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Letter From London



FREE ART FAIR | various locations around central London | OCTOBER 13 – 19, 2008:

Bert Rodriguez,
Bert Rodriguez, "Where You End And I Begin," 2008. Frieze Projects at Frieze Art Fair, Regents Park. Performance based installation. Dimensions: variable. Courtesy of The Artist and Fredric Snitzer Gallery.

Depending on your point of view, the fall ended either with a bang or a whimper. It seems that few parts of the world have been spared the financial tidal wave of recent months, yet in all the hubbub, there was one ray of complete absurdity. On a day of total financial meltdown in the global markets, Damien Hirst was able to clear out his cellar and pocket a very hefty few hundred million at Sotheby’s. Otherwise, everyone approached this year’s Frieze Art Fair with a sense of trepidation.

On the whole, the various fairs themselves seemed quieter this year, even underwhelming. Am I projecting? Is daily talk of recession and economic downturn coating every viewpoint and conversation? One work that jumped out at the Zoo Art Fair was a little painting of a hand holding a Lehman Brothers mug by Jorge Diezma at Travesia Cuatro; it was purchased by a Lebanese collector whose son worked for said investment bank. Then again, should we even be paying attention to art fairs? Let’s not forget that the prime function of a fair is to sell. It is a trade fair where buyers meet dealers, and dealers meet dealers. Much like the property boom, the art market has had such a great bull run that for many it seemed too fat and inflated, and very much in need of adjustment.

Instead of the bombast that characterized previous fairs, most stands seemed to display smaller artworks. I suspect that this was to enable easier selling, but it did deprive the event of its usual sense of spectacle. Matthew Marks was one of the few dealers to devote large areas of space to single-artist displays, notably Charles Ray and Robert Gober. Similarly, Timothy Taylor devoted his booth, transformed by designer Ron Arad into a curvy womb-like space, to daily displays of individual artists—Mai-Thu Perret on the day I visited. This engaging Swiss artist was also the subject of a one-person show at Taylor’s gallery. A creator of artworks from an imaginary world, her pieces were also present at several stands across the fair, each reflecting a different aspect of her invented world. CRG previewed what appeared to be half of their December show: O Zhang’s The World is Yours (But Also Ours), photographs with political humour by the Chinese photographer trained at the Royal College.

Sales were definitely slow, though most gallerists claimed that it was nice to have more time to engage with collectors. Only one young New York space gave the impression that its participation at the fair was financially difficult. The headline of The Art Newspaper’s “fair issue” read, “Collectors pour in, but the days of ten-minute reserves are over.” Certainly the days when galleries broke even after the opening are behind us. It was unfortunate that the flea market created by Gavin Brown last year, which included Rob Pruitt among others, was not for this fair; instead, a suite of prints by the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi adorned the front wall welcoming visitors to Brown’s stand (designed by Urs Fisher). Even the Chapman Brothers were unusually silent. Normally the most amusing of provocateurs, the White Cube artists merely produced a book signing for Jake’s new novel. In fact, a German dealer remarked that Frieze now seemed just like any other art fair—this may not necessarily be a bad thing.

The real moment of anarchy was provided by the Appetite Gallery from Argentina. Behaving more like a collective than commercial enterprise, the stand looked more like an anarchist squat—untidy anarchists at that—complete with floor-to-ceiling posters and detritus strewn across the floor. In fact the troupe used their stand as a hotel and, I’m guessing, also slept rough in the park on occasion. They seemed to be continually creating self-involved performances, and although there were notices inviting visitors to participate, we stood and gawked instead. The moans and screams reported by nearby gallerists attest to the excesses reached by the Argentines. One sign read, “Please do not take the garbage;” I like the fact that it was “garbage” and not “art.” This garbage became the source material for a constantly changing Art Povera-like assemblage installation.

For all the fair’s faults, we really should applaud Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharpe, its directors and creators, for reorienting the calendar and revitalizing an art scene, not to mention finally landing a proper art fair in this major city. But Frieze week is not just for the collector, it is also for the virtual consumer, people like myself who come just to “enjoy” art.

To this end the fair’s charity, the Frieze Foundation, which generates Frieze Projects, along with lectures and other related events (e.g. films on YouTube, the Cartier Award for emerging artists), has been a blessing. In all, the Projects, commissioned this year by curator Neville Wakefield, seemed “uneventful.” I do not mean this negatively; rather, the various projects were generally more subtle—and thus more interesting—than in previous editions. From Cory Arcangel’s golden ticket (which allowed one randomly selected gallery free entry into the fair) to “Norma Jean’s” smoking booths (which turned a smoker in a transparent booth into a living, smoking sculpture) and the gently rotating trees of Jeppe Hein at the entrance of the fair, each project was a superb contribution to the overall context of the event of an art fair. In particular, Ceal Floyer’s modified sculptures, in one of the fair’s cafés, even possessed a certain poetry. As in any café or bar around the globe, folded beer mats were placed under the legs of all the plastic tables to “prop” them up. Attendants, when clearing the tables, also added fresh beer mats under their legs, thus turning furniture into a constantly changing temporary sculpture. Granted the entire fair was programmed pre-meltdown, which made the Icelandic Kling & Bang’s contribution all the more poignant. An artist-run gallery, it brought over every brick of the Sirkus Bar, a famous Reykjavik art world hangout, which had been slated for demolition. At Frieze, it was a bar, a hangout, a site for talks and performance, but most importantly a darkened oasis of art-loving without art-buying and lots of art-talking.

Across town, the Free Art Fair, organized by painter Jasper Joffe, provided the real riposte to the other fairs. As its name explains, all the work exhibited in its eight spaces was free. You just had to go to the fair office at closing time on the last day with a first and second choice, and if these were already taken, then you had to return to the back of the queue. Visiting on the last day, there was already a line around the block; some hopefuls appeared as if they’d been there for quite a while. The participating artists ranged from the emerging to old stalwarts, from the lesser known, Joffe, to infamous exhibitors like Bob and Robert Smith, who with his usual anarchic humour contributed an edition of toenails. There were more conventional objects, like a Stephen Farthing painting, to Gavin Turk stickers mimicking those found on fruit, but emblazoned with his name. The latter were presented to each fair visitor, thus transforming every punter into a walking Gavin Turk sculpture.

My visit to Frieze in the end was not without a happy ending; I was able to participate in Bert Rodriquez’s Where You End And I Begin. An American artist of Cuban descent who conducted free therapy sessions at the Whitney Biennial, Rodriquez’s Frieze Project offered another form of solace to the fair visitor, a foot massage. A complete amateur in that department, it was not the massage, although that was pleasant, that proved to be the calming moment, but rather the act of sitting down and spending a concentrated amount of time with someone discussing our mutual work. Maybe the Beatles were right; the best things in life are free!



Sherman Sam

Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

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