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After an hour or so spent weaving through the labyrinthine layout of this year’s Material Art Fair in Mexico City, I retreated to the Expo Reforma’s café area to get some air. Soon, a crackling backing track started playing, and I turned to see a woman in a soiled gray sweatsuit holding a microphone. Wearing hideous horror-film make-up—her face bubbling and seemingly about to slough off—she began singing, timidly at first but earnestly. Her sincerity—not to mention her appearance—had me unnerved. As she burst into the chorus, I suddenly recognized the tune: Whitney Houston’s 1985 torch song “All at Once.” She then launched into Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes’ “Up Where We Belong,” as four more fleshy, misshapen characters joined her onstage. All in various stages of transformation, (from a fairly normal looking man with a frizzy mullet, to an insect-like creature), I realized they were manifestations of Jeff Goldblum’s character in David Cronenberg’s gross-out classic The Fly (1986). It was a mesmerizing and heartfelt performance, bringing together two elements from ‘80s pop-cultural spectrum: splatter-house cinema and radio-friendly earworms.
Like the “Brundlefly” composite of Cronenberg’s film, Material too is a hybrid: it takes the trade show model that most art fairs are based on and introduces an energetic, not-ready-for-prime-time, and decidedly non-commercial element, conveying the complexity and messiness of art.
This year marked the fair’s third edition (and location), and it was clear that fair organizers Daniela Elbahara, Brett W. Schultz, and Isa Natalia Castilla were still working out the kinks. (According to Schultz, Material will be staying put at the Expo next year, so they’ll have time to fine-tune.) In contrast with last year’s more traditional, open plan, this year’s compressed layout was designed by Mexico-City based architecture studio APRDELESP, in part to accommodate an increased number of participants. The result was a maze-like warren that squeezed smaller galleries into claustrophobic passageways, while pushing others into less traveled corners.
“The labyrinth was great for the energy of the fair,” Schultz told me a week after the fair closed. “This is a very different fair ideologically so why should it looks like any other fair? We pushed it really far.” They certainly deserve credit for shaking up the staid, rectilinear model, but I found it maddening trying to figure out which artists went with which gallery, or going over the same paths numerous times, only to discover there were whole sections that I had missed. Others loved the layout, finding that it encouraged conversation, rewarded unfocused wandering, and broke down the rigid traditional fair structure..
Some gallerists played with this confusion, such as Mexico-City based Lodos or Michael Jon Gallery from Miami. The fair neighbors both hung brightly colored, bleach stained weavings by Yann Gerstberger, toying with the assumption that one gallery had usurped some of the other’s real estate. SPF15 from San Diego was all the way in the back; luckily the beach canopy that serves as the project’s mobile home drew me in. And I would have completely missed L.A. space Arturo Bandini had they not recreated the wooden ribbing of their outdoor shack on the one wall they were allotted.
In the center of the maze was an oasis of sorts, a large (for Material) room that was given over to NY art bar Beverly’s. On opening night, it was here that L.A. noise-drag-industrial duo Xina Xurner performed a blistering set as front man Yung Joon Kwok flailed and screamed his way through the throngs. If that scene was too intense, there was always the mini-bar, a small space reached through a side door, where Alison Kuo and Stina Puotinen were holding court, telling fortunes, offering cups of mezcal, and selling small sculptures. This highlights a crucial distinction between other art fairs and Material: performance is given prominence. “Performance is normally one of these disciplines that is excluded, unless it’s something commissioned for the fair, so to have it so deeply integrated into the daily agenda was an interesting experiment,” Schultz said.
Material attracts and welcomes smaller galleries and independent artist-run spaces. It is a less expensive fair featuring predominantly less expensive work than larger regional fairs, like MACO, which means that gallerists can show artists that they feel strongly about, without worrying about selling everything (or anything) just to break even. Schultz recounted that a fair member from a non-profit arts center said that an ad in his hometown paper was more expensive than a booth at Material; a novel motivation to participate.
And then there was the Fly. “The Jaimie Warren performance was incredible,” Schultz confided when I asked him to pick some highlights. “It didn’t feel forced or premeditated. That felt special, where you felt that something could happen anywhere at any moment.” How many other fairs can you honestly say that about? As larger, more traditional fairs like Paris Photo L.A. are folding as a result of flagging sales, Material has found a sweet spot between commerce and community, appealing to an emerging collector class drawn by its fresh approach, rather than the bombast and exclusivity of established art fair behemoths.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 4.