These days, the art fair season seems endless, with Art Basel Miami Beach having just finished in December, New York’s Armory Show about to begin in March, and a bunch of inaugural shows surely to be found in between. But open now at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, is a new type of exhibit that draws on structural aspects of the art fair institution, while reevaluating the role of the visitor to the contemporary art market scene.
Created by artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset, The Well Fair is a fictitious art fair comprised of over 80 of the artists’ works completed over the past 20 years. Known for their performance-like commentary on societal issues, here, Elmgreen & Dragset explore the social design of today’s art fairs and the resulting behaviour of its participants.
Given its fake VIP lounge and unmanned booths, The Creators Project had to speak with the Scandinavian duo to find out what else was to be found on entry to The Well Fair.
The Creators Project: So how many real art fairs have you exhibited in?
Michael Elmgreen (ME): Too many, haha! Our works are regularly shown in art fairs globally, so we are rather familiar with the format. We first got the idea for The Well Fair during our initial site visit to the UCCA- the vast space of its Great Hall could be large enough to host an art fair.
But this one is fake! What aspects of contemporary art fairs are you drawing on with The Well Fair?
Ingar Dragset (ID): The title is a nod to our 2006 exhibition The Welfare Show at the Serpentine Gallery in London. That show presented our works in the context of a series of administrative offices, hallways, and sterile institutional spaces as a commentary on the decline of the Northern European welfare state.
ME: The Well Fair deals with many aspects of contemporary art fairs, including the commonly accepted grid layout of evenly spaced rectangular booths and a sequential booth numbering system, as well as other elements typically found at fairs like a VIP lounge and communal areas like café, bookshop, restrooms and information desk. This idea continues the driving forces behind some of our earlier exhibitions that dealt with institutional architecture, like Taking Place, where we appropriated the renovation of the Kunsthalle Zürich as our exhibition, or our show Aeroport Mille Plateaux at the Samsung Plateau Museum in Seoul last summer, where we turned the exhibition spaces into an airport terminal.
How does The Well Fair present itself like a real art fair and what does it do to highlight the disparities present in today’s art market and exhibit space?
ID: The art market is currently experiencing rapid growth, which is intrinsically linked to a widening income disparity across the globe. Almost every major city has an art fair, and if they don’t yet have one, they’re probably thinking of organizing one. Much of our work, including our series Powerless Structures, has dealt with the idea that structures operate based on the power we grant them—if certain elements are altered, it could make people more willing to fundamentally change the structures themselves. The Well Fair relates to power structures in the art world via this method: the fair has a VIP lounge, but it is totally inaccessible, as indicated by our work Plus One, a teak door labelled “VIP,” with two handles and no way to enter.
ME: We also extended the “fair” concept to the graphic identity of the show, with a definitive logo, a catalog designed to mimic an an art fair and custom “VIP” cards for all guests. We collaborated with The Art Newspaper China to make the exhibition guide appear exactly like their special daily fair editions, which you always find at the major art fairs, and the website Artsy announced the exhibition as if it was an actual fair. We even had a VIP car service for the opening days parked outside the venue.
But the works exhibited inside the show are all yours and very much authentic pieces.
ME: Yes, the show contains a broad survey of our works from the past two decades, more than 80 works, of which 70 were existing works shipped from collections in 8 different countries. These works have never been shown together in this way before. At UCCA, they are displayed grouped together in new constellations, so that each booth becomes like a solo exhibition in itself with its own narratives and special atmosphere. For example, one booth has the walls painted black and contains some of our all-white sculptures that were previously shown in our 2014 exhibition The Old World in Hong Kong. Another booth contains works from The Named Series, a series of paintings made with wall paint removed by a professional conservator from exhibition walls of art institutions like the Guggenheim and Centre Pompidou.
ID: The works are displayed in various states of unpacking—some are leaned against the walls, some are still half-crated, others are wrapped up in plastic. Together these details make visitors unsure if the fair is about to start, or if it’s just closing up. It creates this environment that reflects the atmosphere of our performance piece in booth D|05, Zwischen anderen Ereignissen (Between Other Events), in which a painter continuously paints the already white walls with ever more layers of white paint throughout the exhibition. We’re trying to capture a similar beauty in the “in-between” throughout the show.
ME: There are certain artworks, like Home is the Place You Left, which is made in Chinese calligraphy, that were created just for this show, and part of the interiors in the communal areas were as well, such as the info desk, the bookstore or the cafe. The museum’s staff is also engaged to act as the fair’s staff.
So what’s the difference between The Well Fair and any contemporary fair that visitors experience today?
ID: One of the major differences is that nothing is for sale. In that way, we have completely removed the commercial aspect of the fair, something that is of course normally an essential element. Also, we are the only artists whose work is on view, which is a way of eliminating the competitive, side-by-side valuation of artworks. The booths are only labeled with letters and numbers, no gallery name, removing those distinguishing factors as well. It is not possible to enter the VIP lounge, nor can one sit at the bar, where the bar stools are on the inside and the taps on the outside. There are also no gallerists manning the booths!
What are some of the interesting things you’ve seen from the visitors to the show?
ID: One of the interesting things we’ve observed with this show is how visitors seem to be more relaxed and interact more closely with the works than they would in a typical museum show. Museums often have ropes or lines on the floor indicating how close people can get to a particular work. But in The Well Fair, the works are displayed as they would be in an art fair, with a mix of furniture like chairs, tables and benches that visitors can actually sit on. The booths seem to make for a certain intimacy, where people feel comfortable hanging out.
The Well Fair runs until April of this year. What’s next?
ME: Our next museum exhibition, Powerless Structures, will open at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art at the end of March. After that, we have some major public projects scheduled and we’re curating an exhibition on religion and sexuality in Berlin this fall. We’re also working on a solo exhibition at Dallas’ Nasher Sculpture Center in 2017.