Performance art, Frieze New York

When 7,000 people a day visited performance art veteran Marina Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, it proved a breakthrough for the medium. No one anticipated that so many visitors would queue for hours to sit opposite the artist. Since then, performance has enjoyed something of a revival, one that has happened in the very places the original performance artists of the late 1960s and 1970s shunned: public museums and art fairs. Once considered deeply avant-garde, an anti-commercial edgeland of the art world, performance is more popular than ever – and art fairs recognise this, as Frieze New York, whose second edition ends on May 13, illustrates.

As museums have embraced more interactive work, contemporary art fairs have shrugged off their trade fair trappings and remarketed themselves as cultural “events” able to hold their own in the visual arts calendar alongside the openings and biennials. Their aim is still to sell art, but their approach has shifted. Established in 2003, Frieze London has blazed the trail, with a full-time curator and an ambitious programme of non-selling installations and performances called Frieze Projects running alongside (and sometimes against) the commercial thrust.

Where Frieze leads, others follow. Art13, the London art fair whose inaugural edition took place in Kensington Olympia this spring, featured large-scale installations neatly punctuating the rows of gallery booths, as well as talks and a special booth for performance art. “It’s about visitor experience,” the fair’s director Stephanie Dieckvoss tells me. “Performance art refocuses people’s minds in a different way. I thought it was important to have a balanced curatorial aspect to the fair.”

By branding themselves as cultural destinations, contemporary art fairs have sought to represent not only the art market but artistic practice more widely. And, given that it’s often impractical for galleries to stage performances on their cramped stands, the fairs themselves have stepped in to fund a performance element. As Amanprit Sandu, curator of Art13’s performance programme, says, “These are quite difficult times economically and a lot of the artwork I’ve been seeing at art fairs over the past two years is 2D: the offering is a bit more conservative.”

At Frieze New York, however, the Marian Goodman Gallery has taken the risk and decided to show a work by the performance artist Tino Sehgal. When I visited the small walled booth, adults were standing round the edges listening to a girl not more than 10 years old tell how she used to be the manga character Ann Lee but has become “an individual”. First seen at the Manchester International Festival in 2011, Sehgal’s extraordinary piece – called “Ann Lee” – assumed a new significance in the context of the fair. “Now that I’m an individual,” said the girl with a serious expression and unflinching gaze, “I’ve met people who are tired of being an individual and having all these decisions to make.” Collecting art is, essentially, about making decisions that express individuality. The girl’s audience, recognising this, looked variously awkward and amused, taken aback by her poise and apparent wisdom.

“Ann Lee”, an edition of four, has a starting price of €80,000. On Frieze New York’s VIP day, Marian Goodman’s associate director Karina Daskalov tells me there has been “a lot of interest from museums”. Ever adaptable, artists have found ways to sell performance – often in the form of photographs, video and even left-over props. At Frieze New York, Vienna’s Galerie Krinzinger is selling 45 photographs from 1971 documenting performances by Otto Muehl, an influential Vienna Actionist, for a hefty $190,000. But Sehgal, wanting his performances to be truly ephemeral, does not allow them to be photographed. So instead they are sold in an oral contract between the artist and buyer in the presence of a lawyer, during which Sehgal explains how to re-enact the work.

One visitor to the Marian Goodman booth was overheard describing Sehgal’s piece as “a complete tonic”. Despite not being as easily sellable as painting or sculpture, performance art has the advantage of immediacy. As Cecilia Alemani, curator of Frieze Projects at New York fair, admits: “I’m an expert and even I get tired after seeing 180 booths. But performance can capture viewers’ attention.”

Yet Alemani’s Frieze Projects are less about attention-grabbing performances than creating social spaces for, as she puts it, “those moments when people want to take a break from the fair”. One such space is designed by artist Liz Glynn: a Prohibition-style speakeasy hidden in the tent, to which 200 visitors each day are given keys. These lucky few are then treated not only to cocktails strong enough to take the edge off even the most hectic art fair, but also to bartenders who serve them up with stories and magic tricks – a performance in itself.

Another Frieze Project is Matteo Tannatt’s series of benches around the fair, each of which has a script displayed beside it. The benches double as stages, with an actor moving from bench to bench performing the script or improvising. This, however, is more elusive than the secret speakeasy: during my day spent pounding the aisles of the fair, I didn’t once see a bench used as anything other than something to sit on.

Different fairs have different ways of presenting performance art. The best performance at Art13 was Bedwyr Williams’ “Expedit”, written for the occasion. Like all his performances, it began with him asking the audience to pretend they were moles. “It’s usually a London audience I perform to,” he tells me, “and they’re used to following other Londoners blindly around tunnels.” In “Expedit” he asked his mole audience to imagine burrowing down through the floor and up into the fashionable home of a couple of designers in order to ransack it. “I thought designers were a good choice because they collect things. Although it’s not the same as collecting fine art, it’s similar. My gallery wouldn’t thank me for lampooning visual art collectors – although it’s on the agenda.”

Though Williams’ satirical piece responded to the art fair setting, the performance artists at Art13 were not specifically requested to do so – a measure of the fair’s relatively conservative approach in its first year. While the Frieze Projects often work as “interventions” around the fair – Spartacus Chetwynd’s show-stealing giant “cat bus” at Frieze London in 2010, for example – the performances at Art13 were safely contained in one booth. Art fairs tread a fine line between creating spectacle and keeping their galleries happy: few dealers would thank them for scheduling a loud performance next to their booth, and Sandu admits she had to turn down the “really ambitious” proposals that wanted to “infiltrate” the fair.

But as museums embrace performance art, and performance artists themselves increasingly engage with the market, the medium will only become more common at art fairs – and not just in special non-selling sections. Today, performance art is more usually bought by museums than individuals, but Williams predicts change: “Performances at institutions are really well attended,” he says. “I think there’s a clamour for that kind of thing. And when people want something, collectors are usually quite close behind.”

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