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Park Seungmo, Yu Hyeon Jeong, Courtesy Hada Contemporary, London, © VIENNAFAIR / Christian Jungwirth

A Look Back at the Viennese Art Fair – VIENNAFAIR 2013 0

Agnese Čivle,

It turns out that even a modern contemporary art fair can't get by without including at least some components that originate from traditional country fairs. Except here, the carousel in the middle of the fairgrounds has been replaced by a large-scale sculpture of Tony Soprano (“Tony to Go”, 2013, by Lithuanian artist Donatas Jankauskas), and loud attractions with circus-like elements have been replaced by contemporary art performances – such as reciting text while upside-down (“Exercises for Seeing Stars #3”, by Ella De Burca), and a therapeutic multi-sensory environment which reveals, with the help of specially designed objects and installations, the beneficial effect of art on the nervous system and overall health (HIAS Health in the Arts platform).

Ella de Burca presented her new work “Exercises for Seeing Stars #3”. Photo: Alexander Schwarzinger

In the Middle Ages, fairs were always linked to an important religious holiday, and therefore, each one had their own patron saint. VIENNAFAIR also has its own patronesses – according to the holy writ of marketing, two charismatic and attractive young women have been singled out – the artistic directors Christina Steinbrecher and Vita Zaman, both of whom come from territories of the former USSR, but who have received their educations and work experience in Western Europe.

Both the directors' provenance, and the above-mentioned sculpture of “Godfather Tony”, whose Lithuanian maker first stepped onto the art scene shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, serve to remind us that VIENNAFAIR lies at the cross-roads of two spheres of contemporary art – Eastern European and Western European. When repeatedly asked by the press why an art fair that focuses on Eastern Europe is being held specifically in Vienna, always the same answer was given – because of Vienna's historical context. But another just as relevant reason is that contemporary art has an active following of consumers and connoisseurs in Vienna – much like “The Sopranos” has its own ardent audience of television viewers.

VIENNA Tribute. Donatas Jankauskas,  “Tony To Go” & CAC, Vilnius

The price ranges at VIENNAFAIR are consumer-friendly. (This is a good place to single out the fair's Austrian project titled DRAWmART, in which the Austrian-Italian artist Aldo Gianotti offered to render a postcard-sized copy of any of the artworks to be found in the stands at VIENNAFAIR. An illusory realization of one's dream – and for only 100 euros!) The presence of collectors at the fair was, however, quite modest.

Among the Eastern European gallerists, one often heard the sentiment that VIENNAFAIR is not an environment that teems with collectors. Gerda Paliusyte, from the Lithuanian art space The Gardens, looks at VIENNAFAIR as a relatively small and concerted art fair: “There aren't many prominent collectors and institutions looking to build on their collections here. This is more of a place where people head to find artworks that they could insert into their personal spaces. We present conceptual works – complex objects, but it seems that the buying public here is more attuned to “comfortable” art – works that comfortably fit into their home interiors.” Yana Smurova, representing Moscow's Triumph gallery, also concurred on the lack of notable collectors at the fair.

Jānis Avotiņš, Contemporary Art Centre kim?, Riga

Maybe the collectors were flocking to the fair's section that housed the big-name galleries from Austria and Germany, thereby leaving to the wayside that part of the hangar that contained Central and Eastern Europe's artistic endeavors? had the opportunity to meet up with Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, one of Italy's preeminent collectors, and who was taking part in “24 four 7”, one of the fair's program events that consisted of a series of panel discussions on art collecting. Patrizia admitted that even though she is well informed on Eastern Europe's activities on the contemporary art scene and the initiatives of the new art centers, artworks from this geographical sector are poorly represented in her collection. In terms of the Baltic States, she is, however, well acquainted with the Latvian artist Jānis Avotiņš, whose works she knows from the artist's cooperation with IBID PROJECTS in London. Patrizia already has two works by Avotiņš in her collection, and is planning on obtaining a third, which is why she was very pleased to see the artist's latest creations at the booth representing the kim? Contemporary Art Centre.

It will be interesting to read the fair's final sales' tallies to see who scored a lucky golden ticket by being snapped up by a collector, but there is one more unique aspect of VIENNAFAIR that cannot be passed over. Namely, the educational programs that were aimed at students, families and senior citizens. The aim of these programs is to increase awareness of contemporary art, as well as to spark an interest for Eastern European art and culture, something which is usually not included in the playing fields of Western art.

