Being Physical at the Seattle Art Fair

1. What if I just try to understand?

Seattle Art Fair: Moon Bowl by Ken Matsubara. MA2 Gallery

It’s the Seattle Art Fair, an annual event, not long in existence, bringing galleries, gallery-goers, art collectors, artists, and the miscellanea of the art world (myself included) to the CenturyLink Event Center just next to the CenturyLink Field just outside of the grime cum history of the Pioneer Square neighborhood, the iconic set-aside reality of the International District, and the rampant ramparts of industry bound to the city’s ports. A packed experience, one brimming with deep pockets and deep gazes, an experience capable of reflecting the insidious reality of art in capitalism, of art in containment, of art as occupation, or appropriation, and en masse the collection experience, all brimming with joy, with the simulacra, with the temporary, muffled and complete with regularly-stationed booze attendants, a locale complete with high ceilings that extend into the abyss of the machine, lack of visible light all-around a la casino, and swanky outfits from the culturally-inclined blinding more than the art itself, perhaps one of many reasons to be present.

Seattle Art Fair: Untitled (alessandrita necklace) by Jean-Michel Othoniel. Perrotin Gallery.

It’s the Seattle Art Fair and I’m standing in the opening night of the “Beneficiary Preview,” an exclusive-sounding event though completely available to the public with tickets costing $150.00, portion to be donated to Coyote Central and Art Corps, the experience filled mostly with people that have money to burn, it seems, or at least want to get access to the art first, it seems, or at least be part of the experience first, it seems. I’m stumbling around, if you can imagine, totally dressed down, aware of class to the point of “I don’t own something like that” being said in my mind just about every five steps, the gallery owners cold but offering at the least smiles before turning back to their friends or their phones or both, the look on the galleries’ faces quite distinct–a gentleness, the lights of the entire building are all the same, so there’s this synchronicity, this cohesiveness that is in turn just about as overwhelming as you could imagine, just about as endless and maze-like as you could imagine. But also, appropriately, the event is fluid, like a convention, or a flea market. Each person goes at their own pace, no expectations, the only thing you might miss is an event or a talk or being able to see everything, an unachievable albeit beautiful goal, to be completely saturated in some of the world’s best (albeit portable, as the galleries are gigantic) and exciting artworks, from Seattle to New York to LA to Seoul to Tokyo and so on ad nauseum.

Seattle Art Fair: Loop Through by Gary Hill. James Harris Gallery

I’ll admit my lack of expertise in judging visual artworks, of which, as far as I could tell, 100% of the artworks included at this event could be described as. Paintings, photography, sculpture, illustrations, digital screens, and all manner of crossover could be stumbled across. The physical nature remains one of the most fantastic qualities of the event. To be close. To be within. To be nearby. To almost accidentally touch some of the works because, well, they are right there, and I’m looking at the labels describing the names of the artists, the names of the locations, the names of the pieces, the names of the galleries, and some of the labels are almost impossibly difficult to read–small font, terrible contrast of the text and the label itself, and of course, well, the positioning. The galleries, despite their synchronicity, often give off a crammed and acutely-optimized (meaning: overly intentional) feel, where standing in front of one work leads one to feel pinned, sandwiched, crammed, and so on. The gentle exertion of the modern human’s anxiety around other humans leads to an issue: the beneficiaries crowding around, everywhere everywhere, like rats or cell phone towers, and you can’t get away, you just can’t. It’s hard being around so much of the human experience at one point.

Seattle Art Fair: a piece by Tracey Snelling. KUK Gallery II.

As much as the idea of being in a room with so many people who value art gives off the feeling of warmth, the actuality of the experience is deadening. This should come as no shock to those who are well versed with the art fair experience. A world-wide phenomenon that appears to be a model for every vertical of consumption existing today, the art fair is nothing special, but there is so much tension, so much friction, in the idea of the art fair to be more than it actually is. And on a pragmatic level, there becomes a torrential curiosity that people of all walks of life do attend, could be attending–at the preview, it’s hard to say, but subsequent days, when people that look like me and have the same posture and same averting gaze fill the rooms, the cracks, there’s something generally warm and comforting. The problem: the warmth and comfort tend to take away from the art itself. Just how awesome is this art that’s hanged up or neatly arranged on the floor in front of me? Just how amazing is it? How am I supposed to engage when I don’t want to run into the tipsy, probably-stoned-on-Xanax, trio who can’t stop saying more than “I like this one” or just drooling invisibly to themselves as they approach the works, be close to them, feel that warmth, feel that proximity.

