3.4 / Review

From London: Frieze Art Fair

By Spencer Young November 3, 2011

Within minutes of arriving at the Frieze Art Fair and walking inside its cavernous tent staged in London's Regent's Park, I found myself in a small room packed with other fair-goers, sipping grape-flavored schnapps from a makeshift Romanian-themed bar and gawking at a muscular man in military gear pacing excitedly in the corner. Also in the room: the artist collective LuckyPDF, one of the fair’s commissioned projects, who were busily preparing an elaborate TV production set for a live broadcast of one of their daily performances.

Thoroughly confused but amused, I stayed to watch. An awkward amalgamation of absurdist theater and ultra-dry bathos ensued, involving an MC in a tomato costume, two hot young blondes apathetically playing drums and synthesizer on a Nam June Paik–styled TV-littered stage, and the aforementioned muscle man—British wrestler Tiny Iron, as it turned out—wrestling various bodies to the ground. I think there was a Japanese newscaster somewhere in there, too. Despite the impressive ambition of the group and the schnapps in my system, their media-savvy irony didn’t translate, so my attention waned and I left during Tiny Iron’s rampage.

That's the saving grace of an art fair: there is always something else to look at when you get bored. One hundred and seventy-three galleries from thirty-three different countries exhibited at Frieze this year, each of which showcased roughly a dozen pieces of art. There was every reason to be discriminating. If the Takashi Murakami sculpture at the Parisian Perrotin Gallery was too gaudy, there was a Robert Irwin neon around the corner, or a conceptual Rubik's Cube composed of plexiglass and cucumbers just a few rows down. But how intoxicating to have such a diverse array of visual goodies under the same roof! Viewers wandered around, their retinas loaded like revolvers, shooting stares at anything and anyone that attracted their attention.

The visual-speed-dating atmosphere of the fair mirrors that of a high-end shopping mall, where entertainment and socializing get conflated with retail. This results in an art fair

Installation view; Frieze Art Fair, London, 2011

Installation view; Frieze Art Fair, London, 2011. Photo: Spencer Young.

Elmgreen & Dragset, The Fruit of Knowledge; installation view, Frieze Art Fair, 2011. Photo: Spencer Young.

Elmgreen & Dragset, The Fruit of Knowledge; installation view, Frieze Art Fair, 2011. Photo: Spencer Young.

that has less to do with the art and everything to do with the experience. Alongside those who appeared to be seriously considering new artworks for their collection were those who opted simply to poke their heads through an Ai Wei Wei, check their hair in an Anish Kapoor, and have their picture taken next to a Damien Hirst. This turned out to be deeply gratifying: interacting with art strictly on a superficial level, rather than pummeling it to death in search of meaning and content.

Late one evening, at the one art party I made it to, hosted by the Gagosian Gallery, I found myself peeing next to a certain Turner Prize–winning artist while in the men's bathroom, wherein I asked him where all the real, aka fun, parties were. Whoever is buying Christian Jankowski's much-buzzed-about The Finest Art on Water (2011)—the luxury yacht that could be purchased as a yacht for an exorbitant amount, or as a piece of art for an egregious amount—must at least be throwing a yacht party. “If I were you,” he said, “I’d avoid Frieze altogether. You’re better off going to Brixton.”

Locals gave me the same advice. The Frieze Art Fair used to be really glossy and fun, they’d say, but it’s really gone downhill this year. Despite these warnings, I kept going back. My routine was usually the same: I’d go to one of the Frieze Talks—the best of which was artist Franz Erhard Walther’s survey of his own conceptual works from the 1960s and ’70s—then wander the maze-like rows of the fair. When my body tired, I'd take a nap in the park. And when my eyes started to glaze, I'd find one of Gerhard Richter’s intensive color-striped digital prints and stare at it until the visual vibrations of the patterned lines reset my retinas back to normal.

Why I kept going back, I’m still not sure. Nothing spectacular was happening. I had seen all the art within the first couple of days, and two days was more than enough to soak everything in. Maybe it had something to do with all the well-heeled, good-looking Europeans, or the subtle complexities of the scene with its couched social hierarchies and implied celebrity status. Or maybe it was simply a natural extension of having spent so many similar days in shopping malls as a kid—mindlessly roaming the vanity hallways of America’s consumer culture.



The Frieze Art Fair took place in Regent’s Park, London, from October 13–16, 2011.

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