Art fair fan Tania Edwards gets up close to the fizz, bling and Bacon at the London Art Fair and finds it riddled with naked emperors.
“That’s what art buying is,” I heard a woman tell her bemused lover, “You have to look at it, and look at it, and look at it”. Dutifully he did. But he still couldn’t appreciate the insipid pastel tones of the ‘scene from a Hampstead window’ or fathom its £120,000 price tag. They were both annoyed. I doubt this tiny £120,000 oil painting would have appealed to her either in a junk shop. Because looking closely might be how you convince yourself to buy, but it’s not how you sell. This is big business and it commands more pomp than an Emperor parading his imaginary clothes to a crowd.
I’m at the preview of the London Art Fair in Islington (which ran from Jan 21 to 25), champagne in hand, and I’m winging it with the best of them. Philip Hook (director at Sotheby’s) once quipped that if you want to increase the footfall at museums you could just put the prices by the art works: if footfall at the fair is anything to go by he had a point. The problem with money is that it makes it very hard to focus on the paintings. Even the explicit ones.
I love art fairs. I love how obscene sums suggest a sense of quality that is often missing from the art and how confused and angry this makes people. I like looking at masterpieces and fantasising about my take-home piece. I like dismissing the crap that is always proudly on display. And I like reminding whoever I’m with that I could definitely “knock one of those up myself”.
Talking of crap, I was examining a small screen displaying a short film of two men shouting at each other that made Vines look sophisticated when a drunk man lurched towards me and blurted, “Don’t mind me; just pretend I’m not here,” before tripping off into the throng. He was none other than one of the shouty men from the film. I hope he isn’t planning to introduce himself to anyone else or they’ll never sell the piece. This place is nonsense but it’s fun nonsense. Overt neediness makes the nose twitch. No one wants to smell the bullshit.
A gallerist disappears behind her stand to pull out more charcoal sketches for a buyer. He waves his champagne glass at the fat white back of the nude and says to his friends, “Doesn’t she remind you of Susan’s little Vietnamese?” “No,” they reply. Their honesty has no doubt bumped up the amount he will now spend to assure himself of his worth. His glass is plastic I notice, which means he didn’t pay for his champagne. Yes, in this topsy-turvy world a plastic cup means you’ve got so much cash you don’t need to waste any on booze. Is my fizz revealing that I have no access to the Collector’s Lounge?
We lurk around a Francis Bacon etching and aquatint. It is number 72 in a series of 90. “It’s one of 90!” I exclaim. “That’s just an expensive poster.” But it isn’t, is it? It’s a Bacon. We move on to another gallery that is so chic it’s not displaying its prices. I am unbearably curious. Exactly how much is the Douglas Swan I ache to hang in the downstairs toilet I don’t have in the house I don’t live in? Asking demands a certain nonchalance, “Only £18,000? How interesting…” I murmur approvingly. “I bet I could knock that up,” I tell my friend afterwards. “I mean really it’s all about the frames. You could do it on the cheap. But just how cheap is cheap?” I ask. “Five grand?”
“Ten grand,” a passer-by interrupts. And there you have it. Sometimes it’s all about the art. And sometimes it’s all about the money. Even if you don’t have any you can go along and pretend. That’s what almost everyone else is doing.
Tania Edwards is a standup comedian and writer.