London Art Fair

Fionola Meredith, chair of Belfast's Golden Thread Gallery, is more impressed with the cheap work than the Hirsts

I am an art fair virgin. I have never before attended one of these enormous gatherings of the art world, where galleries, collectors, artists and members come to display, haggle, buy or simply check out the competition.

So when I get the opportunity – as chair of the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast, one of Northern Ireland's leading contemporary visual art galleries – to visit the London Art Fair, I'm intrigued to see what all the fuss is about.

You need to prepare yourself for the scale of the thing: this massive fair, now in its 24th year, features over 100 galleries and the work of over 1,000 artists. Every inch of the Business Design Centre in Islington is crammed with modern British and contemporary art of various kinds, and the effect is overwhelming.

It is like the Royal Ulster Academy writ large: a similar mixture, times 100, of the good, the bad and the indifferent. The prices vary wildly too, from snips at around £30 to artworks valued at over £1 million.

The Golden Thread is the only Northern Irish gallery participating, and our stand is upstairs in the Art Projects section, which features solo shows, group displays, large-scale installations and performance events, all by emerging contemporary artists from across the world.

This part of the fair is much more to my own taste. It feels fresher, edgier, more experimental, far less stuffy and price-oriented. The Golden Thread stand showcases the work of four young artists from Northern Ireland: Jenny Keane, Miguel Martin, Keith Winter and Darren Murray (see his 'Sweet Love for Planet Earth' at the bottom of the page).

Miguel Martin (see 'The Playground' below) is well known in Belfast for his dark, wittily grotesque drawings, and during the fair he produces several hours' worth of 'live' wall drawings every day, which attract many people to the stand.

'The Playground', by Miguel Martin

'It is about showcasing art from our region as art, not just as a commodity,' says Golden Thread director, Peter Richards, over coffee. 'But of course it also gives the artists a chance to further their careers through exposure.'

The London Art Fair, after all, attracts over 27,000 visitors in one week, including gallery directors and purchasing panels of huge institutions. There is no other way for people like these to see artists of this stature from Northern Ireland. But it is also exciting to see work by emerging international artists.

One of the popular highlights – or gimmicks – of this year's fair is a one-armed robot portrait artist, which scribbles out biro sketches of willing sitters in 20 minutes flat. Each drawing is sold for £30. The machine, known affectionately as Paul, was created by artist and scientist Patrick Tresset, who describes it as a 'cybernetic face-sketcher' and an 'obsessive drawing entity'.

I enjoy the playful experimental films of Greta Alfaro, a young Spanish artist. One of her short films shows a table laden with fine food and wine being set upon and devastated by a flock of vultures, while in another, two curious wild boars devour a giant birthday cake. Alfaro's work hints at violence and anarchy, but there is exuberance and joy here too.

It is all a lot more serious, and less fun, downstairs in the main body of the fair. Here, work by Bridget Riley, Barbara Hepworth and Sarah Lucas, amongst other big names, is on sale for a great deal of money. I stop to look at a small, highly coloured image of a butterfly, by Damien Hirst. The price is £45,000.

This is the reality of the London Art Fair, and other fairs like it – the feted giants of the art-world sharing wall space with unknown fledgling artists, keen to make their way. Despite the sheer surfeit of art on display, there is a certain basic democracy to it. And to my mind, the most exciting artworks are often the ones with the lowest prices, or no price tags at all.

The London Art Fair ran from January 18 – 22.

'Sweet Love For Planet Earth' Darren Murray