ARCO Swims Against the Tide

Skyline of Madrid featuring Four Towers Business Area,  symbolic of the recent economic boom, which lasted until 2008. The last tower - far left: torre caja Madrid -  was designed by starchitect Lord Norman Foster and completed in 2009.


“I think most galleries were happy, considering the current climate,” ARCO director Carlos Urroz told A.i.A. on Sunday, the final day of the Madrid art fair-and he wasn’t talking about the sunny 60-degree weather.

The Iberian Peninsula has been hit hard by the financial crisis. Large protest marches took place across the country on Saturday, calling for the abolition of harsh repossession laws that have led to the eviction from their homes of roughly 350,000 people since 2008, as reported by the BBC. “We should not forget that the situation of Spain is in strong contrast with what is going on inside the fair,” Dutch independent curator Lotte van Gelder warned, while MACBA director Bartomeu Marí sounded more upbeat, calling the fair “a sign of normality in financially difficult times,” as A.i.A. caught up with him in the aisles.

Held in the IFEMA convention center north of the city, a couple of miles from the Madrid’s Barajas airport, the fair has been undergoing a revamp since Urroz took over three years ago.

“Better than expected-and better than last year’s” was Concha Aizpuru’s (Galeria Juana de Aizpuru, Madrid) assessment of the first day. She sold a large, untitled 2012 painting by Albert Oehlen for $450,000 to a private Spanish collection within minutes of the VIP opening last Wednesday.

But high-priced sales were the exception, since most galleries brought mid-priced work; even Marlborough Gallery stayed realistic and left its Francis Bacon paintings at home, hedging its bets with more affordable works by Fernando Botero and Jacques Lipchitz.

Bacon was represented instead at the booth of Paris’s Galerie Lelong, which offered the lithograph Triptyque 1983 for $34,000 in an edition of 180.

“Safe with an overdose of Secundino Hernandez” was New York-based curator Carloyn Drake’s overall impression of the fair. As well as being shown prominently by both Krinzinger (Vienna) and Heinrich Ehrhardt (Madrid), the Spanish artist had designed a Heineken bottle that was readily available throughout the fair.

The 134 foreign galleries (of 202 total participants) made up a large section of the fair, with Germany the frontrunner, increasing its participation to 30 from last year’s 23. Mehdi Chouakri (Berlin) made good first-day sales, including a unique Sylvie Fleury installation of 15 small bi-colored perfume bottles arranged on a lightbox. Color Lab-free study with aura soma 1 (2012) went for about $34,000 and was followed up with the sale of a similar but distinct work a day later. “One was sold to a regular, the other to a new client,” Chouakri said.

This year’s “focus” country was Turkey. Ten galleries invited by Vasif Kortun, director of research and programs at Istanbul’s SALT, received freebie booths, although they still had to pay for transportation and installation.

In its first international fair, two-year-old Galeri Manâ from Istanbul brought an impressive work by KutluÄ? Ataman: fff (2006-09), a 10-channel video piece showing the interchangeability of identity by depicting the daily life of two British families. The title stands for “found family footage,” and the piece was available for $200,000 in an edition of 3.

Fresh from last week’s Art Rotterdam, Fruit and Flower Deli’s (Stockholm) Rodrigo Mallea Lira sold seven small red paintings depicting various drug paraphernalia in a still life by Ylva Ogland from the 2012 series “Xenia.” They went for $13,000 each. Warsaw gallery lokal_30 showed a selection of four large prints by Natalia LL titled Post Consumer Art (1975), in which the Polish artist is shown drooling. The set was available for $26,000 in an edition of five. The series was made as a follow-up to her shocking photos and video from 1973, in which she sucked, licked and kissed various phallic objects like pretzel sticks, bananas or finger biscuits-all highly scarce and desirable commodities at the time of Communism.

Doing business at art fairs largely depends on correctly assessing what type of buyer will be around and the loose change in their pockets. But there is always the sunny weather, which will easily put a smile on any northern European face.