We are witnesses to the denouement: Frieze, 2013

“Ladies. Ladies and gentlemen. Ladies. Thanks for coming…”

Two men in yellow high visibility jackets are bringing furniture into the room: comfy chairs, a long low table, a vase full of delicate beige and green flowers, bottled water and glasses. They are followed by a professional cameraman. The crowd is wondering, sometimes out loud: is this Gerry Bibby’s performance?  Is this it? Some of them declare that they are bored and leave before it starts. Thump thump thump. The soundtrack is a beating heart accompanied by the sound of seashells cracking under foot on a beach.

We’ll come back to this event in a moment. It is only one temporary ‘mise en scene’ within an architectural spatial artwork, within a curated programme, within an art fair, at one of the most important events in the international contemporary art world calendar.  Frieze London in Regents Park is the art fair: one long weekend that spreads its influence throughout the year. One element of an empire that publishes Frieze and Frieze d/e, funds acquisitions for Tate galleries, commissions work through Frieze Foundation, initiates talks and film production; and, in 2012, inaugurated Frieze Masters, a secondary fair for pre-year 2000 artworks.

This year is the 10th year that Frieze Projects, the curated programme financed through the not-for-profit Frieze Foundation will present its outcome at the fair. It is the first year that curator Nicola Lees is at the helm, following her previous post as Senior Public Programme Curator at the Serpentine Gallery, a public venue situated in another of London’s prestigious open spaces, Hyde Park.

Her public programme background is interesting. Another ‘mover and shaker’, Liverpool Biennial’s Sally Tallant came to the North of England following a senior role in the public programme department at the Serpentine.  It seems to suggest that the hierarchies that have defined free art events (talks, workshops, websites) as less critical and important than other modes of artistic presentation (exhibitions, film production, performances, publications) are breaking down. Or at least that this merge of seemingly separate areas is the future of contemporary art.

Back to Gerry Bibby. When the scene is set, it is an ordinary artist talk, chaired by Vivian Ziherl from the group If You Can’t Dance then I Don’t Want to be Part of Your Revolution – who are long-term collaborators of Bibby’s, based in Amsterdam.  One of the men, the one who kept thanking us for coming, takes off his jacket and joins the panel, revealing that he is the artist. Between Bibby and Ziherl sits Professor of Fine Art Adrian Riffkin.  The three speakers start to analyse Bibby’s work. They begin by drawing our attention to a pile of oyster shells in the park beyond the glass window.

The empty shells are the residue of a performance and research process. Years before Bibby was asked by Frieze London to produce an artwork, having not long come to the UK from Australia, he worked at the festival as one of the technicians who built the marquee and set up the stands.  For his commissioned work he wanted to draw on this past experience as well as long-term concerns. The soil of Regents Park, he had discovered when he was asked to dig a big hole in the ground, was full of oyster shell fragments, from an era when they were used as cheap protein to feed the working classes of London. Now oysters are exclusively eaten by the rich.  His spotlight on this story invites us to question value and how it can change over time. He tells us he creates his artworks by ‘exploiting the poetic potential of situations’ – and all the time he is talking, just metres away, gallerists are selling their products: artworks as luxury goods.

This isn’t the first year that Frieze Project commissions have explored the idea of value. In 2011, German conceptual and video artist Christian Jankowski presented a luxury motor yacht on one of the stands in the fair. He used a Duchampian strategy on an ambitious scale, but the twist was that the yacht was available to buy at two different prices, one to own it as a boat and the other as a Jankowski artwork. Conversely, in 2012 the most effective project encouraged us to find value in items made from basic materials. Within a wooden structure, artist Bedwyr Williams handed out slices of ‘Curator Cadaver’ (cake) with his apron stained with blood (food colouring). He was performing on behalf of Grizedale Arts, an international residency and arts agency based in a remote part of the Northern England country side. The home-baked ethic contrasted with the glitzy celebration of wealth and high-end cool of Frieze.

This year the platform for the projects is designed by architect Andreas Angelidakis.  On his website Angelidakis says that after his training he moved away from a traditional architecture practice, as “contemporary art seemed like a language more fluent in criticism and versatility,” so now he creates buildings but also, “urban experiments, workshops, publications, temporary inhabitations” and collaborative projects with artists and theorists.  An ideal candidate to design this pop up structure. The space is made of cheap materials such as polystyrene and balsa wood, and it adapts and changes each day to accommodate performances; it is part TV studio, part artist studio, part boardroom, part laboratory; in flux, messy, half-baked. To walk through it is to follow a trail of traces.

I walk down a corridor of Joseph Strau’s graphic-designed unintelligible poetry. “These works,” he writes, “collected for the exhibition are hopefully abruptly beautiful and appear incoherently intense in an aesthetic of disconnected individual gravities are combined for their logic of their ennui to constantly refusing certain normative appearances of production interests.” What meaning he wants audiences to take from this is not clear.  At the end of the corridor is Lili Reyanud-Dewar’s bedroom.  The artist has decided at this point in her career to only make bedrooms, in protest to the nomadic lifestyle that artists live: taking up temporary residence in a gallery and then packing up and moving on.  The bed in this room has an angry fountain at its centre, gushing with black water.

Leaving the bedroom I encounter an oversized game of Battleships, initiated by Rivane Neuenschwander.  The paper removed from each square falls softly to the ground, gathering in ever bigger heaps.  What is the point of this? I ask one of the participants – who is a member of Frieze London staff – what do we get out of this exchange between you are the other game player?  She replies that audiences seem to like watching the game, but that sometimes they take the squares off when the players have stopped for a break. I understand how they feel. Who wants to watch a game that you can’t join in?