Seattle Art Fair: Foot Traffic

There’s a great degree of interaction at the Seattle Art Fair. Individuals and groups mill about, shuffle, drunkenly or blindly or both, the awe of an overload of consumption an effect (or feeling) that’s hard (or impossible) to avoid. There’s a genuine interest to keep moving. There’s a genuine interest to see. I think of John Berger for a moment, and think about all of the synapses of all of the brains in this building encouraging, almost on a psychedelic level, to allow for a massively empowering surge. This surge is to connect, to be one, to be present and physically entwined with everything that is happening here. It makes me feel sick to my stomach, but at the same time, sober as I am, there’s something that feels like joy, but isn’t quite joy, that’s pulling my leg, drawing me further in, from booth to booth, from space to space, from identity to identity, I can’t turn away, I must keep going.

Seattle Art Fair: Modern Living: Schindler House by Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly. Frye Art Museum.

I notice the dualism between the held glass of champagne and the held glass of the screen of the device in each of these patrons’ hands. I notice that I can’t smell anything, that the sound is a general hum, almost like a choir heard just before entering the church. There’s a buzzing sense of electricity and footsteps. One person walks up to a work and takes a picture. Another carefully frames their photo: this is better than finding the image on the official website (note: most of the works are, even now, available on the event’s website in a form probably better than a cell phone can capture), I imagine hearing them think. There are the photos with no people in them. There are the selfies. There are the photos that friends take of other friends. Smiling. Being serious. Appearing to be emotional. Evocative of emotion. Evocative of experience. I watch these people take their photos and take a few of my own.

Seattle Art Faiir: Nancy Rubins – Study: Proposal for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2009

Seattle Art Faiir: Nancy Rubins – Study: Monochrome for Paris, 2012

Taking photos and video of the art itself doesn’t feel the same as taking photos and video of other people engaging with the art. Of course this becomes a question of performance, but who is performing for who? I get caught taking candid photos by random people. I have my press pass, it’s cool. I never actually say this, and I don’t think the exhibitions at this event are looking for any announcement. Satisfaction exists stupendously and a bit stupidly from this silent interchange. I must be clear: I’m not walking around with the DSLR and gigantic lens, but rather a very portable Sony camera that can fit in the pocket and can be whipped out for all manner of sneak capturing. It feels good, reflecting back on it, based on how ridiculously full the room was (I wonder if any of the art is still there–even in temporary storage–probably not).

I try not to pass any judgments or make any inferences when I see the folks standing before me. They could be anyone. They could be of any background. What is their connection to the work? That is where the conversation, in my silence, begins and ends.

Does it help that there are so many people, or so much artworks? How does quantity affect and manipulate? I notice little advertisements, or gallery owners shouting, hustling, making their presence known. In fact, it almost seems like they’ve become deadened by the reality that these events, these spaces, are beyond their control, beyond their manipulation.

Catagonia by Adam Sorensen. Value: $20,000.

I would not say the event was ever comforting to me. Even when sitting still, there’s a sense that the world is moving around you. Like being in a gridlock of traffic: you simply cannot turn your mind off. The same appeal, this one to escape, exists, but it is paradoxically combined with the drawing in, the gaze of the art: to come closer.

Of course spontaneity does happen. Events do happen. Actions. Accidents. The cost of being present is that the physicality will be present as well. I think of The Artist Is Present and wonder if anyone else in the room thinks about it as well.

Object Lesson by Bo Bartlett. Value: $300,000.

The meandering. The socializing. The discussions. The feeling of being wrapped up neatly and having a good time. I try to put myself in the shoes of all those who are walking around me. Of those who are having “authentic moments.” It is possible, I nod, this is not just some ruse, not just some machine. As soul-sucking as it feels, I manage to stay upright and open.

