November 2009, Frieze Art Fair

Frieze Art Fair Entrance
Frieze Art Fair Entrance, 2009

Frieze Art Fair
Regent's Park
London
15 October through 18 October, 2009


What is there to see at Frieze this year? Not much really…and a lot at the same time. Perhaps too much, actually! Year in, year out, (this was its seventh edition) Frieze Art Fair, has established a solid international reputation as the most influential and prestigious art fair in Europe. With its 165 stands from the world’s most exciting contemporary art galleries representing 30 countries and presenting the work of over 1000 artists, Frieze surely has the numbers it takes to claim the title. But is it worth going to? With its £20 day-ticket, this is not necessarily a place for students and in such circles, the fair is now perceived as a market place rather than an art event. Art students are usually integralists and extremely loyal to the essential value of “art for art’s sake” and loathe to acknowledge the market influence as an embedded relevance of the field. Soon after their art degrees end, they will realise that if art does not sell, their career as contemporary artist is pretty much shelved. Are they however wrong to snub the fair?

I look around the massive tent where every year the event is held and for as far as I can see, there only are rather “mature looking” people, even I, at the tender age of 33, feel much younger than the rest (what a pleasant feeling!). A second inspection reveals not only that the audience here is no longer in their prime, but that this is a very white audience, too. Suddenly, it appears clear that the tent in which Frieze Art Fair is staged, does not at all represent the demographics of the city in which it is taking place. I then hear someone talking Italian, other visitors speak French, German and some Spanish, there is the odd American accent and the extremely rare Russian also mixed in too. It is clear that Frieze has surely become an international affair here in London, but that simultaneously it is not a local affair at all like some art reviewers have claimed this year. The fair may be an unmissable point for those who have a wallet big enough to accommodate for one of the pieces on show, but for those who can only windowshop, does the experience compare to viewing art in a gallery or museum settings? Yes and no, I’d say. Some of the art on show is surely engaging and thought provoking.

Amongst others, the insistent presence of the humorous photographs, “paintings” and sculptures by Mark Wallinger is visible as the same work by the artist is exhibited multiple times by different galleries creating a strange sense of déjà vu. This does not really help, when it has been noted by many, and it is rather impossible to deny, that the layout at Frieze is very confusing and that it has been so every year. As I literally lose my way through the intricate labyrinth routs of the fair, my endless wondering is at times rewarded by the appearance of truly interesting works like the new photographic experimentations of Rodney Graham titled Dead Flower in My Studio, showing a beautifully withered bunch of flowers surrounded by used and dirty artist’s materials. A take on the secular genre of the still life, this time including the artistic tools which once used to paint the beautiful and at times extravagant flower arrangements by Jan van Huysum and others. As the tools scattered around the flowers are those related to the “art of painting” could this be interpreted as a ‘memento mori’ for the most ancient forms of representation? There of course are some paintings here on show, but these are all so concerned with looking harsh and obliterating the tradition which preceded them, that there is really little to say about the works on canvas scattered around the fair.

Some galleries have taken care of their displays in very effective ways. Galerie Krinzinger’s for instance was excellent, displaying Wallinger’s recent works and Gavin Turk’s interesting prints and Duck-Rabbit from 2005, a curious and massive egg covered in black fur. Here the stand is curated so to create a “mini-gallery” experience. In other instances, some of the most famous galleries in the world seem to have forgotten that, here too, there is a space to which curatorial knowledge could be applied, thus preventing the whole thing from looking like a dearly expensive jumble sale.

However, this is not Venice Biennale, and some galleries seem to be here mainly for the cash, not to produce interesting displays. The visitors too behave in rather interesting ways. Unlike in the traditional museum/gallery setting, people stroll around with coffee cups, they are not quiet at all, the opposite, and mainly stroll, rather than stop and look at the works on show. However, at the centre of this cacophony of “attention seeking art” there is a truly spectacular and much-needed, silent moment. A stunning work by Ugo Rondinone titled A Day Like This, Made of Nothing and Nothing Else, which was instantly snapped up by art dealer and collector Helga de Alvear for a new museum opening next June in Cáceres, in the west of Spain, at the price of €270,000. The dead tree painted in white looks particularly credible in texture and structure so much to believe that it is a simple tree painted white that you are looking at. Things however change when you realise that the work is made of aluminium covered in white enamel.

Ugo Rondinone, A Day Like This Made Of Nothing And Nothing Else
Ugo Rondinone, A Day Like This Made Of Nothing And Nothing Else, 2009
Cast aluminum, white enamel; 200 3/4 x 236 1/4 x 196 7/8 inches (510 x 600 x 500 cm)

Also excellent was the stand by White Cube, displaying some of the biggest names on the contemporary art scene with pride and gusto. Here we find Night of the Long Knives by Damien Hirst: a large steel cabinet holding a collection of neatly aligned surgical tools — hundreds of scalpels, clamps and forceps. The display also presents a painting of a bird by Gary Hume, a large photograph by Gursky, a skull painting from the recent Zhang Huan exhibition and an extremely controversial sculpture by Mark Quinn titled Thomas Beatie, capturing in white marble the life-size figure of the first mother/man to give child for the second time in 2008; a birth which shocked the world and moreover so America. This sculpture is to be seen in context of Quinn’s earlier works on “archetypal beauty and the abnormal”, which at the end of the 90’s saw the artists producing portraits of men and women who were born with physical disabilities or have had limbs amputated due to accidents or illness. The juxtaposition between the white marble and flawless execution which directly referenced classical Greek sculptures, disastrously clashes with the “imperfection” of the bodies of those portrayed, functioning as a painful reminder of the influence of our ideas of beauty and perfection on our daily lives.

As per the rest, the fair has a sculpture-garden outside, featuring works by Paul McCarthy, Louise Bourgeois, Ugo Rondinone and the rising star of contemporary sculpture Eva Rothschild.

To those of us who do not go to Frieze to buy art, the visit seems a little uneventful; the fair does not show a realistic section of contemporary art produced around the world but displays a selection of the maker and shaker names which we all know. Suspicion is that is is due to the fact that those gathered here are all “very high-end galleries” dealing with the arts A-list.

However, what you can acquire through the visit, is an interesting insight on the difference between the demographics of those who go to art shows and those who come here. There is also something to be learnt about the current trends and who’s who and where, but for as far as engaging with the art on show at a different level, the opportunities are not many.

 

Giovanni Aloi is a lecturer of Art History and Media Studies and Editor in Chief of Antennae, the online Journal of Nature in Visual Culture. He also lectures at Tate Modern and Tate on the subject of the galleries' collections. His main research areas involve modern and contemporary art with a strong interest for the representation/presence of animals in the exhibiting space.
giovanni.aloi@googlemail.com
 

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