The Vintage Magazine’s International Art Editor, Terence Rodrigues shares his experience of The Frieze Art Fair:-
Contemporary art – smoke and mirrors?
For months before, people are planning their flights, their diaries and, of course, their wardrobes. It’s the place to be seen. All other invitations, whether in New York, Paris, Moscow or Beijing, have to be declined. London is abuzz and never looks so lively, sexy, cool or international. It is Frieze Week.
Frieze Art Fair in London’s Regent’s Park has become the largest, most eagerly awaited, most talked-about and most successful contemporary art fair in the world. It attracts not only collectors, but museum directors, curators, academics, gallerists, art press, art students and young people and, increasingly as contemporary art has become increasingly hip, movie stars, rock stars and ‘celebs’, jetting in from all over the world. Millions of pounds change hands. How many millions exactly, we never know, as organizers and dealers are proverbially secretive and given to hype.
However, many, if not most, traditionalists and lovers of Old Master paintings can’t stand it and consider most of the art absurd and intellectually nugatory. The Evening Standard’s luddite but persuasively eloquent art critic, Brian Sewell, has repeatedly made his views clear – the title of his new book, Naked Emperors, pithily enshrines his opinion.
However, the thousands who would kill for a VIP pass or an invitation to “Collectors Day”, the day before the fair opens to the hoi-polloi, or who join the long queues to get in on the hoi-polloi days, love it. They love it – partly to celeb-spot or just people-spot or fashion-spot, partly for the festive atmosphere, partly to retain credibility and visibility amongst art world professionals and, yes, partly to see the latest – and arguably the best – cutting-edge art in the world. And part of the fun is tittering over some of the more mind-boggling, mind-stretching and, yes, absurd art in the world…Few are bold enough to ask the prices but, when they do, they are even more dumbfounded.
So what is Frieze? It is an annual behemoth of a commercial art fair, created by a highly enterprising art duo, Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, the name Frieze taken from the art magazine they founded in 1991. It takes place every October in a gigantic, white, air-conditioned, architect-designed tent on the southern edge of London’s elegant Regents Park.
Wednesday is the VIP/Collectors’ Day; Thursday to Sunday are the public days. This year saw the 10th and biggest edition of the Fair: 274 galleries from 35 countries, with about 2500 artists represented. The largest number of galleries were from London and New York; Berlin and Paris were also well represented; the rest were from Tokyo, Tel Aviv, Warsaw, Moscow, Seoul, Bucharest, Mumbai etc. Most of the work is installation art, multimedia, video, sculpture, photography, conceptual art but there is also painting (news of whose death was clearly exaggerated).
Frieze has become a super-brand and has spawned diverse satellite events: Frieze Frame (a section for younger galleries), Frieze Projects (work specially commissioned for the fair), Frieze Talks (lectures by major art world professionals), Frieze Film (newly commissioned artist films), Frieze Education, Frieze Art Prize, Frieze Sculpture Park (large sculptures scattered round Regents Park) and Frieze Art Fair Fund, which allows Sir Nicholas Serota, high priest of the art world, to go shopping for Tate Modern.
A new Frieze satellite this year was Frieze Masters, showing art from 3000 BC to the present, in another monumental marquee, 15 minutes north of Frieze. Beautifully laid out and lit, it offered visitors a most elegant and less crowded context to view art – here the atmosphere was much more chic, calm and stately. And the prices much higher than at Frieze, much of the work in the hundreds of thousands and even millions. If they can move it closer to Frieze’s site, it will assuredly be a great success – and a serious rival to both PAD, the contemporaneous art and design fair in Berkeley Square, and Masterpiece, the sumptuous summer fine and decorative arts fair.
As so many thousands of art collectors and professionals fly into London for the fair, the major auction houses time their important contemporary art auctions for the same week; museums and galleries stage special shows in the same week too. And there are other art fairs, such as PAD (the aforementioned elegant design and decorative arts fair in Berkeley Square), piggy-backing on Frieze’s success. Even embassies now host art exhibitions during what everyone now calls Frieze Week. It has even given rise to a verb: “Darling, will you be Friezing tomorrow or Thursday?”
And of course they all have parties. The big question on everyone’s mind is which are the best parties? It is as frenetic as the opening week of the Venice Biennale. Deutsche Bank, Frieze’s sponsors for the 9th year, has a glamorous party, but most people quickly head off to better ones. Christie’s and Sotheby’s usually have the most ritzy ones; the top-dog galleries – White Cube, Gagosian etc – can be relied upon to have fun ones with some of the superstars of the art world, notably the YBA’s – Damien, Tracey, Sam, Marc et al. Champagne flows (or maybe Prosecco, as befits recession times), canapés are consumed in their thousands, restaurants are packed, paparazzi are out in droves; mobile phones are ringing ceaselessly; cab companies are being dialled every minute; night clubs are booked with after-parties – though the supercool rarely linger more than 15 minutes – a few air-kisses and nibbles and off to the next party. There are simply too many parties to spend all evening at just one.
