Art16, the Olympia Art Fair this year was considerably more fun than its immediate predecessor. It was more spacious in feeling, better laid out, better lit. Large art fairs often leave me, when I finally stagger out of them, feeling in urgent need of two things – a stiff drink and a quiet lie-down. This time I had none of those symptoms. Maybe one reason for this was that the event really didn’t have much truck with kind of virtuous, puritanical Late Avant-Gardism that still, one notes, continues to preoccupy the readership of that home of all cultural righteousness (and also self-righteousness) The Guardian newspaper.
At Olympia there wasn’t even a whisper of Conceptual Art. Of course not, silly – these people were intent on selling you stuff. Actual solid, here-in-this-world luxury items. Things you didn’t need but might conceivably covet, that is if they tickled your fancy enough. Hand over your credit card and they’d be glad to ship them to you.
One slightly bizarre result of this was that the goods on offer often took one straight back to the 16th century, in particular to the kind of fantastical art that delighted the frivolous courts of Europe in the late 16th century. More and more, as I made my way round, I came to think of the Fair as being, in the most literal sense, a kind of magical zoo. There were strange creatures of every kind to look at – direct descendants of the poetic inventions that delighted pan-European elites slightly less than half a millennium ago.
Of course, if one examined things more closely, there were differences. A number of interesting galleries from very distant locations, places that 16th century Europe was only tentatively in touch with. And some technological toys that were very much of our own time – for example images that gestured and appeared to want to speak as you stood before them. Framed pictures of birds that started to peck their perches and ruffle their feathers as you looked.16th century fantasists might imagine those, but they couldn’t yet make them.
Yes, I had a good time. And no, I didn’t feel guilty about it. Even a life-size version of the Dying Gaul in a gas-mask, shipped all the way from Australia, couldn’t make me feel bad.