A second look at Art 13- The inaugural global art fair for a global city

A closer look at Art 13. Its highs, lows and a fair few photos.

A week has passed since the organisers of Art 13 opened their exhibition to the public, and I cannot stop thinking about it. It has a unique mission to introduce London’s art scene to work from 129 international galleries from thirty different countries, of which 70 per cent had never exhibited in a London fair before. With over 24 000 visitors over a period of three days, Kensington Olympia’s great hall was abuzz with excited artists, publishers, gallerists (and galleristas, here’s looking at you, Pearl Lam!) along with several high profile collectors.

For a large part of day one, I stood and observed the activity of art enthusiasts at Gajah Gallery, one of the central booths of the fair, specialising in Indonesian Art. Reactions were as diverse as the visitors passing through. Excited squeals from artists recognising the work of their colleagues at a past residency, pensive postulations in pursuit of a work’s meaning, young children giggling around kinetic sculptures and running away with fistfuls of free badges offered by this particular booth. On asking a random selection of visitors their thoughts on the fair, the word “refreshing” was repeated a countless number of times, with good reason. The grand hall was airy and much easier to navigate than its tented predecessors and the sheer variety of works on display offered, in my view, a less filtered image of contemporary art practice by artists just breaking into their careers as well as established regional artists reaching a wider audience.

Art 13 should be commended for its solid effort to showcase a range of work and for throwing light on their contexts of production and consumption. Sculptures by 21 artists, performance art, kinetic installations, tours and panel discussions by industry mavericks like Don and Mera Rubell (owners of the Rubell collection in Miami) and Princess Alia al-Senussi (contributing editor of Tank magazine and member of the Tate’s Middle Eastern Acquisitions Committee) made the experience of Art 13 insightful and informative.

I was, however, slightly disappointed by their “Art Outside” section featuring only two sculptures which seemed lost in front of the entrance to the fair.

Art 13's "Art Outside" featuring Zadok Ben David's Exotic Tree(2010) and Eilis O'Connell's Conetwirl (2008). Image Courtesy: Art 13 Facebook page.

The placement of certain sculptures could have been more carefully conceived - I observed several visitors nearly walking into them. Exceptions are Zhu Jinshi’s Boat- a giant tunnel-shaped installation of 8,000 sheets of rice paper inviting viewers to walk through it-  and Roeluf Louw’s Soul City – a pyramid of oranges for the viewer’s consumption. I appreciated the incorporation of these two interactive installations as they facilitated a tangible and memorable connection between visitor and exhibitor. 

Zhu Jinshi, Boat (2013). Image Courtesy: wallpaper.com

Roeluf Louw, Soul City (1967). Image Courtesy: Art 13 Website

I was particularly drawn to Lithuanian artist Zilvas Kempinas’s Fountain, featuring a pedestal fan lying face down, buffeting strips of black magnetic tape; a simple concept, but unavoidably arresting.

Zilvinas Kempinas, Fountain (2011). Image Courtesy: Art Territory

Albemarle Gallery had a fantastic display of Korean artist JaeHyo Lee’s exceptionally crafted biomorphic sculptures constructed from logs of wood and steel bolts hammered into blackened wood. Fine art merges with functionality in the form of richly textured, yet perfectly smoothed tables and chaise longues that entice the viewer to extend their hands in curiosity, completing their sensory engagement with the work. There was a marked concern with materiality in so many more gallery spaces which suggests a desire to re-situate art within the realm of the haptic and experiential.

 

Jaehyo Lee, Bench of Nails (2010). Image Courtesy: Modenus

Along with large sculptural pieces, two very small works stood out. Riflemaker Gallery and featured artist Juan Fontanive presented a curious “paper film” consisting of  19th-century biological paintings of a hummingbird affixed on a vertical carousel which flipped rapidly through each painting. This not only created a ticking sound resembling the rapidly beating wings of the bird, but also animated the images in the style of a flipbook. A film of the installation can be viewed here.

Pertwee Anderson and Gold exhibited a tiny blue ceramic plate by British artist Keaton Henson. The plate was intricately patterned with the words “PLATE FOR THROWING IN ARGUMENTS.” I found this particularly amusing, harking back to the paradigms of Maiolica plates and the use of wit in decorating ceramics of the Italian Courts. 

Keaton Henson, "A Plate for Throwing in Arguments" Edition of 100. 
Image Courtesy: Pertwee Anderson and Gold

Pieces large and small, international or of local heritage, the first edition of Art 13 was a testament to the sheer diversity of talent and taste across nations and I greatly anticipate the next instalment (intuitively titled) Art 14 next year!

You can gain an idea of the atmosphere of Art 13 by watching their wrap-up video below:
 

Art 13 Olympia Grand Hall, Kensington Olympia. Image Courtesy: Art 13
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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage