- •Contact us
- •About us
- •Advertise with the FT
- •Terms & conditions
© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
Last updated: April 28, 2012 1:05 am
Regent’s Park it isn’t. For 10 years the phenomenon that is the Frieze Art Fair has pitched its mega-tent between Nash terraces and herbaceous borders. But Randall’s Island, New York City, where it will plant itself on May 4, is no bed of roses. Instead of tea-pavilion and pilastered crescents, the site is bounded by the thunderous (though handsomely art deco) Triborough Bridge connecting Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens on one side; the immense nicotine-coloured citadel of the Manhattan Psychiatric Center on another; and the legendarily poisonous East river on its shoreline.
All of which, believe it or not, should be good news for everyone concerned with the present and future of contemporary art in New York. Randall’s Island, shoehorned into the steel armature of the city, dotted with Little League ballparks and relay racers sprinting round the parking lots, makes the patrician Upper East Side, where most of the great museums are housed, seem suddenly parochial.
There has always been something slightly disingenuous about contemporary art’s flirtation with the junk aesthetic, its pretence of turning its back on beauty and dirtying itself up with the raw, undifferentiated matter of the modern world. More often enough what emerges from the pigpen or the playpen ends up in millionaires’ living rooms. But to set the art mart down on the grit and grunge of Randall’s Island is to call the bluff of this selective slumming. It’s safe to say not many of the galleristas will have visited the precincts of the Icahn stadium or be familiar with the thwack of fungos popped to the outfield. Frieze New York has the potential, at least, to pierce this artworld bubble in which faux-earthiness is ornamentally trapped and open it up to a real rub down in good city sweat.
Jaume Plensa’s ‘Yorkshire Soul III’
Watch out for those fireworks. On the preview evening of Frieze New York, sculptor Cerith Wyn Evans will be creating loud bangs and flashing lights with “And If I Don’t ...” It opens the display of sculpture “on a public scale” that runs along Randall’s Island’s waterfront, mixing pieces by star names with new work by artists including Christoph Büchel, Ernesto Neto, Tomás Saraceno and Katja Strunz.
Frieze Projects, specially commissioned work that is one of the best things about the London fair, is curated in New York by Cecilia Alemani. As curator of art on New York’s latest and most beautiful public space, the High Line, she makes a promising start in this hoped-for engagement with the neighbourhood. Alemani says she likes to mix up the generations and not just spot “emerging” talent. “Sometimes the older artists do work that’s more youthful than the young ones.” Strong work rooted in the neighbourhood she thinks has resonance that can teach the young and rootless a thing or two, and in Tim Rollins and John Ahearn she’s found two excellent exemplars of work that speaks to the future by mining the past.
Tim Rollins has been working for 20 years with school students in the south Bronx under the rubric of KOS, Kids of Survival; combining instruction in reading and writing with collaborative art-making, it has resulted in some work of spectacular radiance as well as social energy. At Frieze he and KOS will be offering workshop classes to students on a 40-foot table, where, to a loop of Mendelssohn, they will make work suggested by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, painted in blooms and stains of watercolour laid on the text. Ahearn will reinstall his 1979 array of casts (somehow both statuesque and animated) “The South Bronx Hall of Fame”, made of neighbours on 3rd Avenue and visitors to the methadone clinic. The egotistically intrepid will be able to have themselves cast in the same gel mix and immortalised along with the addicts and the street crowd.
If all this sounds as though it belongs on Coney Island rather than Randall’s Island, that’s because the funfair boardwalk (now a little sinister) was precisely what Alemani had in mind when she was thinking about who might respond most brightly to the site and the occasion. And there’s no reason to hold our noses at that. Artbiz and showbiz have often kept company in the American tradition as a release from the stuffiness of the academy and the brahmin loftiness of abstract expressionism, and have been none the worse for it. The brilliantly devious masters of American trompe l’oeil at the end of the 19th century such as John Haberle and William Harnett showed their work in pubs and modernists such as Kienholz and Warhol all played unapologetically to the funhouse public.
So the “pop-up village” Alemani says she wants to create will have what she shouldn’t mind us calling “attractions” – not least because, when offered a choice of installing inside or outside, all the Frieze Projectors chose the latter. The landscape – and there is one – is, after all, sweetly inviting: little glades, wandering paths that turn into wooden bridges over a saltmarsh bristling with cordgrass and spears of sumac and juicy black bog for the heron and egrets.
No reason, then that an art fair shouldn’t also be a funfair. If there were (and there ought to be) carny barkers, they would beckon you inside the striped tent for Ulla von Brandenburg’s shadow play or Joel Kyack’s trailer in the form of a colossal human grotesque. Art sites have been playing this game, teasing horrors jostling beside innocent games, for centuries: the “Park of Monsters” created for the Orsini at Bomarzo in the 16th century included along its rustic walks gaping hell mouths, dragons and crazily tilted houses to explore.
Historically, Randall’s Island has specialised in the closeness of the bright and the dark. The straits on either side of the island were dubbed hellegat by the Dutch mariner Adriaen Block, who first negotiated them in 1614, very carefully, and became known as “Hell’s Gate”. Block’s ship was called Onrust, or Restless, prophetic about the peculiar alternation of freedom and confinement that has characterised the island’s history. Though Latifa Echakhch’s installation of 200 clumps of tumbleweed (not a New York item) come to an eerie halt on the grass, and may be too cutely paradoxical for its own good, it does neatly suggest that history where American restlessness came to a halt.
By the middle of the 19th century, when the city bought the island from the eponymous Randall – who in turn had got it for a pittance as the confiscated property of a British military engineer – the island was being used as a holding pen for every conceivable kind of person then deemed undesirable: the criminally insane, juvenile delinquents, orphans; the mentally handicapped, Confederate prisoners, the homeless, even invalided veterans of the winning side of the Civil War.
In time, the obsession with insular confinement was replaced by a much breezier American ethic, that of sport: the tonic for the trapped citizens of urban streets. What made that possible was the final piece of the puzzle: heroic engineering. In 1936 the Triborough Bridge (rather handsome for some of us who use it), the project of the imperially minded parks commissioner Robert Moses, was opened on the same day that Olympic track and field trials were being held in the stadium right beneath it. The twin achievement was important enough for President Roosevelt and New York’s ultimate mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, the Jewish-Catholic Italian, to be in attendance. An only slightly fancied young black sprinter called Jesse Owens made an impression in the 100-yard dash – but nothing like the impression he would go on to make on Adolf Hitler in Berlin that summer.
There’s sad sweet music about the place and Alemani confessed she would have loved to have had the Icahn Stadium host Frieze music. I rather wish there was rock and roll there myself: what’s a FunArtFair without it?
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.