‘Instagramming’ art, and why we go to art fairs

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The past year has seen increased appreciation for Philippine art in its various forms. In such a dynamic art scene, what makes the trip to a gallery or art fair worth it? Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) —  Art Fair Philippines, one of the most divisive art events in the local scene — both anticipated and derided by people in and out of the scene, from all walks of life — will be held at The Link, a parking garage located right beside Makati’s many malls and luxury hotels. The annual event, which began only in 2013 as a space to showcase primarily contemporary Philippine art, has increased both in the number of exhibitors and visitors in the last four years. Based on the latter number’s trajectory, this number may very well increase this year.

Some of the main criticisms Art Fair Philippines has drawn are its commercial aspect, and the high volume of visitors who go, not so much to look at the art, but to be seen — and, of course, to pose among the art pieces, turning the exhibits into a smorgasbord of backgrounds for photos, the best-posed ones likely ending up on the event’s Instagram hashtag, #ArtFairPhilippines2017.

artfair essay1.jpg A visitor examines one of the murals in exhibit ("Tagadagat" by Elmer Borlongan, Emmanuel Garibay, and Mark Justiniani) at this year's Art Fair Philippines. Photo by JL JAVIER

To be fair, the commercial aspect is seemingly inextricable from the general concept of art fairs. A majority of art fair participants, both here and abroad, are commercial galleries that deal with the dealing of art. This is presumably why special exhibits are mounted, as space is made available for big murals, art projects, and visual and sound installations, without the inherent pressure requirement of selling the art to offset the cost of renting the booths and putting up the exhibits in the first place, and also presumably part of why art talks are held — to present a way of digesting art and some of its other aspects, other than trying to place yourself in peak contemplative mode, in order to properly ruminate on the work.

Art fairs, too, are the flame to which moths — in the form of art collectors — are drawn. While they celebrate the plurality of numerous art scenes, they, too, become battlefields where the prize and the glory often come in the form of that painting (because, let’s face it, it’s always a painting) one loses to another valiant conqueror-collector. There is high drama: tears shed, threats made, ultimatums drawn. In the end, there can only be one victor … that is, until the fair next year.

artfair essay3.jpg Visitors contribute drawings for Dex Fernandez's on-the-spot animated video featuring the Garapata icon. Photo by JL JAVIER

In 2016, Art Fair Philippines’ foot traffic was reportedly 22,000 visitors, nearly a 400% increase from the 6,000 people that took part in its first year in 2013. Scrolling through over 10,700 posts under the “ArtFairPhilippines” hashtag, one will find at least one “candid” snapshot of a visitor captioned with some quote about being the only work of art among the works of art that the original poster wants to look at. But this comes as no surprise as Filipinos are no strangers to impromptu photoshoots in art spaces that elicit some type of selfie inspiration. Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo — a sprawling cluster of adobe structures that house a personal collection and mounts several exhibits, and an exhibitor at Art Fair Philippines this year — was included in Hyperallergic’s list of the most Instagrammed museums in the world in 2016, placing 23rd right behind London’s National Gallery and right before Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.

But suppose you forego the thrill and the thrum of excitement of posing next to a painting or sculpture that you really, really liked, and allocate an already generous half hour to each booth and exhibit this year, with the elusive hope of catching one or two art talks, how long would it take you?

artfairessay2.jpg Cos Zicarelli and other visitors interact with a sound art exhibit put together by WSK, a group of sound artists. Photo by JL JAVIER

This year, Art Fair Philippines boasts eight site-specific public art installations, 11 special exhibits strewn about the three floors it occupies (a fourth, the roofdeck, is reserved for the talks), along with booths by 46 exhibitors featuring hundreds of artists, both local and not. Add to that the four art talks conducted on each of the four days, for a total of 16 held in two-hour intervals for the duration of time the fair is open each day. Spending a half hour on each exhibit — barring travel time, meals, and the discussions — would take you 32 and a half hours. Subtracting this time from the fair’s opening hours, you’re left with just about enough time for five talks — provided you figure out how to teleport and self-sustain without going out for lunch or a coffee run.

The truth is, venues like the art fair aren’t really designed for the average person to complete a full rotation of. Unless you can dedicate four full days in a parking garage, you really won’t be able to “properly” spend time with the pieces. And after doing the math, four days doesn’t even seem like nearly enough time.

If it all sounds absurdly hopeless, the upside is that art events — exhibits, talks, gigs, installations, retrospectives, performances, and yes, even auctions — happen year-round, and will hopefully continue to do so for a long time. The art fair, while not an ideal mode for some soul-searching quest where a sculpture will jolt you to contemplate life in existence or a mural will make you think about the nation’s complex web of problems — with all the noise and the crowds and the rest of the various stimuli — is an amazing sampler that may introduce you to your next favorite artist or gallery. And if you somehow manage to catch a quiet moment by yourself in front of a work that makes you properly think (I recommend early morning, just after the doors open for the day), then the trip out may already be worth it.