Once you enter the Armory Show your first experience is a bit like opening your closet door and having the entire contents of the upper shelves fall into your face.
The Armory Art Show takes the idea that art isn’t a commodity to be sold like the machines and tools on display at the Hannover industrial trade show (that I used to visit as a teenager) and dispenses with it neatly. If any of the Show’s objects at some stage were in the presence of an artist toiling over their meaning and worth (I’m not talking about money here), you wouldn’t know that once you encountered them at the Piers in New York City. Make no mistake, I had no illusions about the Armory Show before I went. So I did not undergo the kind of shock treatment that someone with romantic ideas about the commercial art world would experience if she or he was exposed to such an abomination of the human spirit for the first time. That said, the Armory Show still was a soul crushing experience, where your soul is not only crushed, it’s actually slowly and steadily ground into a fine powder.
A short editorial interlude of sorts: If you can’t imagine that a soul can be ground into a fine powder, you might enjoy the Armory Show. Also, if you have a problem with someone using such imagery - after all how can a soul, which is not a solid entity, be ground into a powder? - then, well, you might enjoy Twitter.
Experiencing the Armory Show is a bit like going to the mall before Christmas: You know in advance that the experience will suck the life out of you completely, to leave you behind poorer (literally and figuratively), owning a bunch of junk that your loved ones don’t really need. But you still end up wondering how every year the combination of crass commercialism and fake happiness can be so toxic. Maybe it’s the music? How much canned “holiday” music can one take before resorting to creatively adding some not-so lyrical flourishes (“Oh fucking Tannenbaum”)?
Well, the Armory Show doesn’t have any music, Christmas or whatever else. Maybe it should? Instead, the atmosphere the day I went (Saturday) was more like a really crowded, run-down second-world airport: Outside a bunch of tremendously ugly concrete. I entered using a very narrow escalator. Inside it was crowded and noisy, it smelled funny, and the VIP lounges contained an odd mix of presumed entitlement, bad free coffee, and overpriced junk food.
Needless to say, the idea that there actually are VIPs in anything art related is revolting. I am fully aware that I am nothing but a sorry egalitarian.
Of course, there is a reason why the Armory Show bothered me so much. There actually is good art on display, and I still want to believe that at least some of the artists who might have toiled over their art are profoundly distressed about seeing it reduced to… yeah, to what?
If you didn’t like my comparison with Christmas at the mall, here’s another attempt: It’s like going to an IKEA, except that IKEA will guide you through the store so that you really look at literally everything they got, regardless of whether you need four hundred dozens cheaply made candles for $5.99 or not. IKEA also doesn’t have booths. The Armory Show has booths but no predestined path for its visitors. Still, it’s positively IKEAish. The funny thing is that the booths, which, I suppose, are there to divide the space to get things more organized, only add to the visual clutter.
So once you enter the Armory Show your first experience is a bit like opening your closet door and having the entire contents of the upper shelves fall into your face.
I’m glad I did not commit to blogging about the photography at the Armory Show, because the task of having to systematically walk through the aisles and jot down what there is to be seen strikes me as daunting. If you’re interested in seeing such a list head over to the DLK Collection blog where they’re in the process of publishing just that, in six parts. Very impressive.
What I did do instead was to walk down the various aisles in what I thought was some sort of systematic fashion, looking left and right, and finding quite a bit of noteworthy and even more not so noteworthy photography. I’ll talk about some of what I found over the next few days.
The Armory Show - or in fact, any other such trade show - is interesting in one aspect: What you get to see is what galleries want you to see. The successful work. The work that they hope or know will sell. So in that sense, the Show gives you an idea of what that work is.
Of course, assuming the last paragraph is correct the flip side of the Show is that if you have followed the photo (or art) scene for a while, there will be few - if any - surprises. The surprises will mainly be at the galleries whose existence you’ve never heard of before, which, at least for me, means those in places like, for example, Moscow. There has been a lot of talk about how the internet has brought photographers together - but seeing so much work I had never even heard of before made me wonder what I had been doing these past few years. After all, I have been spending what occasionally strikes me as a freakishly large amount of time looking at and/or for photography online.
In any case, here’s the thing. You can’t really look out for experiences like that, the experiences where you stumble upon the unexpected. As an early 21st Century person living in the Western world you’re actually trained to avoid just doing that. Or at least I am. Going to the Armory Show is like going to a very, very big store without a list of things to buy. I don’t think the brain is set up to process a huge amount of visual information without running into some serious problems.
Oh, I know, young people are very good at multitasking and video gaming etc., but a lot of those assertions are based on little more than the hype generated by the makers of the various electronic gadgets and websites. How all these people are supposed to leapfrog hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, to be able to do things that the human brain is not evolved for, I’d still like to see an explanation for.
This all might strike you as tremendously old-fashioned, but just think of the combination of driving and texting or even “just” talking on the phone. Most people are terrible drivers without being on the phone, and adding their friend call in to talk about that cute guy/girl they just met usually does not help very much. I’m just saying.
Of course, I could just be the real exception, and everybody else could have just tremendously enjoyed the Armory Show. Maybe. Maybe not. It is true, there actually were people drooling over the art at the Armory Show. I saw at least two of them. Of course, they both were less than a year old each, so maybe that doesn’t mean that much.
Having basically no life force left, I dragged my body’s shell over to the art show called SCOPE (Why are they yelling?). I ended up being very positively surprised by SCOPE. I suppose in part that’s because it was smaller and less overrun. But all in all, the experience was so much nicer since it didn’t come across as such an obvious art-meat market. People seemed to be a bit younger and the art seemed a bit fresher.
I’m sure the New York art scene, where you just got to have an opinion about which show is better than which other show (for reasons which are not entirely obvious to someone like me who lives in the countryside and is thus - hopefully - excused), will have an opinion about me proclaiming that SCOPE was “fresher” than the Armory Show. Be that as it may, SCOPE renewed my faith in the art world a little bit.
One could have long - and probably partly fruitless - debates about art and the gallery world and the pros and cons. You know what, I don’t have a problem per se with art being shown in a gallery. It is true, galleries are like hospitals; but all things considered, a good gallery show can be a tremendously exciting and uplifting event. I’m a real sucker for seeing art work on the wall somewhere, and right now, the most likely place to have such an experience is at a gallery (especially since so many museum shows are dedicated to celebrating the 50th anniversary of that body of work or whatever else has been established for a long, long time).
An art fair/show, though… That’s one of those supposedly fun things I’ll never do again.