Francis McWhannell takes a look at a new art fair that’s breaking down barriers while putting up virtual walls.
Written by Francis McWhannell
Photographed by Kate van der Drift
Art fairs are curious creatures. Whether you’re dealing with a lavish behemoth like Frieze London or a more modest entity like Auckland Art Fair, the general template tends to remain the same. A panoply of galleries gathered together for a short period of time, competing to see who can most successfully transform a basic booth into something special, memorable. A crush of people. The glossiest of works. Flimsy walls teetering under the weight of so many statement pieces. Critics love to hate them (commercialism in art — imagine that!), and, secretly, most gallerists do too. But they’re useful. As one-stop shops, they’re appealing to people who can’t be bothered schlepping all over the city, or who don’t have the means to travel beyond the same. They bring new eyes. They bring sales. The artist and the dealer have to pay rent like everybody else.
From the first, May Fair aimed to do things a little differently. While traditional fairs focus on long-standing galleries that show well-established artists, May Fair wished to provide a platform for early-career artists or those without dealer representation. Such artists are not necessarily absent from fairs. For instance, they regularly appear at Auckland Art Fair as part of the non-commercial ‘Projects Programme’ (with which I have been involved in the past) or in the designated emerging artist section. But they are never central. May Fair elected to concentrate entirely on this important group within the arts community, inviting various artists, artist-run initiatives, collectives, and curators from Aotearoa and the Moana Pacific region to participate. The approach makes the fair unusually interesting, since early-career artists make especially thought-provoking work. This year, there is also a heightened reward for participants. Unlike most fairs, which charge galleries for stands, May Fair is offering booth-holders a base fee (funded by Creative New Zealand), in addition to the promise of new audiences and sales.
The fair’s four organisers — Becky Hemus, Ophelia King, Nina Lloyd, and Eleanor Woodhouse — all have close ties to the ‘emerging artist scene’ in Aotearoa. They’re used to finding ways of making exhibitions and events happen, even when funding is limited. Their ambition and agility are high. Hemus and Woodhouse, for instance, recently established Wet Green, a gallery without a permanent address. Their inaugural project was a lavish performance by Hannah Maria Schmutterer, a German-born, London-based artist who has exhibited in various parts of Europe. May Fair, as originally conceived, was to take place in a large vacant building on Karangahape Road, and scheduled to coincide with Auckland Art Fair in May (the name May Fair puns on the month, as well as the swanky London suburb). But when the Covid-19 lockdown rendered that plan impossible, the organisers decided to turn the inaugural edition into a digital one.
May Fair Online launched on 30 July 2020 at mayfairartfair.com. It intends to provide a markedly unique experience, contrasting the ‘virtual exhibitions’ that cropped up during the recent lockdown — most of which were little to no different to the usual website presentations of galleries. Taking a cue from Spring 1883, an invitation-only art fair staged in the suites of hotels in Melbourne and Sydney, May Fair developed a simulated venue, replacing conventional three-walled booths with three-dimensional renders of ceilinged spaces, into which artworks could be inserted. (The renders put me in mind of mock-ups of the sort submitted by galleries to art fair selection panels, except considerably more finessed.) Each booth was furnished with fluorescent tube lighting, a window, and an octagonal oculus strikingly reminiscent of the skylights in one of Tāmaki Makaurau’s more esteemed galleries.
Stand-holders were given a great deal of latitude to personalise their spaces. Fanciful dressing elements could be introduced and landscapes out windows altered. The rooms themselves could be substantially reconfigured, floors tiled and soiled, walls broken apart — things that are not generally done at art fairs, not least because carpets and walls often need to be preserved for reuse. Animated elements could be added, turning the booths into little worlds unto themselves. The resulting May Fair Online wholly embraces its digital format, playfully leaning into a mode of presentation that is no longer strictly necessary in Aotearoa, since the Covid-19 lockdown has of course been lifted, but that could well become necessary again before very long.
The 20 booths in the fair are not showing all at once. Just four are visible at any given time, with the selection ‘refreshing’ each Thursday during the five weeks of the fair. This system means that visitors can dedicate time to the open booths, getting to know them individually, rather than feeling the need to triage and skip, as so often happens at physical fairs, where overload is chronic. Images of items for sale are included alongside the booth renders. Texts by leading writers — many early-career, like the artists — help unpack the projects. The fair also features online events, such as live readings and film screenings. This piece does not attempt to tackle all the components on offer. Instead, it homes in on six booths organised by an array of artists, curators, and spaces, and discusses a few of the elements of each. It represents a small introduction to a fair that does something special, memorable: creating an online experience that does not merely stand in for a physical fair but offers a distinctly meaningful, dematerialised alternative.