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:

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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis