The Frieze of Austerity
Frieze Art Fair
October 13 through 16, 2011
The mood at Frieze this year is clearly announced at the entrance by its demure and ground-bound landmark logo. Previously there have been triumphal arches and golden elevated posts heralding the promise of glitz and sparkles awaiting inside the tent, but this year, visitors are greeted by a simple and severe looking black cube. Inside however, it is the usual hassle and bustle of the art fair we well know: exhibitors from around the world, amazing (and not so amazing) contemporary art, art professionals, potential buyers, fashionistas and young artists all gathering in their best outfits and hairstyles for the occasion.
The fair is bigger than ever. The layout has not changed for ages and for those who come regularly, the only certainty in a world of contemporary art in constant turmoil is that the toilets are to be found all the way to the left of the main entrance, whilst the restaurant is ahead. However in 2011, Frieze seems to be multiplying in a self-perpetuating play of opposed mirrors – as you think “we are nearing the end…” more inexorably unfolds around the corner. Visiting a monster like Frieze can be as demanding on your legs as much as on your eyes; you want to see everything but it is in situations like these that “art overdose” can become a truly tangible entity. How many paintings, sculptures, videos and objects is it possible to gather on a small, specific bit of earth before the art implodes in a sort of self-swallowing black hole? This year’s Frieze nearly gave us the answer.
As the whole world is faced with new market-turmoil, everyone looks at the gallery owners and tries to read signs of pressure or even breakdown…but, no – there is nothing to be seen on that front. Like every year, they sit at their tables positioned somewhere in a discreet corner of the stand and endlessly look at art catalogues or cryptic paperwork. They gaze down and never make eye contact with general fair visitors. They are not interested in them in the slightest. They want the big spenders and they know already who the big spenders are; indeed they can smell them from afar! As reported by Colin Gleadell of the Telegraph, business at Frieze is as healthy as usual: London’s Alison Jacques sold a variety of works by Ryan Mosley, Ana Mendieta, Catherine Yass, Ryan McGinley, and Klara Kristalova in the £10,000 to £20,000 range. Anthony Wilkinson also sold works by most of his artists, notably taking £55,000 for a large painting by Turner Prize contender George Shaw, and £95,000 for an as yet incomplete triptych based on Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights by the rarely exhibited Mark Alexander.
However, for those who visit Frieze to see art but have pockets too small to fit it in, the fair still is worth a trip. With the most important galleries in the world exhibiting under one roof, ther is likely to be something for everyone’s taste (eye) and of course the discovery of new and emerging artists offered by the event is also of paramount importance. One of the most interesting tendencies I note this year seems to be the return of textural painting – perhaps inspired by the current major retrospective of Gherard Richter’s work at Tate Modern: a number of black and dark gray canvases onto which shine layers or morishly rich and glossy paint confidently stands out from the crowd. Most interestingly it is the work on aluminium by Jason Martin to strike a relevant chord, at least aesthetically. His Untitled (tondo) appears as a black-hole-like universal negation of Damien Hirst"s extremely colourful and garish spin paintings created at the height of the financial boom. Also about texture was the amazing triptych by New York artist Aaron Young presenting a metallic, shimmering reinterpretation of Cy Twobmly’s Bacchus. Within the context of challenging and unusual textures presented at Frieze this year, the work of Lutz Bacher deserves special mention. Since the 1970s, Lutz Bacher's art has explored human identity as it is defined through gender, sexuality, and the human body. Areas of ambiguity around the social codes that model our perception of ourselves and others have also been key to her work, but most importantly, as seen in this work, the artist’s concern focuses on the concept of identity in the context of contemporary American culture. Here Redwood is simultaneously a painting and a sculptural form that in its materic presence collapses the concepts of mimetic art and the natural to which it aspires to compare. Ultimately the redwood is the most emblematic and iconic American gigantic tree. Unique to the States, redwood forests were being razed in 1800 and only saved by John Muir’s claim that they were God’s trees.
Jim Lambie is represented by Aton Kern Gallery (New York) with a number of his surrealist interventioned pieces of furniture in which his trademark banding of colours abandons the flat two-dimensional plane in which we have become accustomed to found them in order to enter the three-dimensional realm of the sculptural. Interesting, but far from the cry of “genius” claimed by Jonathan Jones of The Guardian. More interestingly, Mark Dion is represented by a wall installation titled The Package. Of the many artists who have over the past twenty years engaged with the subject of nature and the animal, Mark Dion surely occupies a specific place for his persistence in producing original, challenging, political and critically informed work. His practice has, in his own words, ‘never been “about nature,” but rather has been concerned with ideas about nature’. It is therefore not a coincidence that Dion’s reputation has been built through a series of challenging works exhibited in both: the natural history museums as well as the contemporary art galleries. From taxidermy to spectacular cabinet of curiosities, trees covered in tar, stuffed toys and giant moles, the artist’s practice is driven by a genuine interest for nature which Dion has nurtured from a very young age and which often focuses on issues of classification, conservation and ecology in the attempt of challenging our views on the ways we relate to the environment. With this conceptual work, a difficult genre to encounter at the fair, the artists intended to reverse the flow of natural material shipped from the colonies to Europe by returning some of these to ex-colonies via post and therefore inverting the historical flow that created the cultural paradigmatic sets of colonialism that still hunt us today.
Here and there, the shadow of the economic meltdown hovers across the stands, most explicitly in the hilarious work by Michel Landy’s Credit Card Destroying Machine which definitely steals the show for this year’s edition. A monumental structure encrusted with cheap everyday objects, towers above an industrial looking wood chipper. The machinic ensemble begins to move as an assistant places a pad of paper in a specific site of the structure where an arm holding a felt pen is located. Powered by the rhythmic oscillations of the machine’s parts, the arm draws a spirograph onto a sheet of paper at the bottom of which Landy has already placed his signature and a serial number. Once the mechanical drawing is complete, a visitor has to submit a credit card to the wood chipper in order to claim the unique drawing. The credit card is checked carefully by the assistant: it needs to be current and valid before being disintegrated in front of the audience and owner. Credit Card Destroying Machine is a great piece. In its makeshift and unsophisticated appearance it enthrals an audience of allegedly sophisticated art goers who are willing to queue for hours in front of what looks like a pile of trash in order to have a mechanically produced drawing of questionable quality. Hypnotised by the rhythmic strident noise made by the machine we gather and look beady-eyed just like children fascinated by merry-go-rounds. There is a certain brutality to the piece – although a copy of the credit card disintegrated by Landy can easily requested, the symbolic action of handing it over for destruction in front of an audience unveils a rather sinister economy of exchange questioning the value of materialistic desires and the power of capitalism that our culture relishes as well as asking what the role played by art in all this may be. Landy’s contribution to Frieze is by nature controversial and acquires further layers of complexity as one is reminded that the fair is sponsored by Deutsche Bank.
Other interesting sightings include Do Ho Suh’s Specimen Series an irresistible selection of cabinets containing light-switches, sockets and other features of functional interior design all created in three-dimensional textile; a trademark of the artist. Fresh from their recent success of their double exhibition at White Cube in London, the Chapman Brothers are featured with an intervened statue of a Madonna and Child that duly does not fail to turn heads – I heard the Vatican Museums have ordered a copy…
It is also nice to see Cornelia Parker’s suspended silver work; an unexpected photographic contribution by extremely controversial artist Oleg Kulik and a painting by Mustafa Hulusi. The most photographed work of the fair must however be Untitled by Elmgreen and Gradset whose contribution consists of an installation featuring a morgue in which the body of a woman covered by a white sheet emerges from one open cell. In a plastic bag next to her left foot are a pair of nice high heeled shoes, a string of pearls and a BlackBerry. Has the pressure of corporate life reached breaking point for the rich businesswoman whose BlackBerry failed? As many know, Blackberry encountered major technical problems during the running of the fair leaving millions of its users stranded over three days of extremely disrupted service. Here’s the list of official awards and recognitions for this year’s edition most of which I of course do not agree with…but hey-ho, that’s part of the fun!
Best Sculpture Park Work: Icon (2011) by Will Ryman, Paul Kasmin Gallery ($650,000)
Best new commission: Recollection (2011) by Pierre Huyghe, Frieze Project
Best Conceptual Work: We Are On Our Own, Darwin Series, Part 3 by Loris Gréaud, Pace Gallery (€100,000)
Most Fun at the Fair: Gagosian's stand, designed by Franz West
Showstopper: Nathalie Djurberg's booth for Gió Marconi, (various works, £20,000-£45,000)
Most Colourful Work: Postcard 3: Beetle (2009) by Katharina Fritsch (€45,000)
Best overall stand: Frith Street Gallery: Cornelia Parker and Tacita Dean
Most Satirical Work: The Finest Art on Water (2011) by Christian Jankowski, Frieze Project
Most Disturbing Work: Crush (2011) by Andra Usuta, Ramiken Crucible Gallery ($20,000)
Most Expensive Artist: Strip 2011 by Gerhard Richter, Marion Goodman Gallery
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.