Sluice Art Fair brings emerging art to West London venue during art fair week

By Mark Sheerin | 01 September 2011
Colour photo of an empty gallery space
South Molton Lane, a short walk from Frieze Art Fair
© all rights reserved. Courtesy Sluice Art Fair
For artists who perhaps don’t make millions, Frieze art week may be a date to hate. But this year, two man team Karl England and Ben Street are presenting a clear alternative. The brand new Sluice Art Fair will be 15 minutes down the road.

“We have had some hostile reactions when we invited people to take part in an art fair,” says artist England, who in fact hails from New Zealand.

“That’s an important point,” agrees writer and curator Street. “We’ve been saying to people we’re doing an art fair and it’s just by Bond Street. People think, 'oh it’s like an equestrian art fair!’”

In fact, despite its West End location, Sluice will show work from emerging artists, artist-run spaces and other less commercial galleries.

“They’ve allowed frieze and their ilk to define what an art fair is and that’s what their vision of an art fair is, it’s quite sad really,” England continues.

“Exactly, and if your vision of an art fair looks like the ideal homes exhibition and is loads of little booths then Sluice is going to subvert that hopefully,” says Street before adding: “Definitely, actually.”

The scale of Frieze Art Fair is well known. Their blue chip marquee in Regents Park has space for 170 galleries and draws some 60,000 visitors a year. Sluice is making do with less than 200 sq on South Molton Lane. They are not even sure whether to hire a credit card reader.

“It’s spaces that wouldn’t normally have thought of going to an art fair before,” says England, looking quite at ease with the paradox. “They don’t have the budget. They’re not looking at being a selling gallery.”

Street, meanwhile, has a considered line on what Sluice can offer. It is, he says, “partly an investigation into what an art fair is. It’s quite self-reflexive and a lot of the work that’s going to be shown, which we know about, is pretty self-reflexive stuff.”

His co-director chips in: “The thing with Frieze is they charge so much money per sq foot, that can’t help but affect the sort of art these galleries submit, because they need to be showing art to be commercially viable, whereas that doesn’t really happen with us.”

Sluice has got its space for free from a sponsor. The cost of taking part is relatively low. This, according to street, gives them a chance to ask: “How [art fairs] affect the way art is seen and understood by the general public, and by the art world at large, And how they affect or if they affect the practice of artists themselves.”

But then again you might expect awkward questions from a partnership which formed thanks to a notoriously democratic social networking site. After the Arab Spring, is it possible that Twitter is helping bring about an Art World Autumn?

“I would love to think that it was,” says Street with caution. “You’re right though in the way that we were able to very speedily and quickly being able to create a sort of network.”

England also thinks Twitter can play the art system: “I think it does break it down,” he says, “because traditionally you get shows because you know people through all the colleges. Studios tend to be like that. Art galleries tend to be like that.”

But he is more than happy to work outside that. As followers on Twitter will know, the antipodean artist has staged exhibitions on a 14cm plinth and set up an artist’s residency in his own home.

“I’ve done these little self-initiated artist projects,” he explains. “So I thought it would be great to get projects of that scale and up and group them together and present them in a kind of, like unified…”

This appears to be the point where an artist needs a writer: “What’s that union thing where you get all the workers together and then present them as a block?” he asks.

It is a “Union,” points out Street.

Both laugh. Organised labour during art fair week sure does sound crazy, but since when did art fairs make a whole lot of sense. Roll on October.

  • Sluice Art Fair opens October 15-16 2011. See website for more details.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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