Multiple works by Claire Anne Baker

I wonder if the artists are actually here, or if they stay home and watch on social media for their works to pop up, present themselves, allow for greater appeal and distribution. If the artist does attend, how many days are they present for? Would they hang out the entire time, or would they also be sucked into the event, sucked away from their own work and spliced into some new space, some new experience? I think of the containment of the traditional gallery opening, where there is little competition for attention, and the artist can be the authoritative presence, can truly represent their representations. But not here, right? This can’t possibly be anything like that?

Some of the works in this case are by Kurt Cobain

I try not to pass judgment on the fact that more of Kurt Cobain is being commodified in front of my eyes. I step up to his works and peer at them. There is a echoing quality: someone screaming in a cave, or tunnel, or a room with vaulted ceilings. I don’t feel any humanity in these works, though I try to. I look at the people who are looking at the works and see some smiles, some exasperated releases of energy. Perhaps this is the one sequence they were hoping to experience here. Perhaps this is the one truly heartfelt moment at the Seattle Art Fair. Or maybe this, for them, is visceral. It certainly is not visceral for me, but I imagine individuals with greater degrees of empathy and compassion being tuned in and buzzing forth like bees, dancing in their fingers pressed against the glass, or are those my fingers?

Some of the works in this case are by Kurt Cobain

The combination of death and life within this room is startling. There is a humble backbone to it. There is a spine that leaks fluid of reality. Of course, death and life are nothing new to the museum, that clash, that juxtaposition, more harmonious and welcoming than dystopian. We are not in the end of times at the Seattle Art Fair. We are not at the end of times. We are in some mash-up of perplexity that’s so similar to our daily lives it hurts to draw the comparison: that this is normal, that this place, this experience, is more normal than not. Once, getting over the fact of squish and crunch, that a room as full as it could be could also be strung out like a wet rag to dry, that this is simply a consolidation–not just of space, not just of reality, but of time as well.

In thinking of the tone of the Seattle Art Fair, I think of the illumination of the social experience, a gathering of acts and decisions, and wander slowly through this lens as people talk, laugh, shout, scream at other across the room. Bellowing that greets, shakingly open moments of surprise. I imagine the convention effect: coming across someone you haven’t seen in years, and the elevation of that extraordinary encounter being doubled by the performance required of art-goers. Of those people who believe in the performance, believe in the transformative power of being present and creating something in that involved presence.

At some point the fractals of the greater whole become lesser again, and the greater whole, at least for a moment, dips away. The feet transplant me at some random junction of this grid-shaped event space, and the camera rises slowly. I notice a smile, try to ignore it, because . . . behavior? Learned behavior? I take the picture, and look at it, hesitating a moment to move on. I think of happiness here, and strangers here too, and the convergence of ideas that support real human lives, that bring real humans together, people that are individual, unique, of consequence. It doesn’t matter if dollar signs are in some of their eyes, or if the rush of the moments are turbulent and unprofound–because eventually there will be the peace and profoundness. These people, the ones here, at the fair, and the ones who will show up at the undoubtedly more-packed days to come, are filled with warmth.

Like a Hammer by Jeffrey Gibson

And yet where that warmth comes and goes is of deeper conversation. I wonder about the occupation of these people in this place on top of the occupation of arts of privilege in this place and I wonder about those who carry positionalities where their own works, their own identities could actively or passively get walked over. And what is it to say that something deserves to succeed if it succeeds in drawing our attention to it? I stumble and I stumble and I take note of those rare moments, for example, where indigenous artworks are very, very visible. And the occasional pop of a glance or slight caress of a moan of admiration that some person lets out when they see the work, almost can’t control themselves, want to touch it. And they don’t. And I watch. And their reaction, though seemingly legitimate and gracious and compassionate is actually, if I remember only a minute prior, very comparable to the reaction of the other art. And then what does it mean, this blur, this blend, this madness, and how to do you decipher it?

