Young talent acts as magnet for art world

John McKie previews the opening of London's biggest contemporary show
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The Independent Online
International art experts are expected to converge en masse on London this week to see what Britain's brightest talents have to offer at Art 96, the country's biggest contemporary art fair in the city regarded as the most exciting contemporary centre in the world.

For the eighth year of the show, 83 galleries are displaying 100,000 works from today's stars including the Turner Prize winner Damien Hirst, and their successors. Opening on Wed-nesday at the Business Design Centre, in north London, they expect around 30,000 visitors, and have prices from as little as pounds 30 up to more than pounds 100,000.

Lucy Sicks, director of the fair, said: "The London contemporary art scene is internationally renowned as being the most exciting centre for art. There are things here that no one else in the world has.

"I think it is going to be the best yet, because the overall quality of the work is the strongest it's been. It's a brilliant opportunity for the public to come along and see everything from Hirst to works worth pounds 30.

"Some of the other fairs are much older and the people who go are established collectors who spend enormous amounts. With this fair it's easier for people to collect."

Although the Hirsts displayed may be works on canvas instead of his controversial tanks of sheep or cows, there is some more outlandish work on display such as Jann Hayworth's Snake Lady (a sculpture of a woman made from snakeskin materials) and the first public showing from Gibby Bean, dubbed "the Vivienne Westwood of the art scene".

Among the 83 galleries showing are White Cube, run by Jay Jopling, who represents Hirst and the Turner Prize runner-up Mona Hatoum, and Flowers East, which is displaying work from Nicola Hicks, Lucy Jones and the Gulf war artist Peter Howson. Photography and print galleries are also taking part.

Art 96 aims to nurture new talent to succeed the likes of Hirst, Hatoum and the 1993 Turner Prize winner, Rachel Whiteread. Richard McDowell, a 27-year-old student from Wimbledon School of Art, in south-west London, has won a competition to construct a giant white fabric sculpture - the size of a full-scale building - on the green outside the centre.

The winner of the new Wingate award of pounds 4,000 to help young artists in their studies will be announced on Wednesday and there will also be a pounds 1,000 prize and an exhibition at Habitat's store on the King's Road, in Chelsea, west London, for the best artists on an MA painting course.

For those who cannot get to the fair, a new computer archive service could give them the chance to stay closely in touch with the art dealers.

Banca dell'Arte, pioneered in Italy and France, is being brought to Britain for the first time.

Banca dell'Arte, whose site at Art 96 is sponsored by the Independent, promises to be the quickest way yet of viewing works of art and expects to have 500 dealers linked up to its system by the end of the year. The system allows art to be seen, bought and sold on any personal computer with a modem and only takes 15 seconds to access - faster than the Internet.

"It's exactly the same time it takes to make a phone call or send a fax," Tim Badgett, director of Banca dell'Arte, said.

"The images are then delivered in 15 seconds. Instead of the dealer or buyer having to fly to London, New York or Paris, or waiting to be sent photographs, here they can go on line and view the gallery's stock."

The fair is having a gala opening tomorrow, when Paloma Picasso is flying over to be the guest of honour at an Aids benefit preview at the Business Design Centre. As well as the artists' being present, there will also be video messages in support of the Aids cause from celebrities including Ringo Starr, Ali McGraw, Sir George Solti and Topol, star of the musical Fiddler on the Roof.

8 Art 96 is at the Business Design Centre, Islington, London N1, Wednesday 17 January to Sunday 21 January.