Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Big Picture 56

Forgive yourself if by the end of this weekend you’ve become confused over the difference between TIAF and TAAFI – neither of which is a new strain of avian flu (but may cause as much fatigue). TIAF is the Toronto International Art Fair, and TAAFI is the Toronto Alternative Art Fair International, and both are running until November 7. There, doesn’t that make it all clear?

The duelling art fairs – or, as their diplomatic publicists like to call them, “complementary art fairs” – are both massive exhibitions of contemporary Canadian and international art staged in smart downtown venues, and both are packed with contributions by top names in the field. So, why two fairs at the same time?

No-one at either fair will give you a straight answer (and they sure as hell won’t give me the on-record dope) but my own experience of both events tells me that TIAF, the senior fair and the one with the big bucks, prides itself on being the Cadillac of the two (figuratively and literally, as the car company is a major sponsor), and TAAFI, the baby of the family at a mere two years old, positions itself as the hip, sometimes bratty, shoe-string upstart. For short hand, think of TIAF as Holt Renfrew and TAAFI as the Kensington Market.

Inevitably, there has been some sniping and counter-sniping since TAAFI started last year (except among the smarter artists who participated in both shows). Big wigs at TIAF were overheard describing TAAFI as “the children’s table” and “the B-list fair”, and smart asses at TAAFI were caught referring to their elder, larger cousin as “the Death Star” and “the senior’s lounge”. TAAFI supporters are quick to note that TIAF is actually produced by a BC-based corporation and run from a head office in Vancouver. How, they ask, can it accurately reflect Toronto’s diverse art community? TIAF teamsters counter that since art-making is an international concern, any worries from Torontonians about constituency issues are misguided and feudalistic. But I don’t want to start any trouble.

Why not make like Koffi Anan and attend both exhibitions? The Hatfields and McCoys can fight their own battles. The admission fees are certainly enticing. For the cost of a CD – TIAF costs $16 to enter, TAAFI is $6 – you can go to one fair today and the other tomorrow. I wouldn’t dream of telling you which one to visit first.

TIAF, now in its sixth year, comes by its big momma status honestly. With 81 galleries from 13 countries spread out over 10,000 feet of exhibition space, TIAF is nothing if not generous. Apart from the wall to wall art, there are also a number of promising special projects, including Art Rising, a showcase of painting, photography, video and installation from China, Taiwan and various Chinese diasporic communities, the Video Lounge, a preview of the forthcoming Video Art in Canada website, curated by legendary Toronto artist Peggy Gale, and the third instalment of the wildly popular News At Five, a continuously updated contemporary art gallery that changes every day at 5pm.

Linel Rebenchuck, Managing Director of TIAF, encourages viewers to revisit TIAF while stressing the fair’s local connections.

“Every year we get better and better, and also we get more and more community support. We have not reached our peak yet! TIAF’s mandate is to put together the art community, to bring together commercial and non-commercial galleries and artist groups from all over the world – and we’ve had a big impact by doing that. If you look at the difference from the early 2000’s, when only a couple of Toronto art galleries went to art fairs in other countries, you see that now Toronto galleries attend lots and lots of fairs around the world - because they came to TIAF and saw how it works.”

When I ask Rebenchuck to tell me what he likes most about TAAFI, he answers without pause.

“I’m hoping that I am not again misinterpreted like I was last year by the media … because I think that the TAAFI is a great addition to the scene. What TAAFI does happens everywhere - one major fair and one smaller one running alongside. I am glad that they are starting to find their own identity this year too. It appears that they want to do something different, and now it is actually happening. It’s a win-win for everyone, and I hope that everyone sees it that way.”

What patrons of TAAFI will see, first off, is a very different environment from the one that houses TIAF. While TIAF is ensconced in a breezy auditorium in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, TAAFI plunks itself into the cozy quarters at the Gladstone and Drake hotels. The difference is more than one of scale. TIAF feels like the trade show that it is, with all the excitement of a bustling souk. The TAAFI experience is more akin to dropping in to a friend’s house, with the added sex appeal of a hotel tryst.

TAAFI’s collection of participating galleries ranges from large institutions such as the Goethe-Institut and the Art Gallery of York University to hole in the wall galleries like Solo Exhibition, Jessica Bradley Art, and Le Gallery. TAAFI really shines, however, in its extensive series of Invitational exhibitions and performances – works specifically curated by TAAFI for the fair.

Invitationals at the Drake include a mock seal hunt, complete with baby seal piñatas, by multimedia artist Patrick Decoste, a Super 8 film-based installation by the Splice This! film festival, and a “retrospective” of cheeky video art by Lisa Pereira, who is all of 24 years old and, she says, “still attempting to graduate from OCAD”. Over at the Gladstone, the Invitational treats feature a hilarious installation by Camille Turner - aka Miss Canadiana, the self-proclaimed winner of a fictional, very patriotic beauty pageant - plus a performance work by local art doyenne Andrew J. Patterson, stunning new photographs by transgendered mystic Taboran Waxman, and a suite of outrageous neo-psychedelic paintings of professional wrestlers by Toronto painter Scott McEwan.

TAAFI co-organizer Pamila Matharu describes her fair as “a community event”.

“TAAFI is about bringing people together and having local pride. It’s not a cash cow. We’re three artists (Matharu runs TAAFI with Andrew Harwood and Barr Gilmore) who make this fair happen because we feel that there is something missing in the arts scene, that we need a place where artists can come together from different disciplines and in different stages of their careers. After being in the visual arts in Toronto for 12 years, the most thrilling comments I’ve ever received were the thanks I got last year at TAAFI. One guest came up to me and told me that nothing like TAAFI had happened in Toronto in years.”

Turnabout being fair play (sorry), I have to ask what Matharu loves about TIAF.

“I worked that convention floor for three years – I was employed by Wynick-Tuck Gallery at the time – and I met a lot of people who just decided to drop in and see the art. They were not the same people and same faces I see over and over, they were folks who generally avoided galleries. It was a reminder to me that not everybody goes to the AGO at grade 8, and not everybody is comfortable in an art gallery. I met an audience at TIAF who I never saw anywhere but TIAF.”

“My feeling about fairs and how they should work is this: If the Toronto Film Festival can bring out thousands of people who love movies but aren’t in the movie business, can’t art fairs do the same thing for art?”

Toronto International Art Fair
Metro Toronto Convention Centre South Building, Exhibit Hall E
November 3 – 7

Toronto Alternative Art Fair International
Gladstone Hotel - 1214 Queen Street West
& Drake Hotel - 1150 Queen Street West
November 3 - 7