Frieze Art FairRhythm Circus magazine
“Do you know the artist? He's a very exciting young artist, this piece is twenty five thousand pounds. It's a really good time to start collecting him.”
The gallerist wasn't talking to me. I neither have, nor dress like I have, that many spare pound coins rattling around my pockets. I'd only have been approached and given the spiel if I'd have been wearing a sharp suit, have sunglasses, maybe still swigging bubbly from the champagne bar, perhaps having just got out one of the VIP BMW's. This fair isn't really designed for me, a poor aspiring artist. Set up in 2003 spectators like myself make up the majority of visitors, but arguable the target audience is the art-buyer. Frieze is all about the transaction and the contract, knowingly and unashamedly only in existence to form the meeting point between gallerist and purchaser.
The art, even, is somewhat incidental. I get the feeling that instead of the wide variety of works by the hundreds of artists crammed into gallery spaces, there may as well be stocks, shares, Ikea posters, magic beans or the newly tailored clothes of the emperor - we're here for business not for the dissemination, understanding and reading of art. Gallery spaces tend to show a single work from a number of artists on their books rather than dedicate their space to the current practice of one practitioner. Very few spaces or works have artist statements or anything by way of explanation or hint at the underlying rationale and research into the works.
The noisy, clashing spectacle of the whole event leads to the visual war we experience in all other aspects of urban life by which objects are set against each other to win attention, leading to the galleries tending to be dominated by large, brash and visually stimulating pieces rather then a more subtle and gentle aesthetic. Similar to a supermarket - brightly lit, consumer understandable layouts which are good for easing congestion and keeping flow, brightly packaged goods trying to catch the eye, sterile, devoid of sensuality and depth.
Though, there is some depth when you look a little harder - literally in the case of Simon Fujiwara's Frozen commission. Each year, the organisers invite a small number of artists to make new work directly taking the fair as it's context. An interesting approach in which they are inviting cutting comment and criticism of their own institution as an integral part of their content - I can't imagine a supermarket chain starting an advertising campaign proudly highlighting their aggressive commercialism, exploitation of farmers and the unpleasant architectural experience of visiting their shops.
Fujiwara designed six archaeological sites around the city like grid underneath the feet of the tradesmen and visitors above. Each reveals elements of the art fair's mythical past - the grave of an artist, the remains of a brothel offering instant gratification, a preserved frieze illustrating the materialism and decadence of the now buried culture. It comments upon the master-slave relationship of the commercial art world, the shallowness of content and temporarily of any situation as well as offering a welcome rough, dirty, more natural antithesis to the highly polished gloss of everything and everyone surrounding it.
Equally critical was Annika Ström's Ten Embarrassed Men, a group of beige trousered, white shirted middle aged men shuffling around en-mass looking decidedly awkward and nervous. A quite dislocating event to view amongst the schmooze and smart of the well oiled marketing and sales event they pass through. To view the embarrassment of the men is to instantly become acutely aware of oneself within the Friezeexperience, of the inherent nervousness of the art world and those within it.
Ström states her work is highlighting the role of women in art and the mechanics around it. Art is, and has increasingly become, a male dominated world but I think the Ten Embarrassed Men are uncomfortable because of a whole lot more - where the art world is within the political and cultural climate, their lack of understanding of everything they are seeing around them and that nobody is offering them help them understand. Perhaps they are nervous about the superficiality of where they find themselves, and the ease of which the bottom could fall out at any moment.
TheseFriezecommissions are where the actual artof the art fair is. Yes, the thousands of pictures, sculptures, photographs etc. adorning the gallery spaces are art, but without any contextual understanding of how they came about, without any underpinning or assistance to get into the artist's mindset most of the content is shown as aesthetic game so purchasers can choose which work is the right colour to go with their new sofa suite, or to select based on the trajectory of a particular artist's value over recent times.
There is beautiful, deep, rewarding, political, thoughtful and crafted work at Frieze. It's just that the event isn't set up to bring these qualities out. A trip to one of London's many hundreds of galleries, where different components of an individual artist's work can be seen set against one another, a narrative between pieces drawn, where a statement of approach and rationale is on hand to give an insight into the areas being discussed within the work and where the art can be curated and displayed with space and logic and not in a visual clutter where the eye and mind can't rest for more than a moment is a much more rewarding experience in which to understand art and see how it can provoke, discuss and illustrate.
It was recommended to me that, as an artist, I should never go to Frieze because it would terrify me to ever see any of my own work treated and shown in the supermarket way of the fair. But then the same person said to me that anybody who works within the creative industries really did have to make the effort to go to Frieze every year to really understand current trends and where the art-world is. The rampant commercialism that Britain witnessed in the noughties has completely penetrated this world and this fair is one of the shining lights of where we've taken it.
I left Frieze on bike, not in one of the VIP cars, without having purchased any artwork. Not one gallerist spoke to me or explained any work.