Sluice_2015: An Open Review

  Anna Lowe  
October 2015

Ongilash / performed by the London College of Music Camerata in partnership with the English Chamber Orchestra Ensemble. Presented by Gordon Shrigley / photo: Laura Mott / 2015

It’s a grey Saturday morning at the tail end of an exhausting Frieze Week and I’m sitting in Café Nero on London’s South Bank about to experience day two of Sluice Art Fair 2015 at OXO Bargehouse. I joined this non-profit ‘art fair’ as an intern/assistant to get a measure of what London offers for emerging contemporary art besides the high-production spectacle that is ‘Frieze’. As the market becomes increasingly absurd what could be more timely than a restless experiment in value and visibility?

Over coffee the Sluice team chat about the wildly successful opening night and team duties for managing the labyrinthine Bargehouse building. I’m immediately impressed by the inclusive and easy-going nature of the project directors: curator Charlie Levine, artist Karl England and educator Ben Street. Animated and leisurely even in the midst of delivering an independent art fair, Ben edits his presentation notes (checks out the Sluice talks programme here) while simultaneously challenging the group to name favourite bands of the 90s. Karl enters and tosses a large jammy brioche on the table for us interns to pick at while he patiently explains the ethos of Sluice - a non-profit endeavour that showcases small artist/curator run gallery/projects in an attempt to offer a critical, self-aware and provocative art fair. The idea is that galleries pay a relatively small exhibition fee and are thus able to display complex, less commercially driven art. They also benefit from the positive aspects of an ‘Art Fair’ model such as networks, a platform and legitimacy. So what does that look like in practise? An unflappable Charlie Levine reminds us the fair opens in ten minutes so we’d better finish this impromptu coffee chat and get on with it…

If you’ve ever been to the OXO Bargehouse you’ll know that this is not a gleaming, cotton-white gallery but 4 floors of raw, shabby-chic warehouse space. Inside, 35 galleries sit up against each other with lines on the floor rather than booths to separate them. Diverse works fill every corner of this vast space (even spray-painted on windows or disguised as a light fallen off the wall) yet the fair maintains a small, intimate feel. On entering visitors are confronted with bright green sofas and tropical plants which immediately break down the often fetishized, silent gallery and provide a space to meet and discuss. Displayed here is also Tote Modern, an ironic collection of gallery tote bags that nods to the cultural capital associated in visiting contemporary art exhibitions.

Upstairs the works are mixed with some subtle, exciting pieces and others less successful. I thoroughly enjoyed the delicate line paintings of GalleryELL from New York and the bright glossy prints in Caustic Costal, a Manchester based gallery. A favourite installation was the satirical Concrete Whispers, Kathy Taylor’s group of imperial portrait busts whose pedestals are thermos flasks. Having previously lived in Buenos Aires where everyone carries a thermos to drink the national drink Mate, I had to consider whether, in another context, themos flask sculpture might be considered a political honour rather than a kitsch joke. As well as the many works for sale, Sluice also offers free ways to participate. An engaging series of high calibre talks was accompanied by a performance programme including fish printing by Eleanor Morgana and electric soundscapes by the talented Tullis Rennie among others. Visitors were encouraged to share and connect with each other.

If some of the works are not loveable – and many are not – it’s because Sluice Art Fair reaches for a different tone – uncertain, improvised, disruptive. With varied international galleries, the unifying element remains Charlie, Karl and Ben with their refreshing brand of light-hearted critique proving seductively enjoyable and infectious. As publicly funded art museums begin to open up and acknowledge the politics (and cash) of representation, so private art fairs should do the same. Sluice is ahead of the curve - it clearly articulates its agendas and constantly re-evaluates these in a way that shares power with the communities it serves, becoming multi-voiced.

After the final visitors headed home and having been paid (yes they pay interns!) the team crashed into a local pub for a round of tequila. My day had simultaneously weaved order and chaos, with Sluice removing art from the ivory tower of sterilized white and serving up something altogether more grubby, interactive and personal. With such disregard for pretentiousness matched with understated rigour the fair will no doubt grow in popularity. It remains to be seen whether it can maintain a uniquely experimental voice on scale.

Anna Lowe