A work by Akio Takamori

What do we see of ourselves in contemporary art? What do we see of others? In these mirrors, who stands on the other side? Is there some triangulation or intersect between the identity of one and the identity of the self and the identities of the mass as a whole. Walking by what may have been accurately titled (but I’m not sure) “Boy with Blue-Striped Socks,” by Akio Takamori, I could not help but think of the people whose own bodies and personal representations of the self compared and contrasted the skin and the head and the genitalia with this boy. I watched confusion, disgust, moments of the grotesque desire to belong to something more definite, where liminal and ambiguous courage was no longer needed. I think of myself and how being so close to those people whose thoughts I fantasized ended up reminding me of my own thoughts, but also having the buffer to prevent me from any degree of exquisite and precise sensation whatsoever.

A wall of Picasso

In one corner a gallery carried dozens of works by Picasso, and I found it startling because this was totally unusual and disagreeing with the vibe of the rest of the fair. It was, of course, a gallery ultimately gleaming with popularity, but the sheer degree of contemporary art works giving off their own vibe clashed well and thorough with the Picasso wall. As I walked by the owner of the gallery, a gallery called John Szoke, perhaps John himself, of New York, perhaps, I noticed his stare at me not paying too much attention to any of the works. Is there a degree of pride in there? In this man? Is there a degree hubris? Is there a degree of intended design with this gallery? Does it suck all people in and stare? If we don’t, if the status quo is not wholly obtained, do we damage this person?

A wall of Picasso

Inevitably I did stop, to take a few photos and notice, perhaps symbolically, the description written of one, “Le Repas Frugal,” which read: “Huddled together yet facing in opposite directions, their alienation from one another and from society is emblematic of works from Picasso’s ‘Blue Period.'” Think of the implications!

A wall of Picasso

To appropriate this description for a moment, it is fascinating to think of this bondage, this human conductivity, that promotes the connection while also we cannot face one another. I did not anticipate something so meta crossing my path at Art Fair, and yet, a dozen demons in my head or otherwise are laughing, cackling, because why not? Why not bring this true, truly destructive way of looking at this event into the forefront of my consciousness? The Picasso gallery exhibit is one that is frightening, and one that pushes me, a self-propelled dejection towards some other space.

2. What if we’re already understanding?

Arc Maze by Cole Morgan. Value: $34,000.

Let us share gazes for a moment.

Hanakage by Riusuke Fukahori

Let us share gazes and return gazes as well.

Let us seek the fleeting intimacy of the gaze that ends like the casting off of a feather.

Let us take one moment and concentrate as a group.

Friction Flow by Sandeep Mukherjee. Value: $30,000

Can it understand? Can the group make sense of it?

Works by Sadie Barnette

Can the group have multiple functioning parts? Is it possible for some of us to do one thing, and others to do another?

On the floor: Moon Bowl by Ken Matsubara

Shall we bring our self to the table? Will the self become the tool that functions for the answer?

Infinity Mirror Room #1887 by Yayoki Kusama

If the self is a tool, perhaps we need to talk about risk. Perhaps there is the prescribed action, and the demand for us to take it. And in some cases, what does that look like?

Works by Linda Lopez

There is bonding. There is reciprocation and receiving. There is the effect of being held. There is tenderness and being brought close. There is the active pull by people who care.

Works by Damien Hirst

There is the collective, disassociated movement. It is a pattern, but we are also together, and we are beautiful, being one.

I Have Had It by Kelly Reemtsen

We are given such extraordinary opportunities. This is a place to be with others, to see them engage. To see them interact. To see them grow, evolve, be supported, be uplifted.

Hyperkulturama by Einar and Jamex de la Torre

A place where there is cherishing of object. A place where value is not only monetary. A place where light, where illumination, exists.

Two works by Sung-Tae

We worm our way through life and these charms, these tokens, these symbolic gestures the universe gives back to us are noticeable, tangible, and collectible. We borrow them and they give to us.

Tower by Ross Bonfanti. Value: $8,500.

The artworks represent us as much as we represent them. Our patronage and their patronage is a form of symbiosis.

Protector by Judith Kindler

Their images stay with us as we stay with them. It is required to have this duty, active and passive principles glorified, our own notion of self and being prominently opened to us through these experiences.

