Multiple venues, London, 16 January – 13 February 2016
Some readers might have seen the recent film The Big Short, the Oscar-nominated semi-post-modern comedy that attempts to explain the exploits of a few profiteers from the 2008 housing market crash in the US. Spoiler alert: these guys saw a collapse coming, and decided to profit on it, and then it happens. It’s only after you’ve left the cinema and the jaunty tone of the film wears off that it becomes clearer: they weren’t underdogs, or crusaders or visionaries, as the film attempts to portray them, just hedge funders finding a way to profit from a situation. Sure, there’s a bit of hand wringing, which is perhaps the most remarkable part: we’re supposed to empathise with these guys. The moral of the tale is much darker, a sort of Russian doll abyss that might be handily summed up by a blog title from Dallas’s International Risk Management Institute: ‘Taking Risks to Create Value – It’s What Capitalism’s All About!’
I mention The Big Short because it seems like a timely parallel to the Condo project, a ‘collaborative exhibition’ by 24 galleries from across the world hosted in eight London galleries, a set of underdogs of sorts creating their own opportunity. The rationale and much of the discussion around the project was about the structure of the art market, and the plight of gallerists struggling to work in the current incessant wave of art fairs internationally that is punishingly expensive for smaller and mid-sized spaces and buoying up the larger ones. To be more accurate, most statements about Condo were about what it was not: ‘It doesn’t replace an art fair’, as Vanessa Carlos, initiator of Condo and director of Carlos/Ishikawa, pointed out in several interviews. Though it was, it seems, founded directly in response, in contrast and as an alternative outlet to the machinations of the art fair. The rhetoric of risk also always seemed close to the surface – what gallerists aren’t showing or aren’t doing when they’re already shelling out thousands to be in Miami, Hong Kong, or London. Condo, as such, was devised by gallerists, primarily for gallerists, and was geared towards instructing its other incidental audiences in how to empathise with their plight.
The idea itself seems like a worthwhile experiment, with youngish, mostly smaller galleries coming together to stage a set of simultaneous shows. The London galleries (Arcadia Missa, Carlos/Ishikawa, Chewday’s, Project Native Informant, Rodeo, Southard Reid, The Sunday Painter and Supplement) played host, sharing space with at least one or up to three other galleries. There is something supportive and courteous about the gesture, though I’m not sure ‘collaborative’, a word that was continuously invoked for the project, is necessarily accurate. (More on that later.) Carlos has credited projects like ‘A Petite Fair’, a mini-fair hosted in the gallery space of Amsterdam gallerist Jeanine Hoffland (one of Condo’s guest appearances), as one inspiration for the structure; another related recent example that has been so far unmentioned was the ‘Villa’ program, initiated by Raster gallery in Warsaw in 2006, where a small group of invited galleries would show for a month, since hosted in Reykjavik, Toronto, and last year in Tokyo. Each wave of galleries, it seems, has to find their own way of creating networks, affiliations and relationships they’re comfortable with every few years.
On the positive side, Condo was highly successful in creating an event, the opening day managing to bring out crowds bopping between each of the locations on a cold January day. There was a sense of an activated art-city, a rallying point for discussion. The accompanying afternoon of screenings in the Genesis cinema in Mile End was enjoyable, simply on the level of being able to watch artists’ video in a proper cinema setting. After this, though, it seems that the gallerists (as the protagonists of this story) had a more difficult time. Yes, they did come together, but in most cases in rather perfunctorily and stiffly. Despite pointedly not being an art fair – which offered the chance to take risks and to show difficult art that would never work in an art fair setting, or simply to put on a set of group shows in gallery spaces (ostensibly a regular ask in this business) – the Condo project was permeated by conservative taste, quick-fire rhythm and breezy, mismatched tone of an art fair.
The gallery space of Carlos/Ishikawa was itself segmented into booths, with ‘solo presentations’ of Megan Francis Sullivan’s Cézanne-in-negative paintings (shown by Freymond-Guth Fine Arts, Zurich) and a set of hanging lamps with knobbly, swollen bulbs in Matthew’s (a New York gallery) display of Than Hussein Clark. The host gallery turned their front space into a shop of sorts, asking over a dozen young artists to present clothes as editions, with a t-shirt paean to the 24 bus by Eloise Hawser to a set of Spider-Man suits from the Lloyd Corporation. New York’s Essex Street gallery presented Fred Lonidier’s collection of misogynistic camera advertisements from the 70s, images of scantily clad women alongside cringe-worthy slogans (‘The New KOWA/SX MM: It let’s you do what you want, and more…’), placing next to it Jason Loeb’s Negatives, 2013, simply three flattened Kodak photo printer paper box lids in frames. The two works, though, felt like a teaser for a larger show, asking for more space, or more work, or more contextual support – things that simply get pushed out in jamming 18 artists into such a small area.
The sense of hurried, forced or simply ignored choices echoed in most of the other spaces. Rodeo similarly segmented their gallery, with the gaudy plush mess of Tamara Henderson’s aptly titled sculpture The Scarecrow’s Holiday, 2015, dominating one room, defiantly aloof from the cautiously raucous collages of Rokni Haerizadeh (presented by New York’s Callicoon Fine Arts) in the next room. Project Native Informant, hosting Shanghai’s Antenna Space and Berlin’s Société, was a jumble sale of drawings, video and decorative wax works. So it was a relief, then, when at least some of the spaces managed to almost feel like a coherent show. The pairing of the up-front and punkish multimedia collage of A.L. Steiner (presented by Deborah Schamoni, Munich) with the more genteel watercolour and ceramics of Phoebe Collings-James in Arcadia Missa didn’t quite gel. But caught between the glare of the childishly stern frown on the face of Collings-James’s bright orange watercolour character She-Wolf, Before Shakira, 2016, and the many human eyes staring out from Steiner’s wall of photos of moments from studios, sitting rooms, bedrooms, there was an instant of frisson. To gloss over it unfairly, The Sunday Painter (hosting Glasgow’s Koppe Astner, Sao Paulo’s Jaqueline Martins, and London’s own Seventeen mooching in there) and Supplement (hosting Geneva’s Truth & Consequences, Zurich’s Gregor Staiger and High Art from Paris) perhaps came out of this best, with huddled together rooms that felt like competent holiday-time group shows.
There might have been a priority of structure over content for the Condo project, but there are a few more weighty implications lurking underneath. First among these was the selection of galleries that took part: simply by going to Sunday and Frieze in October last year, one could have seen most of these galleries, if not most of these artists. Going out and doing it on their own, any number of galleries with ambitious programs could have been called forth to take part. Instead Condo reinforced existing fair-approved networks rather than creating new ones. Secondly, and more insidious to me, is both the type of work and how it was presented. While acknowledging that the art fair structure promotes a peculiar kind of content, they’ve replicated that here.
Sure, you can drink the Kool-Aid; but do you have to share it? Given the well-populated array of primarily small, two-dimensional works and a few compact sculptures, Condo promoted an art fair mode of looking – where maybe you find one sliver of an artist’s practice that might catch your eye for the moment of casual browsing that you’re induced to have. Perhaps we need to accept that the fifty-year rise of the art fair has permanently changed how exhibitions are perceived to operate, where placement, silent conversations between works and consideration (and fuel) for a slow-paced audience are simply not priorities anymore. Perhaps, though, I was expecting a different narrative, one where artwork, and artists, might instead be the protagonists, with genuine risks that might be more rewarding for everyone.
Originally published in Art Monthly No. 394, March 2016