Sat on a polystyrene cube, watching Bibby’s performance/artist talk, I am becoming more and more uncomfortable The poor sound quality reinforces the feeling that this isn’t intended for a live audience. Instead, it is merely part of the performance process: plan, perform, document. We are witnesses to the denouement, rather than valued participants.  And yet I learn more about Bibby’s work than I find out about any of the other projects – the invigilators seem as unsure and ignorant about them as I am.

Better informed are the staff in the Frieze Projects’ children’s zone. “The Temple of Play has lots of sources of inspiration from the built world and the virtual world,” I am told by one of the activity leaders, “we worked together with artist Angelo Plessas to devise activities at the same time as he conceived the structure.” One of the more successful commissions, the room is full of light and popular with both school groups and children who have come with their parents. It is centred on a maze, maximising the opportunities to hide and build mini sub-structures. Many of the children are wearing paper cube hats, a technology that seems analogue at first glance, but are decorated with designs that refer to the origin of digital emoticons.

“My name’s Casey and I am in the group that worked with an artist who said she wanted to spend the money on us… I want to do something fun so I have been thinking about castles, and how we could do something in the community…” In the Temple of Play I am told that the most talked about of the projects is by Pivli Takala.  Instead of making an artwork, the artist worked with a group of children, making them ‘the committee’ who decided how her commission fee would be spent. The project revealed that the children were mature enough to handle complex ideas about art, and it exposed the confusing world of art finance. Takala said in the Art Newspaper, “It wasn’t about whether it’s art or not. For them, art can be anything—and I think that is correct… they have never been to Frieze, and even if they went, they would not understand the position they are in within the art market. But I don’t know if that is a problem; I don’t know if I understand the position that I am in with regards to the art market.”

On your first visit to Frieze it can be a surprise that no-one asks if you would like to know more about the works on display – this is what we have come to expect from galleries where the staff provide part of the interpretation. Perhaps because of this silence, the talks scheduled throughout the day become a valuable way to learn more about the art world’s inner workings.  There are talks on the subject of ‘Migrating Modernism,’ ‘Sexuality, Politics and Protest’ and ‘New partnerships between art and film’.

With the feature film ‘12 Years a Slave’ by former Turner Prize winner Steven McQueen about to release in cinemas in the UK, it feels timely to listen to commissioners, producers and filmmakers discuss whether art and film are still two distinct industries. It appears the barriers are intact for now (“If I make a film with a beginning, middle and an end, I ask for a cinema… I believe in the screen,” says filmmaker and artist Khalil Joreige) but things are changing. While the voices of artists are welcome in the film world, it’s not clear whether filmmakers find the same openness in the art world.  Frieze London has yet to formally partner with a film festival, but it bravely allows itself to be examined by those from the film industry within its own institutional context.

Leaving the talk, I lean against a wall to think about this some more.  My thoughts are interrupted by a violent crash!  The wall is made of transparent plastic, covered in coloured splats from the inside.  I squint inside to see two robotic arms, which every few moments throw a ball of neon paint in response to the movements of the audience outside the chamber. This installation by Ken Okiishi is like a light-hearted and less phallic version of Anish Kapoor’s wax cannon, first displayed at the Royal Academy in 2009.  Okiishi describes the piece as being influenced by Niki de Saint Phalle; the result is an echo of other works, rather than a masterpiece in its own right.

The dynamism of the projects suggests inclusion, but this isn’t taken far enough. The visitor is consistently left on the outside, given a glimpse of a world they cannot inhabit.  But is this true of the rest of the fair? Beyond Andreas Angelidakis’ structure, familiar conventions endure. The abstract painting. The beautiful hand-made drawing. The white middle-aged male gallerist. Glistening white walls.  However, around and between this ridged framework, distributed among hundreds of stands, there are many boundary-pushing international contemporary artworks to view.

One of the most affecting is Marcus Coates’ video work The Trip, 2011. The artist, who has been described as ‘eccentric’ ‘warm’ and ‘spiritual’, has a skill for gaining the trust of ordinary people and making them his collaborators.  The Trip takes place after Coates has been to a hospice and asked if one of the residents has any unfulfilled ambitions.  The dying man tells the artist that he is disappointed not to have visited the rainforest. What we hear through headphones is Coates’ vivid description of the Amazon rainforest after he has visited on the man’s behalf. It is colourful, poignant, filled with humorous exchanges between the two men and worth every second of its 30 minute duration.

Another captivating film was by Korean video and installation artist Do Huh Suh; his architectural imagery in high-definition hyper-bright colours melts satisfyingly from frame to frame.  It shows a totally different Korea to Thomas Struth’s panoramic photographs on display elsewhere. Isreali artist Yehudit Sasportas effortlessly drew me into her world.  Mark Leckey helped his gallery – Cabinet London – win the prize for the best stand. Li Songsong’s paintings captured a universal nostalgia. The public old and young crawled inside the belly of Jennifer Rubell’s giant, naked pregnant odalisque, titled ‘Portrait of the artist’. Enrico David showcased his ever more abstracted work based on the figure. And Micheal Dean’s earthenware cabbage rolled on the ground by my feet.

There are problems and there are wonderful things about Frieze London – problems that the Frieze Projects programme fails to thoroughly interrogate. If you are feeling cynical about the art world, the fair will provide fuel for that disenchantment. If you are feeling open and optimistic, it buzzes with creativity and ideas being exchanged.  It is the equivalent of several years of visits to small commercial galleries, several weeks of searching online to find out what everyone is talking about in the art world. To bring you up to speed in a few sentences: last year they were talking about a pink walrus by Carsten Höller. This year they are talking about Rubell’s odalisque.  I am talking about Marcus Coates. And Gerry Bibby is talking about oysters.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai

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