3. What’s just beyond?

Seattle Art Fair: CoCA Gallery

There are twenty-two spaces within Seattle, galleries and studios and museums, that coordinate specific shows in-line with the Seattle Art Fair. These shows are not only filled with profound works of art, but also feature live performances, talks, and other ephemeral experiences. I had the chance to visit a handful of these spaces two days after the Art Fair opening (when I had availability).

The experience of attending something that feels less fleeting is that it feels more stable, more sturdy, has greater context, has greater direct and identifiable value. At CoCA, I ran into Wizdumb, a long-time friend whose work has been reviewed on this website before. It was this encounter that immediately created a “beyond the Seattle Art Fair” effect for me, something Twilight Zone, something, eerie, but entirely homely and good.

Beyond the production setup, the gallery displays the “New Mystics” show by Yenom Wen, whose work is profoundly mystical, in the sense that it feels elevated, important for the core and the whole, and also otherly and beyond the fullest capable connection.

The major difference between the the Seattle Art Fair abyss and the galleries-as-satellites is within the local context. In the case of Yenom Wen, there is the significant and admirable response to that which fuels events like the Seattle Art Fair, those forces and organizational bodies that are covered over in money.

The works themselves, which comment on homelessness but also comment on the viewers, reflect images of the self in their works. How dynamic and polarized these works are from the gravitational pulls and sucks of the art at the fair itself! How inescapable these works. And yet I still found myself approaching them, as though cursed, the same way I approached blindly the works at the fair: from a distance, from an apprehension, with anxiety.

That degree of anxiety was matched by a degree of the unknown and the visitor, an identity pair that I ultimately felt okay with, used as strength for pushing forward.

Next door to CoCA is SOIL, a member-based gallery featuring additional artworks but also representing community in an apparent and indefatigable way. The conglomeration in the presence of the artists and their friends at this space, this center, contrasted greatly with the arrays of experience in that gigantic room of days prior.

Plastisphere Earthlings #10 by Philippe Hyojung Kim

I found the works in this gallery to be subdued with a degree or degrees of the natural and the organic, of the life forms that seek to bind us to place. In a way that is delicate, fragile, and directly cumbersome of the reality of the natural landscape, these works enticed me into what could be valuable beyond the value itself–the epitome of life as found in the living object.

Nearby SOIL I stepped into a private opening for Project-106, which contained more art, tucked in corners, next to the studios of the artists themselves. It was here that I felt once again claustrophobic, but thought about the functioning of these types of space as perhaps being inspirational to the artists whose work was being crafted behind proximal doors.

Trophies of the American Home by Paul D. McKee. Value: $500.


Disparate Dream (deer chandelier) by Paul D. McKee. Value: $3,500.

Paul’s work reminded me of my own creative work, and the process of merging classic image into new contextual landscapes, often with dark consequences. I found it primal and primordial and anti-human, but also completely admirable and representative of a face of humanism that often gets damned and pushed into strange pockets.

The attached Method Gallery piece “White Room” by Damien Davis felt too intentional as a response to the Art Fair. There was so much love in that room, and I was overjoyed to not only encounter Damien himself, but listen to him speak with patrons about his process. He expressed direct interest in the occupation of art spaces, and how his work approaches that conversation. His statement does the work better justice than I ever could.

An end-of-the-experience statement is not possible. Just as most have encountered “art” throughout their lives, they will continue to encounter more art throughout the rest of their lives. Much of the paradigms I caught myself carrying throughout the Seattle Art Fair were repetitive of other experiences, other places, other engagements with physical art. On one hand, the experience to be physically present truly felt fantastic, rewarding, and uplifting; and yet, on the other hand, a degree of the overwhelming and exhausting and anxious could not be ignored. Of interest is the swell of feelings that opened when thinking more deeply about the human experience being bound to the digital, and the implant (occupation?) of the digital device in the context of the physical, visual art space is one that opens greater degrees of conflict than I thought possible before going into this event. But transformation is never easy. Never smooth. Never without its negative feelings, and thus I find myself remaining optimistic that the Art Fair is not good or bad, or even neutral–that it is entirely transitory, and it will move forward for all audiences and attendees and designers of its intricacies through fluidity and multiple systems of value.

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