“And then there are the marquees, which you return to again and again, which signal an event but don’t carry any information.”
It’s as though Liam Gillick is speaking directly to me, rather than Philippe Parreno, as I read their interview in my free copy of Frieze Week on the train back to Stoke. “They’re totally meaningless objects that occupy a nice space between the floor and the ceiling, a place where you don’t usually see art,” Parreno jumps in and continues, oscillating a light on my feelings towards the white giant I’ve left residing in Regents Park, even if Parreno’s marquees are very different to Frieze’s.
The article, discussing both artists’ latest venture together, forms part of an internal monologue that happens to me every year around this time, usually two weeks before Frieze opens and two minutes after I leave, having given in and attended: should I go next year? Do I value this experience as an artist? Standing in line for my lunch alongside a French mime artist and a man wearing an outfit costing more than my annual income was an experience I found weirdly valuable. But between the mass of quinoa, flaxseed and kale salads, freshly pressed smoothies and metabolism-boosting cayenne shots strutting back to gallerists desks in stylish paper bags, there was something overly McDonalds that lingered around the event in the tent. It was that ‘Big Mac blues’ feeling, a short moment of enjoyment followed by a slightly dirty, guilty conscience, trying to justify it was good for you because that portion of lettuce counts towards your five a day. Or maybe that’s just me.
It’s not that Frieze London left a bad taste this year, it didn’t, by now you know what to expect at these things; there was some good work on display by some great artists: Francis Upritchard, Katie Paterson and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd to name a few of my favourites on show. However, this is always paralleled with art that you feel was made especially for ‘power’ art fairs like this; a big name, a big gallery, something to match the décor or to talk about at the next dinner party. I often find the crowds more interesting than some of the art. It still manages to give a sense of what the market is buying though, even if it’s a market that you feel cares less about art and more about investments. The work becomes a material, a product, and as gallerists (or fancy shop keepers in this case) are only interested in talking to buyers, a purely opening night phenomena, your access to an artwork’s inner workings or why a collection of artists have been intentionally shown together is limited. Context seems irrelevant here, and as art is about context, pick and mix exhibitors rarely get it right.
In general, the most successful galleries were the ones who chose to remove as much of the trade fair element from their stands as possible, leaving the best of the gallery storeroom at home and creating exhibition-like spaces. None were more successfully than Project 88 with the work of Neha Choksi on display. Her insight into materiality linked with sublime experience was my undoubted highlight of the fair.
Frieze, like every city it visits, is inextricably linked with that city, in name, geography and ultimately its philosophy, and that could be part of Frieze London’s problem; it’s so what London has become. Not that London is bad, it’s not, it’s a great city but when combined with Frieze, and its questionable ‘how much tax do these buyers avoid?’ clientele, it becomes a kind of symbol of distasteful wealth. It sells a lie and an unintentional irony of artistic mutton dressed as lamb.
The return to the nineties this year at Frieze saw some iconic work, Wolfgang Tillmans (always great to see, and my second highlight of the fair), Carsten Höller, Richard Billingham and more, some having more relevance than others in 2016. However, with a few exceptions, it felt predominantly like an attempted Spice Girls reunion for a corporate event, only without Mel B and with Geri being replaced by Hyacinth Bouquet – a kind of rehash, with a ‘let’s forget about that YBA business, who knew there were other artists we could make money out of from back then?’ feel about it all.
I think what bothers me most is that everyone seems happy to go along with the game and that the fair often looks within its own circles for guidance rather than outwards. Organisations such as Frieze need fresh blood to keep their wheels greased, yet the fair seems to promote a type of propaganda, whether consciously or unconsciously, of how artistic success should be, that ultimately hurts the grassroots of art making and encourages a divide. Gregor Muir, executive director of the ICA spoke out two weeks before Frieze claiming “Contemporary art is struggling to address real events in the art world right now” which illustrates that this isn’t exclusive to Frieze, it’s a systematic divide. People of influence seem unable to see an art world outside of institutes and of work that isn’t highly priced, or even priced at all, until it’s pointed out to them.
Maybe my angst is being indirectly pointed at Frieze, any chance to see a Caulfield or a Turk in person is always worthwhile. Maybe I don’t realise I’m holding my viewfinder over a much larger picture of recent times where world wide political systems have shown their crooked workings and division is winning word of the year. It’s not that I want to be critical of Frieze, I’m certainly not of the artists and galleries that exhibit there; if I could sell at Frieze then I probably would! The opportunity that Frieze opens up to galleries allows them to stay afloat in a highly competitive lions’ den, and more galleries means more opportunities for artists and arts employment. Frieze Projects and the array of insightful artist talks they provide do redeem it somewhat, but do I have to feel as though I’m selling my soul when I visit?
Something needs to change. The people buying into these fairs (either intellectually or financially) will get bored of this same format. Even if visitor numbers still continue to increase year on year, like any profitable business its main interest is in who’s buying and how to keep them buying. In this scenario there’s an overwhelming sense of the system in the driving seat and that’s what I can’t get past. Art has always held truths within it and this event takes that away. Art drives art, process leads to work which leads to process, but something beautiful feels as though it is being corrupted here. I may put forward a proposal to Frieze next year. I will take guided tours around the fair in a gondola, dressed as a Venetian gondolier, as my latest work, hoping that in trying to convince art tourists they are at the Venice Biennale they will see Frieze, by contrast, for what it actually is: a commercial enterprise, full fat Big Mac consumerism being masked as a cultural beacon.
A group of 10 artists from Staffordshire, Birmingham and the Black Country were nominated to attend Frieze London 2016 with the support of New Art West Midlands' Artist and Curator Professional Development Programme. Those selected are all alumni of the New Art West Midlands graduate exhibitions. This text is the first in a series of reflections on their individual experiences of Frieze.