During a week in New York that is defined by international dealers hoping to lure clients into high-priced booths at high-stakes fairs, Spring/Break Art Show is the definite exception. There are no big-ticket items and no blue-chip galleries. In fact, there are almost no galleries at all at Spring/Break—the fair is made up of curated booths. It also trends younger and weirder than most fairs, and this year’s edition, the fair’s seventh, which began today at the former offices of Condé Nast, high above Times Square, continued Spring/Break’s run of very fun, very odd exhibitions. The fair may be a bit less scrappy than in past years, but it’s still a casual—and crowded—affair. You will find artists and curators happily discussing their work with curious passersby. You will also overhear them debating the merits of different vape pens.
Despite an animated crowd and a generally lighthearted atmosphere, the theme this year was a somber one. Titled “Stranger Comes to Town,” the fair this year focused on migration and xenophobia. One exemplary work, brought to the fair by curator Nico Roxe, was artist Elektra KB’s “Power Is Abuse,” a sprawling project about borders and binaries that includes fiber pieces, videos, manipulated photographs, brochures, and an interactive element. Visitors were invited to come to a checkpoint at KB’s fictional Cathara Autonomous Territory; there, they could register for a passport for free and, in the process, renounce nationhood, gender, and patriotism. “There are people who told me they were really proud to get this stateless passport,” KB said, adding that only one person had declined to get a passport after being read its conditions, under the pretense that he liked countries and patriotism. “It’s amazing that, when I ask people to sign it, they’re really thinking about it. People have been more involved than I’d have thought.”
There was no shortage of interactive pieces at the fair. The collective Fall On Your Sword—which has exhibited work at every edition of Spring/Break thus far—debuted a project called “Hard or Soft Option.” (It was organized by Spring/Break founders Ambre Kelly and Andrew Gori.) The piece involves several objects that resembles treadmills; when stepped on, they start playing thudding bass music and appropriated footage from Westerns, splicing together violence and entertainment.
There were smaller, subtler works at the fair, too. Ian Etter brought a group of works on paper to the fair because, he said, “it’s not something that you’ll see a lot.” Included in his booth was a group of landscapes, among them Rocky Mountains scenes by Mike Nudelman and geometric abstractions by Pete Schulte. “With a lot of artists, you’ll see their paintings but you won’t see their works on paper,” he said. “Works on paper are typically made with abandon; they’re not so carefully crafted as the painting.”
Other enticing works on paper could be found courtesy of Chioma Ebinama, who, in her mini-exhibition “Rituals for a New Direction,” created a personal mythology through a series of drawings and prints made using indigo dye and kozo paper. Influenced by pre-Colombian and Ibo imagery, the works tell the story of a goddess born of the union of the sea and sky. Ebinama is concerned with colonialism’s ongoing influence on identity. “So,” she said, “for me it’s very important to take and create my own story, and I’m interested in storytelling in general and how it shapes identity and value in a culture.”
At a booth curated by Azu Nwagbogu, the British artist James Ostrer offered an installation called “Johnny Just Came.” A wall lined with blue and green flip-flops provided the background for a series of photographs, each priced between $6,200 and $6,700, that resemble strung-up people with food and meat attached to them. A release revealed that the work was made in response to a trip Ostrer made to Lagos in 2015, and that the shoes were taken from beaches in the Nigerian city itself. “This booth is about my change in response to a continent I’d never been to,” Ostrer said. Society had “imposed on me a sense of fear about traveling to Lagos,” he added, and the works, which are hotly colored and have the high-gloss finish of fashion photographs, were made in reaction to the fact that he found Nigeria to be quite inviting.
Several booths were concerned with representation and visibility. For one called “What Can Be Seen,” Natasha Becker brought together works by three artists, including Esmerelda Kosmatopolous, who contributed a collage of four videos that come from her larger project called “Chez Naussicaa.” With Book Six of the Odyssey in mind, Kosmatopolous hosted dinners for refugees and Greek locals, all of whom were strangers to one another. Silent footage of plates, foods, and hands begs viewers to consider what conversations might have taken place among the guests. “[It’s] a take on the current situation in Greece but through this deeply historical lens,” Becker said. “And for me, as a curator, it’s almost like a reminder of this important aspect of the culture that is being lost, this aspect of hospitality and welcoming strangers.”
While much of the work was decidedly analog, a few artists made work with an eye to the digital sphere, including Brett Wallace, who, in a project space curated by Brooklyn’s Silas van Morrisse Gallery, created what appeared to be a trade show booth for a company–cum–conceptual work called Amazing Industries. Founded on a similar premise to Amazon’s business model, the company is meant to “explore the future of work,” Wallace said. The booth, dotted with a cute red logo, includes a computer-generated video that envisions a floating factory that would loom over Manhattan and features a person doing repetitive labor computer known as a so-called Mechanical Turk. (The Turker, as they’re often called, was a real one, and he normally works for companies like Amazon, for a meager pay of $4 an hour.) “We wanted to understand: why do people do this work?” Wallace said. “What is the asymmetry involved?” As visitors spoke to the artist about his work, the Turker barely took his eyes away from his computer.
Wallace’s work, like much of what was on view at Spring/Break, was decidedly straightforward about its aims. But one booth, curated by Brooke Nicholas, went for something grand, theoretical, and difficult. Titled “Den of Ego Death,” it features 13 artists whose work is spread across three rooms, each devoted to a different color. (Clay turtles, a plush devil, videos, and embroidery are among the rooms’ offerings.) “In the first room, the red room, are these fraught works, with these ideas about aspiration and angst,” Nicholas said of the project. “And then it moves into this yellow room that’s more about revisiting history and taking time to re-evaluate and take stock and see what you have and what you know you have. And then it ends in the blue room which is just resolution: dealing with it, accepting it, and finding joy in the fact that there’s no fixed identity.”