Art13 – a new international addition to London’s art scene?

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Last weekend saw the launch of Art13 London, a new annual modern and contemporary art fair at Kensington’s Olympia. Bringing together over 120 galleries from across the world, the promoters hoped to create a fair with a truly global perspective. Galleries from 29 countries participated, from cities as diverse as São Paulo, Budapest, Tel Aviv and Seoul.

Within this East Asian artists and galleries seemed to dominate – perhaps reflecting the previous achievements of founders Tim Etchells and Sandy Angus, who helped initiate ART HK, Hong Kong’s leading contemporary art fair. There were six galleries from South Korea alone, with representatives from Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing and Shanghai also present. Even the European galleries seemed to be following the trend, with many offering works by Asian artists.

Somewhat inevitably, many at the fair were drawing comparisons with other events, and in particular that behemoth of London’s contemporary art scene, Frieze. Many of the biggest Frieze names were notably absent from Art13’s line-up, with galleries like White Cube, Gagosian and Victoria Miro perhaps reluctant to take a chance on this relative newcomer. Whilst Art13 may not yet have quite the prestige of its Regent’s Park rival, it perhaps had more to offer in terms of commercially viable art. There were few of the headline-grabbing, sensationalist works which seem to dominate coverage of Frieze. In their place were pieces that managed to tread that fine line between thought-provoking and pleasing to look at – photography and paintings abounded, and there were plenty of works that would fit comfortably into the domestic space.

Even without the shock tactics of Frieze, the fair certainly seemed to pull in the crowds, attracting large numbers for the opening night reception and over Saturday and Sunday. There was plenty for visitors to see and do, with a curated schedule of performance pieces and instillations running alongside the pieces offered by the individual galleries. Families were well catered for, with free tickets for children and a Family Trail designed by artist Nina Magalanayagam in conjunction with the Zabludowicz Collection.

For the galleries involved the important factor was not visitor numbers but sales, and in this area results were pretty mixed. Some gallerists that I spoke to reported great returns, whilst others had struggled, failing even to make connections with any serious new clients. Perhaps this disparity was a reflection of the variety within the galleries themselves – in a fair where commercial, hangable works dominated, finding collectors for unwieldy instillation pieces was always going to be difficult.

Despite this, the reaction was largely positive, with many of the foreign galleries in particular describing the fair as a great introduction to London’s art scene. With the promoters going all out to attract these international clients, it seems that they are on their way to building a successful annual fair and even a global brand. With Art14 already confirmed and on the horizon, the real test will be in the years to come.

Asian Art Week – Ben Janssens

Also exhibiting in Asian Art Week is Ben Janssens, who has a wonderful selection of Chinese boxes on display. These include enamel, ivory tortoiseshell and hardwood examples, although the real highlight of the exhibition is the group of carved lacquer boxes. Carved lacquer dates back as far as the Tang dynasty (618-907) although it reached a peak during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1735-96), who was such a fan of the medium that he when he died he had his coffin decorated with it. Many of the pieces on show date from this period, including this exquisite example in double peach form.

Peaches are a symbol of longevity, also referred to here by the pine tree and the wan characters (swastikas) carved around the side of the box. Indeed, the piece is full of  symbolism, as the central motif of boys playing in a garden alludes to a desire for many sons. Chinese boxes are often decorated with such auspicious signs, suggesting that they were given as gifts, as they could be used to convey messages of harmony and goodwill. Here, this symbolism is coupled with a charming realism, as the boys to the right rush towards their playmate, one carrying his shoe, whilst their companion carries his peach branch in his mouth to make his climb easier. There is also a delightful play of texture across the surface of the box, as the craftsmen effectively contrasts areas of smooth, polished lacquer with extremely intricate carving.

Lacquer is a coloured varnish, and needs to be built up gradually with many thin layers. Each layer must be completely dry before the next can be applied, and it takes months to achieve a piece of lacquer thick enough to carve. This striking example extends this process, incorporating layers of green and ochre lacquer, which are revealed as the upper layer of red is cut away. The craftsmen have even included two layers of green, one beneath the top, red layer, and another beneath the ochre. This adds a dramatic sense of depth to the box, particularly where the red surface designs give way to the lower green layer, as can be seen in the central panel and in the lozenges displaying the attributes of the Eight Immortals. The depth of the cutting almost creates a sense that these red motifs are floating above the box, an apt effect for the banks of clouds and flying dragons.

Emperor Qianlong by Giuseppe Castiglione

Emperor Qianlong by Giuseppe Castiglione

A friend of mine just introduced me to these extraordinary paintings, by the Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione, working in the Chinese court of Emperor Qianlong. Castiglione combines Chinese artistic tradition with European techniques, creating hybrid images that transcend cultural boundaries. With their flat, graphic areas, and Asian themes, they are firmly in the Chinese taste, although they use three dimensional modelling more in keeping with Western tradition. The resultant paintings look incredibly modern, and it seems almost unbelievable that they were painted in the first half of the eighteenth century.