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Adrian Searle: Interview in Toronto

Released Oct 29 2009
Art critic Adrian Searle Art critic Adrian Searle

Art critic Adrian Searle

There is perhaps no better or more authoritative voice on contemporary art than that of British critic Adrian Searle. Whether it's in the print edition of the Guardian or in his videocasts and Private View audiocasts on the paper’s website, you can count on Searle to deliver a keenly perceptive, no-holds-barred take on the art that matters. Searle was in Toronto recently to deliver a keynote address—"Bribes, Threats and Making Things Up: A Critic Speaks"—at Art Toronto. In this exclusive interview, Canadian Art’s Bryne McLaughlin caught up with Searle to talk about art fairs, a rebounding art market and the importance of thinking big at the Tate.

Bryne McLaughlin: We’re here at Art Toronto and it seems impossible to speak about art fairs without first noting the effect of last year’s economic downturn on the art market. One recent report in the Guardian cited that contemporary art prices had risen 313 percent in the two years prior to September 2008, but have since dropped by 63 percent. Despite this general tone of doom and gloom, the art market seems to have shifted ground and found its feet. You touched on this in a videocast from the Frieze Art Fair noting that galleries at the fair had brought in not only affordable works, but also massive and expensive pieces. The atmosphere at the fair was, as you said, “buoyant and alive.” What do you make of this seemingly conflicted new reality?

Adrian Searle: It’s funny, isn’t it. One of the bigger pieces at Frieze was this huge tree by Ugo Rondinone that, as far as I understand, was actually bought by someone who is a dealer but who also collects art. Someone who is actually showing at the fair. So you wonder how much of it is just sort of short circuit really. There is a certain Protestant feeling that before people were buying without looking. This whole thing where collectors fly around in droves…they don’t go and see shows in galleries, they don’t necessarily attend the museum retrospectives—unless they’ve got a work that they’ve loaned in it. There’s a kind of group mind at work—the hive mentality of the collector—and they fetch up at all of the big art fairs. I don’t know if they'll fetch up at Toronto or not.

I actually don’t pay all that much attention to the market. I don’t follow it with any assiduousness, really. I pick up a lot of tittle-tattle and I try and dismiss it and not let it interfere when I’m writing. I do think the market was definitely overheated. Frieze is now a bit smaller and they have this section called Frame, which is younger galleries doing one-person shows on their stands rather than just setting out all of their wares. It’s very good. And the balance of galleries, plus artist projects, plus younger galleries…it seems about right. It’s manageable and you know there’s something at every turn. Toronto is very different. From my quick once round it in the middle of the opening, which is obviously not the best way of seeing it, the fair is a more heterogenic collection. There didn’t seem to be much filtering. I saw a couple of stands from London and you think, well these are galleries that never get into Frieze, they just wouldn’t make the cut. I’ve only been to Art Basel Miami once and Miami was so hideous I just thought, I never want to be here again.

I don’t pay all that much attention to the market. I pick up a lot of tittle-tattle and I try and dismiss it and not let it interfere when I’m writing.

I don’t really hang out at fairs. I mean Frieze is in my hometown and I’ve been associated with Frieze magazine since it began and the Guardian is now a media sponsor of the fair. But in the first year of Frieze, the Guardian wasn’t particularly interested in covering it and it took a lot of persuading, partly by me to the arts editor, and partly because a gallery director managed to get the editor of the newspaper to go around the fair and he asked “Why aren’t we covering this?” Suddenly a sidebar column I was supposed to write became the big story. But we don’t really cover art fairs as a rule. They’re not perfect places to look at art for anybody. I took a quick look in at Trout Unlimited yesterday. I can understand that in a way and it works because you know the trout aren’t there, they’re out there in the rivers, you just get the stuff to go fishing for them. Whereas you’re supposed to have some sort of communication with the artworks upstairs, which is kind of difficult when you’ve got someone breathing down your neck telling you what to think and why you should buy. Having said that, I’ve been invited to talk here and these kind of peripheral things—talks lectures, panels—I think they're good. Fairs are not mini-biennials, they’re just not. But they do get a lot of people in one place and they are good places to have discussions.

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This article was first published online on October 29, 2009.

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