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Comment Reviews

No Alternative?

21 October 2013

It’s a point that’s doubtless been made many times before, but for the purposes of this blog, it nonetheless feels pertinent to resurrect it; the Old Truman Brewery in Spitalfields, East London, is a building on the frontline of a clash of cultures, lifestyles and values. Equidistant from the City of London and some of the East End’s most deprived areas, the Brewery is effectively a marketplace for the iconography of a tame sort of rebellion. Its complex of record shops, bars and food stalls trades on the word ‘alternative’; it would be pointless to argue the toss of gentrification and commerce here, but the old cliché has come calling – operating ‘alternative’ to what, exactly?

The venue’s cracked identity is unlikely to be spliced by the pandemonium of the Other Art Fair and Moniker, the double event it hosts parallel to Frieze. In a huge room at the southern extent of the building, a bored-looking DJ pumps superannuated Dance-Rock into a vortex of visitors borne back ceaselessly into the plughole of the café-bar at the centre. The noise is as deafening as negotiating the hive of cubicles that makes up the art fair is tortuous. There are noble ideals (and, in all fairness, some interesting artists) at work – both the Other Art Fair and Moniker support and cater to a market that is completely overlooked by the larger fairs − but this really is the showroom equivalent of an acute panic attack. And thus we have the mise-en-scène – so to the talent.

Let’s start with the merits. Displayed in a different way, the Other Art Fair might well be a very enjoyable experience. Now in its fifth edition, it’s a commendable initiative that allows unrepresented artists to showcase their work. And what a lot of unrepresented artists there are; the fair takes up just over half of the room, yet crams in well over 100 stands. Even in a space as titanic as the Truman Brewery, the vast number of tiny booths makes it hard to judge much of the work on its own terms. Yet still certain exhibitors stand out. The photography is particularly strong; drawing on her anthropological studies, Maria Konstanse Bruun proposes stylised compositions that joyously bring the absurd into collision with the mundane, while the luxuriantly sombre monochrome of Marta Sanches Costa’s work has a chilly charisma that stands bracingly at odds with the assault of colour around it.

Unfortunately, no such claims can be made of Moniker. Representing the relatively new wave of London-centric ‘street art’ galleries and imprints, the fair is a pretty good approximation of what Bosch’s The Last Judgement might have looked like had he painted it in Shoreditch circa 2008. Post-Banksy tat abounds; stall after stall of fatuous, remedial pop culture references and exasperatingly inane ‘political’ wordplay provokes first cynicism, then sadness. Some of the stuff here might in isolation be perfectly innocuous – charming, even – but the cumulative sensory offensive is just aggressive. Again, the context does no favours to the work; it’s hard to look closely or give due time to anything at all.

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