What a difference two years make. The first time we checked in on Sydney Contemporary in 2017 the event had consolidated its position as Australia’s largest and most commercially successful art fair.
That event was marked by both its ambition and scope, and in total the fair sold just over $16m worth of art. That record was topped in 2018 with $21m in sales. At the press launch on Wednesday for the 2019 outing, Tim Etchells, director of Art Fairs Australia – the company that stages the event – speculated that they would see perhaps $26m in sales if the upward trend continued.
And if the scale of the show is anything to go by, Etchells may well be right to be optimistic. Sydney Contemporary is a massive four-day event, spread out through the high-ceilinged galleries of Carriageworks in Redfern, with 95 galleries exhibiting new work by more than 450 artists from more than 12 countries, along with a series of performances, curated installation art works, a talks program and VIP events. On the surface it’s all go-go-go.
But the Australian economy is in a very different place to where it was in 2017. The expectation that Australia could soon be in recession is widespread, and with flat consumer spending, right now might not be the best time to buy art. The key question in my mind as I toured the fair was how all this would play out in the actual art on offer in 2019.
It seems as though the gallery directors are thinking the same – let’s get back to basics, and not scare the punters
The short answer is that, for the most part, the galleries are playing it safe with a lot of decorative art. There are vast stretches of tedious abstract painting in brown, black and red, the kind of stuff that looks good on the walls of houses advertised on real estate sites.
There’s also a lot of large-scale photography, much of it nature or animal themed – the better work in this vein being Joseph McGlennon’s fantasy butterfly vistas at Michael Reid, and Laurence Aberhart’s magisterial and moody photos of mountain peaks at the Gow Langsford stall – and some gentle faux-expressionist figurative work that serves as testament to the artist’s lack of embarrassment, and the potential buyer’s will to be edgy, but in a safe way.
Another notable trend is the change in scale. Some argue that the size of an artwork is irrelevant to its aesthetic qualities, and that might be true, but it sure makes a difference to price. In 2019, the gargantuan canvases of the last few years have disappeared with more domestic-scale works now on offer.
As far as media goes, photography and sculpture is about as radical as it gets. There are a few pieces incorporating new media such as VR (Joan Ross’s installation for example), and video and other screen art, so popular just a few years ago, has likewise disappeared.
It’s as though the gallery directors are all thinking the same thing: let’s get back to basics, and not scare the punters.
Sydney Contemporary is a commercial enterprise that attempts to lure in potential buyers at all levels. There are big-ticket items for sure – such as vintage work by John Olsen at Olsen Gallery, and some new examples of Tim Storrier’s trademark landscapes and sculptures at Australian Galleries – but there’s also an attempt to get people to buy in at entry level, starting at around $1,200.
The NEXT offering is aimed squarely at that market, with prices starting at $1,200 up to $5,000. It’s basically a wall next to the cafe featuring a salon-style array of mostly abstract works by lesser-known artists from commercial galleries, including pieces by Shinya Azuma ($1.6k), Nick Ferguson ($2.5k) and Tom Adair ($5k).
In fact, there seems to be a bar or café every couple of hundred metres, and the long and winding route that visitors are meant to follow – marked out by a bright blue carpet – is, as one gallerist said to me, rather like Ikea, although without Swedish meatballs at the end.
The late great art critic Robert Hughes once observed that the Australian art market is populated with “tire kickers” – people who come to look but don’t actually buy. Due to my ongoing financial embarrassment, I am one of those people. I have a short list of things that attracted me: the list includes Amanda Williams’ analogue photography of landscapes at The Commercial, James Drinkwater’s brilliant post-ironic expressionist paintings at Nanda/Hobbs, and Laurie Steer’s Crocodile Ate The Sun: an installation of odd little ceramics at the booth of New Zealand visitors Bowerbank Ninow.
But the best work of the show for me was undoubtedly Tower of Power: a not-for-sale installation by Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro in which punters climb stairs inside a faux-medieval tower. At the top is an observation platform from which you can observe the main hall of the fair, or charge your phone via some handily installed charger cables.
A woman standing next to me at the top was trying to work out how to use a pair of binoculars that are part of the work. Once she had stared down at the gallery owners and their art, she joyfully remarked: “Aha! So little – and far away!”
•Sydney Contemporary Art Fair runs at Carriageworks until Sunday 15 September