Unscheduled: What’s the Future of Art Fairs Post-Covid?

On the surface, Unscheduled seems like any other fair. When it opens at Tai Kwun on June 17, it will feature artworks for sale and a networking opportunity for the art world’s crème de la crème. Yet its organisers and curators are adamant about offering a different experience for both galleries and viewers.

The fair will host 12 local galleries, each showing an Asian artist or artist who has a connection with the continent. Designed by Beau Architects, the fair ground is “decentralised,” according to co-organiser Willem Molesworth. Its galleries will be arranged in a grid and connected via intersections. If you’re standing at a corner, you will have the option to walk into one of four different galleries. “The galleries bleed into each other,” says Molesworth, and each will offer a different viewing experience. Instead of placing gallery booths along an aisle, the way the art pieces are placed is closer to a gallery or museum show. Visitors get a better view of how one artist’s work might interact with another’s. 

Co-curators Ying Kwok and Sara Wong say their goal is to construct a visual narrative that will let individual artists shine while also teasing out the connections between them. “I like that every booth is like a solo exhibition itself,” says Kwok. “In that sense, the focus is really on the artist, and his or her practice, rather than the curatorial concept. For example, we’ve got a booth showing [Taiwanese artist] Chou Yu-cheng, whose works are grounded in a sort of abstract sensibility, yet at the same time, very much related to the day to day, and in the next booth, we have works by Frog King, which are depictions of the universe.” 

Unscheduled, so called for “how the pandemic has thrown all exhibiting schedules out the window,” according to Molesworth, is arriving at a time when the Hong Kong art scene is “getting back to work.” Shows are opening and lines are forming outside popular art spaces such as Tai Kwun’s JC Contemporary and the newly expanded Hong Kong Museum of Art. The role the fair plays amidst all these re-openings is two-fold, according to Wong. First is to get things started again. But it will also contribute to a larger international conversation about the purpose and function of fairs.

It’s a conversation that predates the pandemic. For many gallerists, critics and curators, commercial art fairs are becoming too big, too frequent and—above all—prohibitively expensive, but still attended because there was a fear of missing out. It took the pandemic to forcibly put everything to a halt. 

In the past two decades, the number of art fairs has ballooned from less than 60 in 2000 to 300 in 2019, according to last year’s art market report by Swiss bank UBS. The report also notes that collectors attended an average of four fairs per year. For non-collectors —ordinary people who simply enjoy and don’t buy art—this is generally good news, as more fairs mean easier access to art. But there are still many questions about the impact of having so many fairs. Are there too many fairs at this point? Will the explosion drive down quality in the long run? 

“They’re too big, too frequent, [and] the way that galleries are placed [isn’t] beneficial to galleries,” says Molesworth. “They’re also prohibitive – galleries have a hard time making money while paying artists.” Unscheduled addresses that issue by charging galleries a participation fee while allowing them to keep all proceeds from art sales. 

Molesworth is also the director of de Sarthe Gallery, so he can approach the fair from a gallerist’s perspective. He says de Sarthe only participates in one fair a year now – Art Basel Hong Kong. “It is just so much of the same thing, and the only difference is the location,” he says. “The format, it’s regurgitating, its not as dynamic as it needs to be.”

Perhaps the real question is not whether there are too many fairs, but whether the fairs are too similar. Hence Unscheduled’s ambition of offering a different kind of experience. Of course, there’s also a cynical view: why do art fairs need to provide experiences when they’re essentially gigantic marketplaces where galleries sell and collectors buy? Kwok says it’s important to consider what fairs offer beyond their commercial purpose. She describes a fair like Art Basel Hong Kong as a place where you can come face to face with an unmatched variety of art. “If not for the fair, art will remain this mysterious thing for a lot of people,” she says. “In a cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong or New York, it’s inevitable that a lot of activity in the art world will have some association with money.” The bigger problem comes if fairs start catering to exclusive groups.

That’s where digital access comes in. The pandemic seems to have accelerated the digitisation of art, from online viewing rooms like the ones created by Art Basel Hong Kong; to more complicated journeys that try to imagine the visitor’s journey in a physical gallery, like David Zwirner’s current Philip-Lorca diCorcia show, where an infinite scroll allows viewers to travel down a page full of stunning visuals; to the virtual project space by Chinese collector Michael Xufu Huang’s X Museum. 

“I visited some online viewing rooms, and while I was glad sales were made, I don’t think it could replace the in-person,” says Kwok. 

Wong agrees. “I feel there’ll still be that discrepancy for three-dimensional works, I feel there is still that discrepancy. Maybe AR [augmented reality] will solve some of these problems in the future.” 

More than presenting a piece of art in its most authentic form, a bigger challenge to an online fair is creating the visual journey itself. Take Unscheduled as an example: how would you create the same sense of fluidity between booths? Kwok takes a moment to think about it. “Say, if we could create an advanced video game, where if you, as a viewer, stand in a corner, you could pick from one of four  journeys,” she says.

But even if the future of online art viewing is a blend of online viewing room, AR technology and video gaming, the interviewees remain doubtful it will replace in person viewing. For Molesworth, the answer is a definite no. “When we participated in Art Basel’s online viewing room, we only showed paintings,” he says. “There is no way I’ll be able to show this piece by [Hong Kong artist] Andrew Luk,” he says, pointing to the artist’s bulbous piece above him. 

But what if more works are made first and foremost for the online space? For Kwok, the development of digital and internet art is long overdue, in part because some collectors are still wary of piracy issues related to digital art. “I have talked to artists who said, ‘Well, if I had more budget and time, I’d be interested in turning my work into an online work.’ I do notice the changes,” she says. “In the past, online works were often accompanied by this physical element. Perhaps we should ask, what does the online have that the physical doesn’t?”

“I think it also relates to how people perceive the digital in everyday life,” adds Wong. Two years ago, she curated Sparkle! Journal of a City Foot Soldier, a group show at the Oi! art space in North Point. Amongst the works was Fabian Gutscher and Wu Jiaru’s “Walking Together Alone,” in which Guscher, based in Zurich, and Jiaru—in Hong Kong at the time—walked through their respective cities, listening to each other’s footsteps thanks to an app Guscher had developed. During the exhibition, viewers were asked to join in the walk, and by downloading the app, they too could hear a real-time composition of the footsteps of everyone walking. It was an intriguing idea, but there was a problem: “Not many people downloaded the app, so it didn’t really work,” recalls Wong.

What’s the future for an art world that appears battered and energised by Covid-19? Smaller fairs? Fairer relationships between fair organisers and galleries? A further amalgamation of the digital and physical? Perhaps it will finally mean the world is ready for a piece like the one created by Gutscher and Wu. 

Molesworth hopes that the art industry will be able to sustain the experimental spirit from this period. “It’s not just recovering,” he says. “It’s about rethinking what we are doing.”

Unscheduled runs from June 17 to 27 June, 2020. Click here for more information.

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