On the VIP Art Fair

by Jimmy Lepore Hagan , February 2012

Now that the VIP Art Fair has ended and the buzz has receded into the background, we can take a look at some of the actual art on display. As many noticed, version 2.0 carried a massive improvement in technology and design. Taking cues from the success of Google’s Art Project, VIP made browsing and zooming key components of the update. However, gallerists told Art Info that other features, buyer-to-seller chatting in particular, remained insurmountably awkward. Equally disappointing for dealers, perhaps, was the difficulty of moving pieces. Established galleries cited that much of their sales came from already reliable buyers and that they struggled to connect with new clients.

However, some galleries devoted the platform to garnering exposure rather than landing sales. In art establishments beyond Europe and the United States, VIP was an excuse to show off. For viewers unfamiliar with the contours of emerging art landscapes, VIP was a chance to learn. What we understood was less about the art of the developing world and more about what we already knew about the art market. And that answer revealed itself after the habits of the art world and the “democratic” potential of the Internet vied for control.

Direct and irreverent references to the western art historical canon reoccurred as a strong theme for several artists from rising economic powerhouses. To clarify, observing a handful of powerful galleries in India and China should not condone broad and uninformed generalizations. However, as many Chinese artists already know, presenting work within the context of an emerging national artistic identity can be lucrative for everyone.

Take a work that came out of the ShangART gallery in Shanghai. Zhou Tiehai’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe directly reproduces Manet’s most famous rebellion against the French Academy. However the Chinese artist superimposed the head of Joe Cool, the Camel Cigarette mascot, on the body of the female nude figure at the picnic. By using a well-known brand identity, Zhou implies that consumer capitalism has co-opted the iconography of the vaunted European avant-garde. Recycling commodity culture in the service of undermining Modernist masterpieces fits neatly into our current status quo. It appears ShangART wants to tease voyeuristic collectors intrigued by rising Chinese art with a titillating gesture in an already accepted artistic language (think Sherri Levine). It’s a safe kind of mockery, subversion that’s fun to indulge in without posing a serious threat to the status quo.

All references to western art are created equal here. For example, T. Venkanna’s revised European classic presents an entirely separate set of concerns. His Birth of Black Venus recasts Allesandro Botticelli’s white Aphrodite as a figure with hair and skin the color of a black crayon. Across the bottom of the painting he writes, “The skin doesn’t matter. If it is a matter of colour, I love BLACK.” The gesture magnifies the difference between the concepts of “black skin” and the “color black.” It also speaks with a caustic voice on the issue of race in western art, while maintaining a safe distance from digestible criticism because of its subtle irony.

Finally, the most illuminating retrospection of European Modernism came in the form of a fiberglass sculpture by Li Zhanyang. Titled “Four Great Thinkers” (quotation marks are the artist’s, as if the title weren’t sarcastic enough) and comprised of pondering seated men, the sculpture immediately evokes Rodin’s The Thinker. However, unlike Zhou and Venkanna’s faux-mage to western art, Li Zhanyang uses the motif to address a legacy of communism—the four figures are Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Karl Marx. Instead of appearing lost in thought, as in Rodin’s original, the four most famous communists in history are rendered seated with hunched shoulders and hands clutching their knees, each gazing downward in feverous concentration. In other words, they look like they’re taking a shit. Needless to say, this constitutes an unflattering—and potentially dangerous—portrayal of China’s national heroes.

Intriguingly, Galerie Urs Meile, the gallery that represents Li Zhanyang, is based in Switzerland. To a certain extent, Li can enjoy some political cover because of his association with Europe. Even more illustrative is the fact that the gallery attempted to satiate the art world’s quest for a new avant-garde movement. By breaking political taboos and referencing the western art historical tradition, Li Zhanyang ensures “Four Great Thinkers” fits perfectly into a pre-carved niche: a market that is hungry for the self-conscious Chinese “subversive.” The piece does exactly what it’s supposed to.

As a whole, VIP presented artistic perspectives and aesthetics from across the globe. However, among emerging galleries in China and India it often reflected American and European art insecurities, and the contemporary fixation with indulging them. For all the exciting potential VIP offered, it attempted to exert the hierarchies of the physical world onto the digital cosmos. It saw its own reflection in the developing world. While traditional power structures prevailed at the VIP Art Fair, future variations will struggle to squelch the “democratizing” potential of the Internet.

VIP 2.0
3—8 February 2012