Julia Jones heads to London Frieze Fair to find what the best of the contemporary art world can offer
I am a fan of contemporary art. You may count me as one of the few, but I genuinely do enjoy it. Inevitably, I was excited to attend Frieze Art Fair when it made its twelfth annual appearance in Regent’s Park this October. I had heard of it before, but I had never been. Frieze, along with other international fairs like Art Basel and Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain (FIAC), had always been a mystifying concept to me. Who attends these events? Does anyone actually buy anything, or do they go just to see and be seen? I would soon find out.
As it happens, a lot of the visitors were normal, middle class families. Walking up to the massive tent that housed the fair, we were hit with a distinct wave of exclusivity and importance. Mercedes and BMWs circled Outer Crescent, waiting to pick up the VIPs of today’s art industry, and a very clear reminder that Deutsche Bank were sponsoring the event sat just beneath Frieze’s logo.
Entrance to the fair varied – £37 for an adult day pass, £24 for a student, £15 for a two-hour evening – and offered inside were complimentary copies of the Financial Times. After being waved through security by tuxedoed guards, viewers were presented with Gagosian Gallery’s stall, which contained artist Carsten Höller’s Gartenkinder (garden for children). Here, Höller had placed a giant dice, a life-size, rocking mushroom, and large Scrabble letters, all of which visitors were allowed to touch, climb on, and move around. It is no wonder this Gagosian work was the first to be offered to the public; it set the tone for Frieze – elite, fun, and ridiculous.
Under the direction of Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, Frieze London has garnered over 240,000 visitors in the last four years alone, with participation from galleries worldwide. In 2012, Frieze expanded itself to a more international audience with the opening of Frieze New York and Frieze Masters (the latter of which features art from the ancient periods up until the modern era) and has expanded enormously. This year, over 150 galleries were in attendance, with just as many hailing from São Paulo, Istanbul, Johannesburg, and Bogotá, as from New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong. For 2014, Frieze London worked to make itself even more unique with a sculpture garden, as well as Frieze Live and Frieze Talks, comprising respectively of live performances from six of the featured galleries and daily forums and lectures.
Many of the superstars, Pace, Victoria Miro, Hauser & Wirth, Greene Naftali, and David Zwirner to name a few, were a stone’s throw away from each other, with smaller galleries dotted around them, adding a nice contrast and bit of fresh air. Looking around, I wondered how much of the art was actually selling. “Who would want half this stuff?” was a recurring thought. Evidently some people did – Damien Hirst’s “Because I Can’t Have You I Want You”, which featured formaldehyde-preserved fish, was sold for £4million by White Cube on the first day. A small, ordinary piece by Sigmar Polke, who currently has a retrospective at the Tate Modern, sold for $800,000 at Michael Werner. However, maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising, this is the Contemporary art market after all.
It was very easy to get lost in Frieze, nearly as easy as it was to get sick of the crowds. You could skip whole sections simply by taking a wrong turn and thinking you haven’t been past Lehmann Maupin Gallery when, in fact, you have several times. I found it hard not to think of the thousands of pounds that had been poured into this show and where else in the world that money could have gone. Underneath the glitz and glamour of such a sparkling industry, shown off so beautifully at Frieze, lie some obvious truths about the world in which we live.
Essential to enjoying Frieze is ignoring those issues, and appreciating the fair at face value of commodity. The event itself is fun, and the art conceptual, interactive, vulgar, digital, and satirical – not words you could use describe Turner or Rembrandt, who are both focuses of other major London shows this autumn. But they are more classical exhibitions. Frieze London is the contemporary art world at its best.
Images: Julia Jones