‘National Sport No 2’ (2013) by Zhou Wendou
‘National Sport No 2’ (2013) by Zhou Wendou © Gunther Hang

Sydney has embraced its first high-end art fair. The 28,800 people who attended Sydney Contemporary (SC13) over four days last week doubled the prediction of the fair’s founder, Englishman Tim Etchells. On an overcrowded opening night alone, more than 10,000 packed into the 8,000 sq m Carriageworks, an 1890s railway shed in a suburb with a previously insalubrious reputation.

Parts of these old railway workshops were converted into performing art spaces in 2007. In the past two years a new director, Lisa Havilah, has used the space for large visual art experiences such as Song Dong’s “Waste Not” and Ryoji Ikeda’s “test pattern [No 5]”, which brought the site to the notice of larger audiences.

A veteran of art fair management, Etchells was a driving force behind the Affordable Art fairs and then a co-founder of Art HK. When he sold his 60 per cent stake in Art HK to market leaders Art Basel two years ago, Etchells launched a new London fair, Art 13 London, in March of this year, as well as the Sydney enterprise.

Etchells’ A$250,000 investment included buying the management rights to the 25-year-old Melbourne Art Fair (MAF), a potential fly in SC13’s ointment. “I had to achieve compatibility with Melbourne,” he acknowledged: “a brother and sister relationship, perhaps … the elder, Melbourne in tweedy jackets; Sydney in trendier leathers.” The two fairs will now run in alternate years.

For the first SC13, director Barry Keldoulis assembled 83 gallerists from 12 countries. It attracted 24 inter­national galleries, against MAF’s six in 2012. Many were from New Zealand – Europe and South Africa managed just one each – and Asia provided the bulk. But the many French people involved in Asian galleries brought European and American art with them as well as Asian.

So a Damien Hirst butterfly piece was the top-priced artwork on show, at $900,000. The price was unrealised but allowed Auckland’s Gow Langsford Gallery to claim bragging rights, to sell a fair number of the artist’s butterfly prints at $6,000, and unabashedly to carry Damien Hirst skull snow-domes at $149. “We also launched Dale Frank’s new tondo paintings,” said Gary Langsford, “and brought the Bernar Venet sculpture out at the front which is matched by two other works by the French sculptor elsewhere. That gives the fair a real sense of internationalism.”

Behind the Hirst was a $550,000 Gilbert & George suite of panels brought by Hong Kong’s De Sarthe Gallery. Unless an institution picked it up (and the fair was well supported by institutional figures), I suspect there will be more signature Asian works next time than European – the gallery’s Zhou Wendou light works, for example. Frederic de Senerclens of Singapore’s Art Plural Gallery was looking down-in-the-mouth at fair’s end as the two European works he thought had sold on opening night fell through. “There’s definitely resistance at the $20,000 level,” he said. That seemed to be less true, however, for local artists such as Danie Mellor or Rosemary Laing, who were selling out at well above that figure.

For the next event, in 2015, Keldoulis intends to build a “complete Pacific Rim feel”. The former Sydney gallerist, with his stable of dynamic young artists, would like to push into South America, and brought over a Chilean curator to prove his point. He is convinced that “more and more money [is] being spent in art fairs by time-poor art buyers. So it was to my artists’ detriment not to participate. At a fair you can almost guarantee them exposure to curators, writers and collectors – it’s more than just sales.”

Sculpture by Bernar Venet outside the Sydney art fair
Sculpture by Bernar Venet outside the fair © Gunther Hang

Gallerist Tim Olsen had a positive spin on the level of commercial success: “Sales have been extremely strong, defying the climate on the street. After the first day of the fair we had at least 30 new faces in our stand that we’d never met before.”

Olsen was showing late-20th-century Australian greats such as his father John, Fred Williams and Peter Booth. Comparable works from Australian indigenous artists were admired, but not bought. Wanjina barks from such venerable names as Jack Karedada and Alec Mingelmanganu that auctioneer Tim Klingender was proudly showing just didn’t look contemporary beside their contemporaries. None of these masterpieces sold – although catalogues flew off the stand. “I’ve been building this rare collection for a decade,” Olsen said, “and I’m just happy to be able to show them in such a positive context. I’d argue that the old hierarchies are changing anyway.”

A novelty at SC13 was the clip for punters to collect selected catalogue cards, rather than lugging around a door-stopper volume. One failure was the fair’s generosity to artist-run initiatives, video-makers and installation artists – all of whom were proactively invited, but most of whom would have failed the fair’s international vetting committee quality-control process.

Since there are three grades of gallery – Current, Future and Project Contemporary – variety is guaranteed. And when Melbourne’s gallery-less Tristian Koenig could use his Project space to sell all but one of the ceramic totems by Suji Park, a little-known Korean artist who works in New Zealand, at prices up to $6,000, it suggests that the Antipodes may be gently drifting towards an Asian century.


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