The day I arrived in Madrid with a bunch of international journalists, courtesy of the Spanish Tourist Board, there was a downpour. The streets glistened with puddles. As people scurried beneath umbrellas the city resembled a wet northern English town rather than the elegant Spanish capital about to host the 29th International Contemporary Art Fair, ARCO, where 218 galleries from 25 countries all hoped to buck the global recession. There were dinners galore that went on for many courses, and speeches that went on for even longer. The guests included girls in designer tops, short skirts and very expensive high heels, who didn't necessarily look as though they knew a Picasso from a Picabia, or a Soutine from a Sarah Lucas but who certainly added a touch of glamour and class.
By definition art fairs are eclectic; selling everything from the sublime to the overpriced and ridiculous. Trying to detect trends is a mug's game. Chillidas and Mirós jostled with contemporary art stars such as Ed Ruscha and Anish Kapoor, while there were plenty of dealers promoting young unknowns. Galleries from Seoul, St. Petersburg and Berlin rubbed shoulders with those from France, Spain, Ireland and Britain, but this year the spotlight was on Los Angeles. The idea was to showcase a cross-section of what's happening in that city, replacing the fair's previous focus on a country. But here again, there was no overarching trend. Diversity was the buzz word, mirrored by the 17 galleries that range from the established to new kids on the block.
Art fairs beg the question as to what all this stuff is for. Aesthetic expression, investment or entertainment? You can take your pick. Art has become the new religion filling gaps left by other forms of more conventional belief. Dealers are there to proselytise to the unconvinsed, to act as missionaires among the philistines. Certain works pulled the crowds. An audience gathered around Eugenio Merino's tower of life-sized figures: a Rabbi standing on the shoulders of a Christian cleric, standing on top of a praying mullah, at the ADN Gallery from Barcelona. Like some Madame Tussaud's wax work effigy it had an 'oh look at that' sort of curiosity but rather less appeal than the uncanny Dead Dad in a similar vein by the British artist Ron Muek on which it seemed to have been based. Elsewhere people stopped by Japanese artist Kaoru Katayama's video at the Galeria Thomas March from Valencia, drawn by a voyeuristic fascination to a video of couples in an LA gay bar dancing to chirpy Latin music, their expressions deadpan under their cowboy hats.
Skulls were ubiquitous. Though after Damien Hirst's £50 million diamond encrusted affair, For the Love of God, Bruno Peinado's huge revolving mirror glass skull at Mario Mauroner Contemporary Art Vienna, and the Brazilian artist, Albano Afonso's diamante version, with companion bones in a glass case, at the Sāo Paula Gallery Casatriângulo, seemed like rather cheesy derivatives. Wasn't this really a question of plagiarism rather than influence? A common complaint among a number of the jaded journos was that there was nothing much new. But newness, nowadays, when there is no longer a valid avant-garde, is a rather overworked concept, as things become absorbed into the mainstream quicker than you can say boo to a goose.
So what was I looking for? Well, work that engaged aesthetically, intellectually, and on a human level, whatever the medium; whether it be a delicate little drawing, a painting, a video or a powerful set of photographs. Often it was the quiet things that demanded attention in the hurly-burly: the small modernist drawings by the Irish artist Patrick Michael Fitzgerald at Dublin's Rubicon Gallery, which melded classic abstraction with an idiosyncratic vision of the everyday, or the work of Erlea Maneros Zabala, a Basque artist, at the Erica Redling gallery from LA, who created subtle Zen-like images that resembled black endpapers by floating ink on water and then taking a print, or the moving monochromatic paintings by Vitaly Pushnitsky at the Frants Gallery from St. Petersburg, which had the quality of aged photographs and took as their subject matter children abandoned in orphanages or a nurse sitting in a white tiled ward, in order to explore issues of truth and memory.
If, on the other hand, you were feeling in a rather more playful mood then there were some zany, ironic little works by Maria Eastman at the cherryandmartin gallery from LA, made from glitter, oil, and flashe on paper that seemed to have been ripped from a teenager's notebook. But it was the work of Ana Teresa Ortega that caused me to pause among the yards of art booths. Her spare black and white photographs of jails and death spots used by the Franco regime - a concrete bunker in Barcelona, a bridge in Galicia where the rebels where thrown to their death into the gorge below – articulately reminded us of the darker side of recent Spanish history and illustrated just how far modern democratic Spain has come in sixty years.
Apart from ARCO itself the city was awash with art. There was Just Madrid, the new contemporary art fair housed in La Lonja and Nave de Terneras, two converted industrial buildings, where the focus was on young galleries promoting up and coming artists. This was set up after a series of major disagreements between Arco's selection committee and Ifema, the fair organisers. "Arco, reinvent or die" screamed one El Pa´s headline.
At the Ivory Press, the stylish building designed by the British architect Norman Foster, where his Spanish wife, Elena Ochoa Foster, produces fine artists' books, the gallery space was showing The European Desktop, sculptures by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. This was a slightly odd exhibition of oversized quills, blotters, text and inkpots that appeared to have fallen from the sky. It was claimed, though not altogether convincingly, that it was a comment on the displacement of European cultures.
