REVIEW – Frieze Art Fair 2011

Review by Tomek Jedrowski


The white tents in London’s Regents Park are buzzing with anticipation. It’s the opening night of Frieze, the UK’s biggest contemporary art fair. Questions float in the air like Roy Lichtenstein thought bubbles – “How will buyers react to the economic crisis? Who will have the most innovative installation? And which celebrities will show up?”

Press were invited to the afternoon preview but banished from the evening reception. Refusing to admit defeat, I launched a charm offensive on the security staff and was allowed to enter the 20,000 square meters of exhibition space, occupied by 173 galleries from across the globe, and a throng of guests. I was immediately struck by the glamour of the crowd. Artists and curators, collectors and cool kids, power-brokers and their model girlfriends – this is the art world’s equivalent of London Fashion Week. Tom Ford mingled with Serpentine gallery co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist, photography legend David Bailey rubbed shoulders with model Lily Cole and British artist Tracey Emin. It is this potent cocktail of money, celebrity and talent which has helped to triple visitor numbers since the first Frieze in 2003, and placed the fair squarely on the art market’s global map.

The overall mood this year was optimistic, albeit cautious. Sales are good, but the giants of contemporary art dominated, possibly more than in the previous years- examples include Anish Kapoor with his ubiquitous reflecting concave structures at Lisson Gallery, Nan Goldin’s stark photographs at Matthew Marks, and another Tracey Emin neon sign (“And I said I love you”). Ryan McGinley presented some intriguing image from his latest project “Somewhere Place”, which involved a hipster nudist frolicking in the American countryside (McGinley: The most liberating thing about being naked is to feel the breeze around your balls”)

There is a visible rapprochement between institutional and commercial success. Pipilotti Rist (who is showing at the Hayward), Tacita Dean (Tate Modern Turbine Hall), Anri Sala (Serpentine Gallery), Wilhelm Sasnal (Whitechapel) and Gerhard Richter (Tate Modern) had some of the highest levels of buyer enthusiasm.

The connection between the number of artists currently having a show in London and actually selling works at Frieze is clear. People feel a level of reassurance with artists who have museum shows, which is needed at the moment,” confirmed Neil Wenman of Hauser & Wirth.

This interplay between the private and public art sectors is also evident for the lower-budget buyer. One of the most popular stands this year is Museum Editions, a collective stand of institutions including the Camden Arts Centre and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), selling limited editions by established artists for up to ?1,000 ($1,500). Works included Roni Horn, Jacob Kassay and Turner-prize winner Wolfgang Tillmans, whose prints sold out before I got to the stand. Clearly, safe investments currently overtake passionate buys.

But for the artists, it’s not all about commercial calculation – there was some carefree creation too. French artist Pierre Huyghe, for example, presented an aquarium with a giant hermit crab that had made its home in a replica of Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse sculpture; a playful take on the interplay of nature and the decorative arts.

English artist Michael Landy – notorious for having destroyed all his belongings in his 2001 installation Break Down – had the crowds flocking to his Credit Card Destroying Machine.  The 3+ meter installation, made up of a panoply of toys, plastic legs and mechanical wheels, ate valid credit cards in return for unique circle drawings in permanent marker. An ironic comment on the money-grabbing ways of the market, or the foolishness of certain collectors? In any case there was a queue to have a card shredded for a free piece of art, and it included this reporter. Mr. Landy might be mocking me, but I applaud a project which creates art for a gesture and breaks out of the intellectualized confines of the art world. My bank was less understanding.

If this excites rather than scares you, it might be good news that the fair’s organizers have decided to bring Frieze to New York in 2012. I’ll be back next year for certain.

Tomek Jedrowski is a lawyer by day and a cultural blogger by night. He is currently based in London and spends most weekends in Paris or his native Germany/Poland.

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