Reflections on a year without art: a changed landscape

by Max Lunn

Rachel Whiteread’s installation “Internal Objects” Gagosian Gallery, 2021

Rachel Whiteread’s exhibition Internal Objects at Gagosian gallery, one of the first galleries to open in April, has already been hailed a “lockdown masterpiece”. Doppelgänger and Poltergeist were both made this year and are the stand-out works in the show. They are eerie and dilapidated garden sheds which seem to have been blown apart, with their meshy matter expanding haphazardly into the space around them. These frenetic sheds have had their entireties meticulously covered in matt white paint, lending them an uncanny, sun-bleached appearance (picture above).

Walking around these works is an invigorating way to begin looking at art in person again, and Whiteread makes us realise what we’ve missed. Her works have always encouraged a kind of embodied viewing with their “trace of the domestic” and haunting presence.

Art has been at the forefront of our minds for the past locked-down year, despite its inaccessibility. We’ve debated pointedly about public art and colonial objects, and we’ve marvelled at the prices NFTs (non fungible tokens) have been sold for. What we’ve missed in this period of reckoning, adaptation and money, however, is the feeling of art – the joy and mystery of it.

For galleries and the wider art market, it’s interesting to think about what will stick. As expected in the circumstances, the art market recorded a record increase in digital sales last year, leading people to question if the jet setting troop of dealers and collectors would consider doing things virtually. The research firm ArtTactic and this year’s edition of the Hiscox Online Art Report, however, suggest that although online viewing rooms and virtual fair booths may continue, they will only be an accompaniment to the existing physical infrastructure and not a replacement.

An editioned work by Iranian artist Ali Banisadr recently sold by Avant Arte for £4,200

One permanent market change has been the rise of marginal, digital art ventures who have managed to cement themselves as industry players. Instagram-based Avant Arte and the auction app Fair Warning have found huge success in the last year, for example. They riff on traditional ways of selling art, retaining the glamour and exclusivity of the market, whilst also opting to “drop” their works online like high-end streetwear brands. Avant Arte’s business model consists of selling large numbers of more affordable editioned works rather than a few bluechip paintings. This shift from the rarefied traditional art market – a monopolised arena which is tightly controlled by fewer than a hundred global players – to a more dynamic digital offering, has only been made possible by a younger and more diverse collecting class. The pandemic has undoubtedly been the spark needed to convert hype into sales, owing to the general acceptance of online trade.

The most remarkable meeting of this new collecting class and the art market came with the American digital artist Beeple’s NFT, 5000 Days, selling for almost $70m in March. Much has been made of this generally baffling phenomenon, but maybe the most significant takeaway isn’t the work itself but why people are assigning value to it. Both the winning bidder and the underbidder for the 5000-image collage work in the cryptocurrency industry. These are individuals with vested interests: by creating artificially high prices, they are aiming to cement cryptocurrency as a legitimate way of buying luxury assets. The pandemic created an opportune moment for these people to begin their art-market campaign.

These bidders speak of the democratising potential of NFTs and how, by eliminating the need for middlemen, the art market will become more transparent. Equally, they show how artists can now insert resale-rights into all current and future sales of the work, meaning artists are generally better off. This may be so, but the reality of trading NFTs is much murkier than with traditional mediums like paintings. The art market is finally beginning to be regulated: the anti-money laundering regulations which came into effect at the beginning of this year stipulate galleries and auction houses must name all parties involved in a sale and know their client’s source of wealth, a practice that flies in the face of client confidentiality. In general, NFTs and their transactions on the blockchain are totally anonymous. Of course, when Beeple sold his work at Christie’s the relevant due diligence was carried out, but this won’t be the case on the other online platforms like OpenSea. So no utopian market, therefore, just the latest development in the complex relationship between art and money.

On the other hand, the last year has hit many smaller galleries hard. This has meant there’s a new collaborative and supportive spirit emerging in the gallery scene – a novelty for an industry that’s normally protective of both its clients and artists, unwilling to collaborate on anything. This is seen most clearly in the exciting new London Gallery Weekend (4-6 June) – a grassroots initiative which aims to highlight the city’s huge diversity of exhibitors through a weekend of late openings, talks, performances and studio visits.

A work by Douglas Cantor, one of the emerging artists Guts Gallery “champions”

Emerging artists have also had few opportunities to exhibit this past year. Online, student-led initiatives such as “Sad Grads 2020” aimed to provide a community and some online exposure to make up for missed graduate shows, and super galleries White Cube and Thaddeus Ropac generously offered their spaces for a month to host emerging artists. These changes have been complimented by the emergence of several new London galleries, reflecting this collaborative, community spirit. Most prominent is the pioneering Guts Gallery, which doesn’t have a permanent space and often shows its artists solely via Instagram. In their own words “Guts flips the traditional power dynamics between gallerist and artist … [I]n an art world scared to speak out about inequality for fear of jeopardizing their positions, Guts Gallery refuses to be silenced.”

Finally, the past year has also created a similar moment of reckoning for museums. Like all publicly funded institutions, they are having to engage more than ever with the people who pay for them. Increasingly, museums are being held to account for their decisions surrounding issues such as staffing and the repatriation of colonial objects. In terms of innovations brought from their closure, aside from the odd VR project and a drive to digitalise, nothing will really stick. There has been the occasional creative response to the moment, such as Pallant House’s Miniature Gallery, where the Chichester museum commissioned a scaled-down space featuring specially made miniature works by more than 30 British leading contemporary artists.

Pallant House Gallery’s “2021 Model Art Gallery”

In time, the pandemic will seep across the arts as a subject and a shadow. For now, however, what will stick isn’t the online experiences or whacky responses, but the way we look at art. As galleries and museums open, we’ll bring a different urgency to our viewing. What has changed is what we want from art emotionally, which may be consolation and healing. Equally, we’ll closely scrutinise the institutions that house our cherished collections, ensuring they reflect their missions as public institutions.


Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

 

 

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