Art Rotterdam, Feb. 26-Mar. 1, 2004, at Cruise Terminal Rotterdam and Las Palmas, Rotterdam, the Netherlands
"We did well. We sold this one, for example." says Amsterdam dealer Michael Huyser, looking over his shoulder at Michael Kvium's White View, a large oil on canvas showing a cluster of identical males entangled in a grove of tree trunks.
"We took this one to Art Basel Miami, and then it showed at DCA Gallery in New York. But it sold here to a museum for 22,000 euros." Huyser has good reason to take pride in this particular transaction. Given the current exchange rate of roughly 1.25 euros to the dollar, this sale realized a nice chunk of change for the artist and Huyser's Galerie Hof & Huyser.
But beyond personal profits, sales at this scale vindicated the dealer's belief that there is a market for an art fair in Rotterdam, to accompany those already well established in Cologne and elsewhere in the region. And so it was that five years ago, he and his partner Fons Hof joined forces with local marketing whiz Peter Schuiten to create an art fair in Rotterdam, about 45 minutes by train from Amsterdam.
For the first four years, Art Rotterdam featured only galleries from the Netherlands. This year saw the addition of international galleries and a great expansion of the fair's physical space. Previously contained within a section of a port warehouse named Las Palmas, Art Rotterdam extended across the street to the city's Central Terminal. Both spaces were renovated on an expedited schedule in less that a week. Eighty-four galleries were represented, more than a quarter of which are based outside the Netherlands.
International dealers were individually recruited by the organizers based on previous contacts and word-of-mouth, with the goal of emphasizing emerging and experimental work. "We researched the galleries ourselves, so that there was no commission fee involved," says Huyser. "Galleries outside the European Union were offered up to 2,000 euros in support, up to 80 percent of transport. They paid the same rental fee as the Dutch galleries, and each gallery received a free hotel room."
The organizers expected that this fair would appeal to collectors seeking new discoveries, not for those seeking big ticket items. This intuition was born out in actual sales, as art priced in the range of 5,000-20,000 euros did well, while large works -- such as a flashy wall-mounted Nam June Paik priced at 65,000 euros and an interactive video installation by Geert Mul priced at 50,000 euros -- found no buyers.
Among the out-of-towners was New Yorks Florence Lynch Gallery, whose offerings included an outdoor installation by Janet Echelman. The port-facing facade of the Central Terminal was covered in a intricate red and white web, recalling fishing nets and echoing the support structure of the nearby Erasmus Bridge.
Another American gallery was Peres Projects of Los Angeles, whose booth offered a concise overview of the gallery's hip and eclectic artists. Terence Koh (aka Asianpunkboy) was represented by homoerotic photos, Assume Vivid Astro Focus by graffiti-inspired constructions, and Amie Dicke by linear cut-out female figures that apparently began their lives in men's magazines.
But the fair's real strength was its representation of Dutch contemporary art galleries, which ranged from cutting-edge to conservative, including smattering of those dealing in glass. Galerie Binnen, Brutto Gusto and Etienne & Van Den Doel Expressive Glass Art offered some really exquisite pieces; match any of these with a monochrome painting from Slewe Galerie and you are on your way to a Dutch interior of such minimal elegance it would bring tears to Mondrian's eyes.
Edgier work could be found at the brand-new Upstream Gallery, making its debut at Art Rotterdam with emerging artists so moved by punk that the gallery's booth was announced by roughly painted sign reading "Goth Save the Queen." Reflex Modern Art Gallery and Reflex New Art Gallery showcased photographs, including the "girl culture" documents of Lauren Greenfield, the Japanese schoolgirl bondage Polaroids of Nobuyoshi Araki, and Roger Ballen's portraits, stunning in their whimsy and weirdness.
For pure weirdness, though, nothing came close to the Tobias Schailkin's discomfiting His Unexpected Return, a sculpture installed at the booth of Aschenbach & Hofland. A girl in a white dress is slumped over a school desk, depicted in hyperreal detail but for the surreal transformation of her extended left arm into the elongated and very hairy arm of an adult man.
Sure, you can compare this to Robert Gober, but I'm thinking Balthus. The sculpture was infused with a blend of erotic dreams and sexual abuse, a creepy aura that had me scurrying off to the nearby booth of Fons Welters, where a video by Jennifer Tee showed the artist defending herself against an onslaught of onions. You chose your battles, and I'll take offensive onions over pedophiles, thanks.
Maybe it's just me, or the proximity of Amsterdam's red light district, but the fair seem to include a good deal of erotic art. (Some such works juxtaposed by chance with the glass dealers put the phrase "tits and glass" into my head, but I promised not to use it here.) Galerie Wouter van Leeuwen was perhaps the most overt, showing Ellen von Unwerth's fetish photos and Rankin's adorations of women's torsos. But the sexy bits were everywhere, from Olaf Marten's photos at Cokkie Snoei's booth to the offerings of Torch Gallery, which included the collaboration of photographer Eric van der Elsen and novelist Ronald Giphart in a series entitled "Heldinnen," featuring up-and-coming Dutch female celebrities in alluring poses and situations.
One of the fair's main events was Museumnacht, during which Rotterdam's museums and galleries were opened from 8 pm until 2 am, with special programs and events luring the crowds to linger. Strolling along the main drag of galleries on Witte de Withstraat that night, one might have had a free punk haircut, cheered nude women wrestling in custard, or swerved to avoid the shenanigans of artist Delnius on his buzzing go-cart.
Those seeking headier fare during the fair could sit in on the ongoing lecture and video series sponsored by Smart Project Space. This aptly named alternative space is in the midst of moving to expanded quarters that will include exhibition galleries, studios, a screening room, a caf, and even a kindergarten, "so artists won't have an excuse to stop making art when they become parents," notes founder Thomas Peutze.
The Smart Project Space lecture program was broadcast and archived at www.smartprojectspace.net, which also features a good deal of video art. (There you will find that among the lecturers was your humble reporter, speaking on sex and art; as I mentioned above, it might just be me, but there does seem to be a lot of interest in sex in contemporary art.) Smart Project Space, like the art fair it helped to anchor, provides a good forum for those interested in the local art scene, even as they endeavor to serve that community.