I have sold toys, insurance, neckwear and art. And now cars and furniture, the former for fun and the latter for money -- and because I seem to have trouble getting into the fine art fairs. At Art Basel in particular I find myself in the design department, Design Miami/Basel, spreading my wares about on a blanket as if on St. Mark’s Street in New York. I can’t help but feel like a wayward photo dealer before the medium was embraced by the mainstream contemporary art establishment.
Now, with the coining of the new phrase "Design Art" -- an up-market name for an aspiring and hungry audience -- I guess I could be in no better place. But I can still remember when a chair cost less than $100,000. Nevertheless, if I were going to buy a chair, I’d rather there be 12 of them (strangely, the unspoken, almost holy number for sanctioned editions) than a gazillion.
I must say that the whole thing gives me a rash -- introducing new works, or should I say products, by Zaha Hadid, Vito Acconci and Arik Levy. The fabrication, booth fees, crating and shipping are a big expenditure, and leap of faith, and in the end I have for display a group of things that are situated oddly just outside the norm of functionality and usefulness. Which is where I’d rather be I suppose, were it not for the out-of-pocket costs. The market is new, this exhibiting and offering for sale models and cut-paper reliefs by Zaha Hadid, depicting buildings in various stages of completion. The result is domesticated architecture for the walls and dining room table.
The centerpiece of the booth is the Belu, Zaha Hadid’s sleekly biomorphic multifunctional object that serves as furniture, storage, seating and sculpture. The prototype was used as my desk at the ARCO art fair in Madrid a few years ago and was later in the artist’s retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York -- where they kindly dropped a ladder through it, a worse fate than ever happened to it while in my care, and I have four small boys at home. Why is it always museums who mishandle art?
The original object was so large, with such a monstrous cantilevered overhand, that it had to be weighed down by a colossal block of cement. The idea behind the current version was to scale it down to make it home-sized and presumably more salable. To my surprise, the crate that arrived at the fair resembled a small one-bedroom apartment. It took five technicians working for five hours to break it down and set it up. Though still ginormous, as my little monsters say, at least the cement bunker has been replaced by a modest number of sandbags.
The thing still looks as though it could defy gravity and fly out like shooting mercury. The price, in an edition of 12, is €100,000.
Vito Acconci, at the last minute, which is usually his first, came up with three stunning photo prints that uniquely synthesize the two strands of his longstanding, iconic body of work. Fundamentally design-oriented -- the focus of Vito’s practice for the past 20 years or so -- the works nevertheless have handwritten text in chalk over photographic prints, Vito’s MO during the late 1960s and ’70s. Acconci’s digital C-prints with hand annotations are €25,000 each.
The most utterly weird is the Food Screw, from a group of works entitled "More Holes for Buildings & Food," in reference to the Talking Heads album. The work shows a translucent screw-like device, filled with a mélange of multicolored olives. The screw is shown in action cutting into a roast beef, as if it were starring in an infomercial for a George Foreman Grill.
When the roast beef is subsequently sliced, the edible screw and its contents create a customized meal for you and the guests. As Vito states in the accompanying text, "Screw anything that moves, serve yourself and serve yourself to others." Maybe I should have stuck to tables and chairs.
Lastly, Arik Levy has provided a series of interlocking gem-like structures in brushed stainless steel that are meant as low-lying tables or seating elements. They are seductive, delectable sculptures that perfectly blur the distinction between utilitarian objects and art. Isn’t this what all of these exercises should be about, creating new genres (or attempting to) rather than affirming the already established categories? Why not a little surprise and ridiculousness? Seemed like a good idea to me, but it didn’t suit Frieze director Matthew Slotover, who rejected my application for his fair.
But perhaps a laissez-faire attitude can go too far. I had at my home one of the prototypes for the Rock Fusion, which is what Levy’s pieces are called, during a recent party for my lovely kids. When I unwrapped the work in Basel, it was covered in what can only be described as all-pervading goop. However, even that, compared to the disastrous handling of some Hadid works for a recent show at the Royal Academy, was a matter of minor repairs. Arik’s pieces, which are made in editions of 20 with four artist’s proofs, range in price from €15,000 to €19,000.
Design Miami/Basel opens in a day or so. I am hopeful that my unstinting efforts do not go unheralded -- or my wares unsold, for that matter, as sales after all are what bring us and our goods to the city in the first place. It is a crapshoot, true, the possibility that a collector might throw caution to the wind and end up with a photo of Vito’s Umbruffla, a hybrid umbrella shelter that resembles an Issey Miyake outfit. This coming from a man who has worn the same garment-regime of black shirt and pants for more than 40 years, no less.
In the end, I must say, hard as it is to fathom (especially if you know them), I miss my art-world brethren. Cast astray in the design ghetto, located near the main train station at Viaductstrasse no. 10, far from the Messe where the offical Art 38 Basel is being staged. I feel like Tonio Kröger, the character in the Thomas Mann novella, with my nose pressed forlornly against the windows of the place where everyone is frolicking, singing, dancing and probably making more money.
But I am also happy with my present lot. It’s a great effort by the organizers, who are doing their part to launch a new, fertile market. It’s just that the division of art and design is superfluous and unnecessary. As stated by the scholar Zlotnick-Woldenberg in the American Journal of Psychotherapy (2000, Winter), referring to the split between the artistic and bourgeois impulses of Mann’s Kröger:
"His emergence from the schizoid into the more mature depressive position, having been foreshadowed in a series of dream sequences, occurs at the end of the work when he comes to accept the view that artistic impulses and bourgeois discipline are not incompatible."
KENNY SCHACHTER is an art dealer based in London.