Oksana Mas, “Constitution”,  Tatiana Mironova Gallery, Ukraine

Representing the Tatiana Mironova Gallery from Ukraine, Cor van Harn stressed the educational dimension of the fair. The Mironova Gallery featured artists such as Oleg Kulik, Roger Ballen, and the Ukranian artist Oksana Mas, whose interpretation of Jan Van Eyck's “Ghent Alterpiece” was one of the most popular at the 54th Venice Biennale. Cor van Harn noted that this was one more chance to see Mas's creation in an international context – otherwise, after such a successful appearance at the Biennale, it would quickly be forgotten.

Apropos the fair's educational aspect, Gerda Paļusīte adds: “The VIENNAFAIR presence of the booth featuring the entrants for Lithuania's “Young Painters Prize” is an opportunity to show the very latest in art from Eastern Europe. The decision to show something like this is purely educational in nature; otherwise, you'd only see established, commercial galleries in this spot.”

When asked if there are pronounced differences between the art scenes of Eastern and Western Europe, opinions varied. Lizete Riņķe, from the gallery “Alma” (Latvia), believes that these two regions shouldn't be divided as individual entities. Olga Temnikova, from the gallery Temnikova & Kasela (Estonia), expressed that this is something that is very difficult to talk about today. Her gallery was representing four Estonian artists who, it turns out, spend their daily lives in various European countries, continually taking part in international exhibitions. Perhaps only the very distinct painting technique of Merike Estna could be said to be specific enough to be characteristic of the Northern region. Nevertheless, one cannot get rid of the feeling that a line has been drawn between the bloc of Austrian/German galleries, and those from Eastern Europe. In the booths from the latter region, paintings are more prominent, as well as a tendency to cover socially relevant themes; whereas in the booths of the former region, everyone involved is quite aware of the commercial nature of the fair.

Publisher Pierre Christian Brochet, a collector of Russian art, commends the fair on its focus on Eastern Europe, and comments that here he has noticed the so-called “post-Malevich” trend, which has been a notable feature in the course of the development of art in the territories of the former USSR. Influences coming from Oleg Kulik  and the Viennese- and Moscow Actionism movements were also widely identifiable, according to Brochet. During the fair, he was inspired to rethink the emergence of conceptualism: “Moscow Conceptualism could only arise in Moscow, because Russian has no philosophy. The USA also has no philosophy. There is no conceptualism in France, even though they have a whole slew of philosophers. Now why is that?” In Brochet's opinion, conceptualism is possible only in a country that has no philosophy, but one in which the artists recognize that they can use philosophy for their own objectives. “In addition, in the Soviet Union, art was a form of thought expression that wasn't so very “watched” as philosophy. All of this can be felt here, at the fair...”

For the fair to become an easily accessible platform for selling and buying, as well as a true mirror of trends in contemporary art, one must consider the factor of the fair's physical outlay. Undeniably, most of the art galleries had put great thought in their presentation, and the architecture of the exhibitions was, often times, an artistic manifestation in itself.

Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, director of the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art MAK, admits that last year's organizational and spatial strategy for VIENNAFAIR was not bad, but that this year's is even better. When asked what would be the most optimal structural setting for the fair, he says that there is no one, set recipe – in large part, everything depends on the galleries' own presentations.

Andris Breze's White Square in the VIP Lounge

In thinking about the fair's skeletal structure of interpersonal relationships, and such a trivial aspect as neighboring galleries – i.e, the arrangement of the gallery booths on the chess-board of the fair – the phrase, “Where there's a fair, there's an affair!” comes to mind. In this aspect, art fairs are just real life – while some live in peace and tranquility, others live a life of scandal and intrigue. Interestingly enough, it was the usually rather demure Latvia that got caught up in a scandal of sorts. The placement of the gallery “Alma” next to Belgium's Galerie Valérie Bach turned out to be not all that successful. The Belgians would not accept the proximity of Andris Breže's “White Square” – that is, the brightness of its 160 fluorescent light bulbs, and its effect on their own exhibition. In reaction to the complaints of Galerie Valérie Bach, and the infraction to fire-safety standards caused by the object's location (which was a couple of centimeters over the booth's allowed dimensions), the heads of VIENNAFAIR solved the problem by relocating the artwork to the VIP Lounge, which belongs to the fair's owner, Dmitry Aksenov.

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