, when it is all we can take home of art (I’m looking at you, Metropolitan and Ayala Museums)!

Unfair talk, bad vibes And yes, this is about this year’s Art Fair Philippines (AFP) as it is also about ManilArt, where the former can be read as a reaction to the latter.

In 2011, ManilArt shifted from art tiangge mode into one that had a limited set of participating galleries, all required to do curated exhibits. ManilArt 2011 Festival Director Delan Robillos is a friend, and to my mind the decisions he made for the fair were borne of a sincere desire to do things better. Whether he failed or succeeded is beside the point. What matters is how that year’s fair was bogged down by a whole lot of nasty gossip.

On Gala Night, a sushalite reprimanded Robillos about dimming the lights in the first hour—something that was about first centralizing attention on the program which had Myra Beltran dancing to Elmer Borlongan’s “Batang EDSA” painting. At some point during that program some artist started screaming and cussing, and we heard glass breaking. There was also tsismis of fakes being sold, later disproven. There was talk about an art critic being commissioned to do a critique of the fair.

ManilArt 2012 was obviously boycotted by mainstream galleries; it looked like a larger version of the 4th floor of SM Megamall.

It was in the context of ManilArt 2012, that the February 2013 Art Fair Philippines was exciting. A private endeavor, the fair was dubbed “The Best in Philippine Contemporary Art,” and promised not just to sell art, but also to exhibit it. That is, to have galleries do curated exhibits, and have large commissioned works of big­name artists like Ronald Ventura and Gabby Barredo. These made AFP worth going to even for those who aren’t in the business of buying art.

The forgettable fair AFP wanted to do the art fair better than a tiangge. And yet the organizers employed the same tactics as ManilArt 2011, which is always questioned because it is akin to those public­private partnerships that government likes to celebrate, and it isn’t clear where the lines are drawn about who earns from what exactly. AFP set itself up for criticism when it made the promise to do the art fair better.

I expected little from ManilArt but actually enjoyed its 2013 run, because it was unpretentious and didn’t have the usual trappings of gala nights and previews. I expected much from Art Fair Philippines 2014, and can’t get over how disappointing it was.

This year, “The Best in Philippine Contemporary Art” was a label used for selling art, period. Few galleries had curated exhibitions; a majority were letting buyers take home their acquisitions, the better to replace it with new stock from the gallery backroom of unsold art. The second floor, with the individual Ben Cab, Marina Cruz, and Geraldine Javier exhibits, was too frenzied and noisy—you would forget the eeriness of Javier’s and Cruz’s works.

The Jaime de Guzman retrospective was simply disrespectful to the artist, what with Archivo cramming the huge canvases and installations into half of its space – so that it could put up art for sale in the other half. The Ronald Ventura central installation is all but this grammatically challenged quote that suffices as its title: “I wish it was just a dream, but it wasn’t.”

I thought Louie Cordero’s ping­pong tables could’ve worked if people were not allowed to play on it, or if the dynamics of play were actually affected, or if the table could be used for eating or sitting, or volleyball! Then it would have been a better thought­of piece of art; not one that’s justified by that horrible copy: “how sports and contemporary art come together!”

My goodness.

In fairness. . .

It all just seemed too unthinking, and that might be said of the rest of the AFP this year as well.

There was a lack of vision for it, where the promise of doing the art fair better got lost in the process of celebrating how big it is this year, and how “new”—and oh look! Bloomberg’s talking about the thousands of dollars in art we’ve sold so far!

In truth this is no surprise, that AFP would lose sight of what it envisioned for itself. In fact it is merely symptomatic of what truly ails, and is at, the heart of both Art Fair Philippines and ManilArt.

These two are ultimately nothing but art fairs, in many ways far from a tiangge, but also the same in more ways than one.

And anyone who believes that these institutions exist for the artists, and that the money earned actually goes to the artists, and that artists are its heart and soul, is still wearing blinders.

In fairness, ignorance is bliss.

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3 Comments

  1. Joseph Salazar on

    Hi Katrina. I share your sentiments. I used to enjoy visiting art galleries and exhibitions as a college student in the mid-90s, and maybe back then I wasn’t expected to afford anything. Now I just avoid them entirely as I feel coerced to buy stuff. I was in a semi-reputable and semi-pretentious gallery in Makati a few months ago and was made to feel guilty by a gallery attendant for not taking out my wallet after asking questions about a work or an artist–even though she really did not know much about what she was peddling. “So hindi po kayo bibili?”, she grumbled and walked back to her desk! Even though I would like to sympathize with galleries and their need to make money, I wish it wasn’t such a hard sell each time you go through their space and that they invest time in educating not just the public but their staff who don’t know the difference between selling art and rtw.

  2. Katrina.
    I have read through your article twice, to lake sense of it. The gist seems to be that the gallery system is about making money, is that right? Not really supporting artists?

    I am slowly re booting my own interest in art here and have had some experience of galleries here.

    Dealers and the important galleries and to some extent critics are the gate keepers.
    They control what happens.

    I am English. Two artists inerest me in this respect. William Hogarth, from the 18c sold his series direct to the public. Joe Gormley the sculpture, puts his work out there on public display.

    Thanks for your article!

    • Hi Jon! So sorry didn’t see this comment when it was posted.

      Re galleries, well yes. But that is its nature and that is okay. That it is magnified though in an Art Fair Philippines that purportedly is about championing the artist and his / her work, that is about giving them business and profit, etc. etc. is what is offensive. The pretense removes from the real conditions of artists, and silences the state of affairs within the art scene.

      Some visual artists and art collectives remove themselves from the purvey of the gallery system. But artists who need money, and that’s all of them (of course), will go ahead and engage with galleries as a matter of survival.