Floating in the pool of the Capitol Skyline Hotel, Chajana denHarder has begun “Singularity,” a performance-art piece involving a clear plastic ball. Nearby, the turntables and mixer are in place for a DJ set by Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton. In the underground garage, two Corcoran students in eight-foot-high satyr/centaur get-ups readily pose for photos, although they decline to speak. Outside, on South Capitol Street, cars and trucks thunder by artlessly.
The annual (e)merge art fair has just begun.
The event, which started Thursday evening and runs till Sunday at 5 p.m., is Washington’s version of the larger fairs that have become integral to the international art world. So far, it’s not a major stop on the circuit. But the Thursday night preview and party crowd, dressed mostly in black, is big and happy.
“We all get so busy,” says a beaming Victoria Reis, executive and artistic director of Transformer, a tiny but inventive Logan Circle art space. “It’s wonderful to see everybody. It’s celebratory.”
The fair’s second edition “is about the same size as last year’s,” says Jamie Smith, one of (e)merge’s three principals. (The others are Leigh Conner, Smith’s partner at Northeast Washington’s Connersmith, and New York-based art-fair organizer Helen Allen.) “We have 80 exhibitors representing 152 artists from 24 countries.”
The vibe is not especially commercial. The fair is hosting more than 40 artists who aren’t represented by galleries and is devoting much of the garage space to work by students from the Corcoran College of Art and Design and Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art. Performance art, something that’s difficult to merchandise, is one specialty of (e)merge.
In one of two ground-floor conference rooms showcasing unaffiliated artists, local video artist Joyce Yu-Jean Lee is offering buttons that riff on Apple’s China-manufactured products with the slogan “Made in China. Bought in the U.S.A.”
In fact, Lee had the buttons fabricated in this country. “I had to pay twice as much,” she says. “It’s a piece uniquely about the art fair,” she adds, but also “about our distance from the people who make our goods.”
“We didn’t sell anything at the fair last year,” Amstel’s Petra Leene said. “But we had good after-sales,” justifying a second visit.
This year, Leene is economizing by combining a trip to (e)merge with one to Art Platform in Los Angeles; she’s showing the same artists at both. The works include images of under- or undressed people in hotel rooms, as well as still-lifes involving fruit and animals, including an octopus. Both series are photographic but show the influence of Dutch Old Masters.
“Jamie and Leigh are great girls,” Leene says. “They do a good job of bringing people together.”
She adds: “This art fair is about the artist. It’s great that they show artists who don’t have galleries.”
Kevin Havelton of Aureus Contemporary says, “We like the area because you have an intellectual community here.” Last year, he acknowledges, “I expected a lot of suburban mentality and got quite the opposite. We’ve been pleasantly surprised.”
“I may make more money in Miami,” he says, “but the conversation there is somewhat diminished.”
“I believe there are a lot of sophisticated people in this area,” says Jeremy Hu, whose New York-based Asymmetrik is making its first foray to (e)merge. “But they’re not the people who go to art fairs in New York and Miami. I want to show them what we have.” That includes a large selection of Chinese calligraphy by Taiwan’s Johnny Lu and playfully super-size sculptures of capsule-style pills by Edie Nadelhaft.
The fair is not the place to buy pricey work by the art world’s top stars. Most of the participating galleries, housed in guest rooms on the second floor of the 1960s-vintage hotel, are emphasizing work by young and little-known artists.
“Everything I sell is $500 or under,” says Alexis Figueroa, director of Puerto Rico’s Trailer Park Proyects, which does display art in a trailer. (Two actually — one mobile and the other not.) “I want to take the artists out of Puerto Rico. We’re on an island. Not many people come to see the art.”
Figueroa is showing small drawings, spray-painted abstracts and boxed constructions that suggest flying machines. He brought two of his artists with him to the fair. Of the young people whose work he champions, Figueroa says, “I want to push them out of Puerto Rico so they can get MFAs.”
The other Caribbean gallery slated for the show, Cuba’s Servando, didn’t make it off its island. Servando’s representatives were denied visas, explains Conner, who adds, “we hope they’ll be here next year.”
In the two rooms occupied by Transformer, ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me” is blaring from a laptop and a large white-frosted cake is available for people who are willing to dig their fingers into it. It was baked by Heather Ravenscroft, who usually places such confections in forests and then videorecords their consumption by deer, raccoons and other fauna.
“There are definitely challenges” to showing at (e)merge, Transformer’s Reis says. “These weird hotel rooms. The stripey wallpaper.” But the retro atmosphere can be inspiring, she adds, pointing out a site-specific Mariah Anne Johnson fabric piece inspired by the carpeting.
Aspects of the hotel also sparked some of the performance pieces, such as Andrew Wodzianski’s “Self Portrait as Ishmael,” which relocates the ordeal of the “Moby Dick” protagonist to the Capitol Skyline’s pool. The 36-hour “endurance performance” was to end at 5 p.m. Saturday.
In the room occupied by G Fine Art, the atmosphere is more festive than agonized. One reason the D.C. gallery’s owner, Annie Gawlak, is again participating in (e)merge is that it reflects “an enthusiasm about the local scene.”
“I think there’s a general feeling by the end of the weekend,” she says, “that Washington is doing very well in producing and showing art.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.