The German sculptor Thomas Schütte, whose successful Model for a Hotel, an architectural structure in specially engineered red, yellow and blue glass, was unveiled on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth in November 2007, was showing at Reina Sofia, where he continued to illustrate that contemporary art is unpredictable, fluid and inclined to ask difficult questions rather than supply answers. While at the Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo, the exhibition SONIC YOUTH etc: SENSATIONAL FIX the focus was on the multidisciplinary activities of the groundbreaking experimental guitar band, Sonic Youth who, since 1981, have explored collaborations with musicians, visual artists and film makers.
The stunning exhibition space at the Fundación Banco Santander, just outside the city, was host to Works from the Daros Latinamerica Collection, established in 2000 by Hans-Michael Herzog and Ruth Schmidheiny. With 70 pieces by 22 artists using painting, sculpture, drawing, photographs, video and installation the exhibition represented a wide range of artistic approaches. The title Al calor del pensamiento was taken from the piece by the Chilean artist Gonzalo Díaz, inspired by a line from the 18th century German poet Novalis: "we seek the unconditional in everything and find only things". 'Written' in heated electrical elements that glowed red hot against ceramic plates it was a potent piece. As I walked through the galleries I was struck not only by the aesthetic quality of the work in this collection but by its obvious social engagement. The photos by the Columbian artist Miquel Ángel Rojas of a young soldier, a peasant, who had lost his leg in combat, posing as Michelangelo's DAVID, were a searing commentary on war without any trace of sentimentality. In contrast Oscar Munoz's poetic Aliento (Breath), where the viewer was invited to peer into a series of highly polished metal discs attached to the wall at eye level so the surfaces were smeared with his or her exhalation, turned the observer into the observed and the audience into a performer. Elsewhere the collographic, textured prints of the Afro-Cuban artist Belkis Ayón employed a variety of materials such as paper, cloth and vegetable matter to create black and white silhouettes that deconstructed gender narratives within Cuban society.
The CaixaForum is located in the heart of the city's cultural district, facing the Paseo del Prado, near to the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums. Housed in a converted 1899 power station, this museum is one of the city's few remaining examples of historically significant industrial architecture, and was acquired by the Caixa Foundation in 2001. A 24 meter high vertical garden, designed in collaboration with the botanist Patrick Blanc, takes up one wall of the square, supplying a pallet of green hues against the industrial brick. Designed by architects Herzog de Meuron the building is separated to create two worlds; one below and the other above the ground. Outside a monumental sculpture of an elephant standing on its trunk invited the visitor in from the public square to Miquel Barceló's huge exhibition curated by the British curator, Catherine Lampert. Its subtitle la solitude organisative referred to a recent painting by this Majorcan artist of a pensive gorilla, which had been exhibited at the Venice Bienniale. Here Barceló explores his relationship to the human and animal world. "My life," he says, "resembles the surface of my paintings" and is a reminder that his use of unorthodox artistic techniques has led him to equate the process of painting with cookery.
But it was the exhibition by the British artist Hannah Collins that really caught my attention at CaxiaForum. Emigrants, exiles and nomads are her subjects. Touching, engaging and powerful her panoramic photographs and multiple projections are on a monumental scale and investigate the relationship betweeen loneliness and rootlessness. The scenarios varied to reveal the fractured geographies of economic migration. In a gypsy encampment Collins focused on the decorated interiors of the spoitless shacks and the powerful music that welded those marginalised by 'mainstream' society into a coherent social group.
But perhaps the biggest surprise was the exhibition Terre de Personne, by the young French artist Pierre Gonnord, who lives in Spain and won the Culture Award of the Regional Government of Madrid in 2007. The 39 works on display at the Alcalá 31 Exhibition Hall, many of which had not been shown before, grabbed me by the throat the second I walked into the gallery. These intense portraits with their effects of highly contrasted light and shade conjured the ascetic 17th century religious paintings of Francisco Zubarán. Yet Gonnord only ever uses natural light to photograph his cast of characters, mostly the elderly from isolated rural communities in northern Spain and Portugal, where the daily rituals have hardly changed for centuries. Accustomed to hard labour in the fields, at sea, or down the few remaining European mines, these individuals are the bastions of a fast fading way of life, one that is given dignity by their skills. Age is encountered in a way that we hardly ever see in this youth obsessed era. There was Filomena who, at 99, was out working in the fields with the cattle and had to finish her tasks before allowing Gonnord a few minutes to photograph her. (He never takes more than 10 minutes, not wanting to turn ordinary people into self-conscious models.) There was Fidel in his black beret and grey polo sweater with a face like a furrowed field, and Magdalena with her gnarled hands, wrinkled whiskery face and clear blue eyes that shine out from beneath her shawl with a biblical beauty. Then there are the coal miners who stare straight out from behind their smeared black masks with the dignity and assurance of knowing exactly who they are.
For the first time in his career, Gonnord has turned to landscapes, to the places where these people work and spend their lives. The sublime is conjured in these fields of burning stubble with their painterly veils of smoke. Aware of his art history Gonnord makes oblique reference to painters from Monet and Turner to Anslem Kiefer. Wind, rain, sun, sweat and labour have shaped the faces and hewn the lives of those in these powerful portraits. Tough, rooted and beautiful the knowledge of and struggle with the land has made moulded them. Few artists, except Rembrandt, have had this sort of empathy for old age. Within the razzmatazz of an urban art fair these images reverberate with an authenticity that reminds us what it is we are in danger of losing.