The world of double-dip recessions, terrorism and natural disasters seems so far away.
OK, back to the art.
Most art collectors and professionals will have VIP passes, press passes or gallery invitations; the unlucky ones who haven’t had invitations or pre-booked still seem happy to join long queues and fork out the hefty £27 or £35 (to include Frieze Masters) for a daily pass. Even with the increased entry charge, the fair is packed every day. It is so big that one has to go at least two or three times to even attempt to see most of the art on offer in any vaguely serious way – most of the art works have a nano-second to grab the attention of even professional visitors, as they amble down the long aisles. Fair fatigue leads to eyes glazing over, diminished tolerance or a craving for caffeine or champagne. As much of the work on show is ‘conceptual’, it does help to read the text or speak to the gushy assistants to make any sense of the artist’s intention, though the phrase ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ does inevitably flash into one’s mind.
Journalists and art historians are keen to identify trends, but, given the quantity and variety of the art, it is not easy. The general consensus was that, in these tough economic times, this year (as last year) was more about pleasing than challenging the public – so less politics, less religion and less sex. Brightly coloured, doom-defying works; cartoony works or works with jokey titles – these were in abundance.
One trend was a tendency to reference art history often through fairly facile appropriation. Quite a few artists had taken third-rate old master painting and added a few contemporary daubings. In Untitled Couple Hans-Peter Feldmann has taken two conventional 19th c oil portraits of a man and a woman, and, in puerile fashion, painted on each face a comic red nose. Quite. (Last year Mark Alexander’s cartoonish copy of Bosch’s wonderful Garden of Earthly Delights sold, amazingly, for $153,000, to a museum no less – the Olbricht Museum of Modern Art in Essen.)
Another trend was the use of mundane, domestic objects as ‘readymades’: e.g. clothes hangers, pots, nylon tights, radiators, baskets, toilet brushes and bowls (obviously nodding to Marcel Duchamps’ 1917 urinal readymade, Fountain), metal clothes airers, shoes, bird cages, shoes, vases, nylon rope, bits of wood, empty plastic water or Coke bottles etc.
Many said there was less sexually explicit art than last year, but the observant would have spotted a few examples. One series of photographs showed a young man smearing mayonnaise all over his exposed genitals.
Some works were so banal, one could hardly imagine how anyone would want to buy them: e.g. a series of large scale photographs of a mouse; a big, fluffy pink walrus (at Gagosian!); a box with empty plastic bottles; a child-like drawing of a snake with its tail in its mouth and a set of ten pine shelves by Michal Budny, which was sold by Berlin’s BQ Gallery to a private collector. I suppose the latter could at least be used for books or ornaments, though the owner would have to explain to visitors that it was a work of art.
In the ‘OMG, is that really art?’ category, one was spoilt for choice. Last year there were works that looked like things the workmen had left behind, like an old stepladder (by Sofia Hulten) or a paint-spattered wooden chair or an old white radiator (by Gregor Schneider): it was hard to imagine that some gallery director had actually selected these – and even harder to imagine that anyone would buy them. This year one was equally surprised. One work consisted of two glass tumblers connected horizontally on a stand – Device for Mutual Eavesdropping, by Amalia Pica (£6000).
A floor installation by Nairy Baghvamian, consisting of some old rope, old chrome piping and some large, grubby pillows, was to be had for £45,000 (money for old rope?).
The Johannes Galerie Berlin had a ‘work’ by Hans-Peter Feldmann (he of red-nosed portraits mentioned above) – two cream-coloured telephones (1940’s?) for £20,000.
Andrew Kreps Gallery New York offered a small twig spattered with paint by Hayley Tomkins. Hauser & Wirth had a work by Jason Rhoades, consisting of bits of old rubbish, including a bottle cleaner and an old cardboard fabric roll, entitled Junk.
A work being sold by Stuart Shave Gallery London consisted of a thin plank of wood, nylon rope, a black cooking pot and an old blanket.
The Herald Street Gallery London had a work by Amalia Pica made of a table leg, a bottle and a metal garden rake, which they apparently sold. The crudeness of these DIY constructions and their meaning defy analysis – visual beauty was certainly not a criterion. A million miles from Duchamp or Schwitters.
But the two works which must win the Emperor’s New Clothes Prize was a large sheet of clear glass propped against the wall, Any Two Metre Square, by Cyprian Gaillard.
The other work, by American artist and Harvard professor, Stephen Prina, (offered by Maureen Paley Gallery London) was a piece of black string attached to the wall with pins, outlining the shape of a picture frame. Yes.
