Politics for sale at the 2010 London Art Fair

London Art Fair, Business Design Centre, London, until January 17 2010

“The cynic,” Oscar Wilde once said, “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” In which case, London Art Fair risks making cynics of us all.

136 galleries and dealers have set out their stalls at the Business Design Centre in Islington with price tags on pretty much everything. If you don’t frequent auction houses, art fairs are places you can imagine buying a piece by Hockney, Hirst or Warhol.

Andy’s Marilyn screenprint at Caroline Wiseman Modern and Contemporary will, incidentally, set you back £110,000. Whether or not you could afford it, you can’t help but weigh up the cost.

Indeed, most will find something just about within their reach. Alan Cristea Gallery is knocking out a Julian Opie piece called Walk, 200 limited edition black boxes on which an LED animation shows a beskirted woman in motion. At £1,057.50 each, that would fit on the credit card.

No matter how serious the work, checking prices soon becomes a habit. So you may be surprised at this year’s fair to see how prints of paramilitaries, photos of Hiroshima and the severed heads of gang victims translate into pounds and pence.

Golden Thread is a leading gallery from Belfast, and they’ve been bringing work to London Art Fair for five years. A blackened wreath and pair of toy-like assault rifles make bold statements about the political situation in Northern Ireland. But that doesn’t mean they are not for sale.

“Doing the art fairs is a bit of a project for us,” explains curator Sarah McAvera. “It is both raising the profile of Northern Irish art and making art in Northern Ireland more sustainable.”

McAvera will not be taking commission for any pieces they sell. Golden Thread is a not-for-profit gallery with funding from the Arts Council. All revenue goes towards developing future work and art publications.

“Because of where we are, we can’t ignore our history,” she adds. And halfway through day one of the fair, the response to such Troubles-influenced work has been “really good”.

Collectors are also warming to a nearby series of mushroom clouds on display from photography dealers Ordinary-Light. Nevada test blasts, reportage from Hiroshima and pro-nuclear propaganda are among the vintage prints available to buy.

“I thought it was a good way to breach a different audience on what the bomb represents,” says Director Brad Feuerhelm. “Some of these photographs have an abstract quality.”

Although dependent on seeing a return for his collection, the American dealer shows a genuine interest in the history of science, the A-bomb and what he calls its “nefarious effects”.

“With any of this we have to have a humanitarian perspective, in particular when putting a price on these sorts of images,” he acknowledges. But there’s no great secret to pricing, says Feuerhelm: “It’s reflective of what I had to pay.”

Further on are more saleables brought to you at an indirect cost to human life. Works from artists’ collective Antena Estudio deal with extreme violence on the streets of their native Mexico City.

Sculptor Andrés Basurto is here with a row of glass skulls inspired less by Damien Hirst and more by the beheadings which take place in local drug wars and the images which routinely appear in the media.

Basurto insists the collective sell work to make it easier to produce work, but also says they are “prepared not to sell”, reasoning that gaining exposure to “a different public” is a positive step.

“It is impossible not to react to what we have seen,” he adds. “It is impossible not to have an opinion on what we see. For we see a severed head four times a week in the news and as artists we have something to say about this.”

Clearly there should be room for social comment, even at an art fair. And the three controversial shows have been made possible by an entire section of the fair given over to curated shows, Art Projects.

Bad news, it seems, is not all bad for business. “There’s a large number of collectors that are moved by it. The market for that is surprisingly big,” explains Art Projects curator Pryle Behrman. Art can be about anything, he adds, provided it makes a “novel statement”.

Although Art Projects has been running for six years, it has never attracted so many applications from galleries with political work to show.

“I definitely think we saw a theme this year,” says Behrman. “There was quite a lot to do with the Middle East, but also the atomic bomb and Northern Ireland, issues that have been bubbling away for a while.”

Meanwhile, a world away from the warzones, they were chopping the mint for cocktails in the Collectors’ Lounge, where potential buyers are welcomed by designer chairs and soft lighting. Here it is hoped that politics and money will mix like whisky and ginger ale. Or is that being too cynical?

Written for Culture24

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