More visually stimulating was the work by the winner of the Emdash Award 2012, the Belgian/American Cécile B. Evans. Her work took the form of an audio guide to Frieze London accompanied by a holographic ‘host’, which crops up all over the fair. The best one is a black box inserted discreetly into a wall, in which we saw a miniature Simon Schama, a homunculus magically moving around in space, holding forth on some topic.
And what were my favourites? I saw hundreds of things I loved in Frieze Masters, but in Frieze itself I found little. My two favourites were very different. The Vermelho Gallery Sao Paolo offered a work by Brazilian Marila Dardot: 13 mirrored panels, each panel had printed on it or part of it a photo of a double page, page or a blown-up part of a page from Alice in Wonderland. It is difficult to say why I found it so attractive, but clearly others did too, as all five editions of the work sold – at $20,000 each.
The other work was a kinetic work by an Irish artist, Siobhan Hapaska (Kerlin Gallery Dublin). It consisted of two low scaffolding units of pristine aluminium pipes tightly enclosing a section of olive wood trunk. The two units are joined by two long, parallel aluminium runners: two pieces of olive tree roots, like miniature trees slowly travel along these runners (using hidden magnets, one presumes), occasionally meeting in parallel; when each one reaches the end, it does a little pirouette, turns round and journeys in the opposite direction. The piece is beautiful, showing great technical address (the artist makes every part of the piece herself) and impeccable finish, unlike most works at Frieze.
One is touched by the contrast between the inorganic and the organic, between the gleaming, flawless linear metal and the irregular, gnarled, ancient tree trunk, by the way the venerable tree seems to be trapped by the modern steely metal. The work has an anthropomorphic quality to it, as the two little ‘trees’ travel along like lonely figures, occasionally meeting but never touching. The long metal tubing, carrying the power cables, snakes away from the piece, like an umbilical cord. The work was priced at £60,000.
So how much of this art sells? Frieze is the first big sale of the season so is regarded as a barometer of the art market. There were, reportedly, fewer Americans and not as many Russians as expected. And the posses of Chinese super-rich coming over the hill were not vastly in evidence. One frequently saw the gallery assistants on their i-pads, laptops or mobile phones – but whether they were contacting clients or their mums, one didn’t know. Only the organizers know how many works sold and for how much. 2004 was the last year when Frieze published their figures.
Last year Frieze director Matthew Slotover reported that many galleries declared 2011 their best Frieze to date. We don’t know how successful business was this year. The top works, by ‘blue chip’ artists were not cheap: a Chris Ofili (at Victoria Miro) for $500,000; a Gursky at White Cube for over $500,000; a Jenny Holzer (at Spruth Magers) for $525,000; a Baselitz (at Michael Werner) for $1m; a Paul McCarthy (at Hauser & Wirth) for £1.3m, etc.
Conclusion? London is still the epicentre of contemporary art, and contemporary art is still one of the buzziest sectors of the art market. Whether contemporary art is really challenging and interesting is another and bigger, controversial question. Many traditionalists argue that contemporary art lacks seriousness, intellectual content, spirituality or even skill and consists too often of readymades or found objects and that, where there are real ‘production values’, the work is usually done by assistants not by the artist. It is indeed hard to discern meaning in much of what one sees and hard to take much of it seriously. But the ineluctable fact is many people love it and much of it sells. Time will tell.
Frieze is extraordinarily popular and an amazing socio-cultural phenomenon – a brilliant example of art entertainment and commercial enterprise. Building on its success, the Frieze Empire has expanded. Last May saw the first Frieze Art Fair New York.
As the musician Jarvis Cocker said: “I always go to Frieze. You always spot interesting things; the food is good; the bookshop is good, and you always bump into lots of people you know.” What’s there not to like?
By Terence Rodrigues
A well-known figure on the arts scene in London, Terence Rodrigues has been working in the art world his entire professional life. Passionate about art, he is one of those rare characters who has feet in both the academic and commercial art worlds. With degrees from the universities of Oxford and Paris, he initially taught at Oxford for some years before joining Christie’s, where he worked in the Old Master Paintings Department, as well as serving as editor of Christie’s Review of the Year and director of Christie’s Books. He was made a Director but left Christie’s and has now set up independently as an International Art Consultant, advising museums and private clients on major art acquisitions and sales, insurance valuations, museum loans and restoration. He has also lectured for many years both in the UK and abroad on art and architecture and the art market, as well as writing in many national and international publications, from The Arts Newspaper, The Times and The Telegraph to Vogue and Vogue Decoration. He covers a very wide area of the arts, from Old Masters to contemporary and from painting to sculpture and the decorative arts. he lives in London but travels widely in Europe, USA, the Middle East and Asia. He often wields his gavel as an auctioneer at both art and charity auctions.