Frieze special: the underworld of art

Image of Edwin Heathcote

The Romantic English tradition of landscape has always suggested continuity, the idea of a landscape not made but inherited, inspired by late-Renaissance renderings of classical antiquity, by Claude, Poussin and Piranesi, by paintings and engravings of the sublime. Regent’s Park, surrounded by John Nash’s Roman-inspired circuses and grand avenues, belongs to this idea of the picturesque. It once housed a coliseum-shaped building to which visitors flocked to look at a painted panorama of London. It contains villas, lakes and cottages and is framed by the white pickets of classical columns as the animals in its zoo are contained by bars. And, in the Frieze Art Fair, the park has its circus, a tent which welcomes the world of art back into the landscape it once informed.

Frieze touches the ground lightly, though. It is there and then it is gone, leaving a patch of grass briefly free of the leaves which have begun to coat the park. The artist Simon Fujiwara was intrigued by this. What, he wondered, if the site revealed a hidden history? His installation at – or rather beneath – this year’s Frieze (wittily entitled “Frozen”) creates a landscape of memory, positing a lost civilisation which has been partially discovered. It is a spectacle every bit as provocative as the art so fleetingly on show above.

Fujiwara has constructed a series of archaeological digs beneath the floor, so that as you stroll through the fair you come across exposed fragments of a fictive city below. Actors playing archaeologists excavating the ruins reinforce the game; occasionally they make “finds”. Fujiwara has concocted a plan of this lost city which corresponds to the plan of the fair, its booths and aisles mirrored by buildings and streets, suggesting that the fair is a palimpsest in which the earlier layers of habitation show through.

I visited him in the grimy, cavernous Hackney garage-cum-studio in which the past was being fabricated. Fujiwara is a slight figure, puffing on a cigarette, darting around the half-completed scenarios. Around him, model makers are scattering earth and sculpting clay, creating mosaic pavements and planting artefacts. Fujiwara gestures towards a pair of near-life-size plaster Herculean figures supporting a pediment, traditionally classical except for their tumescent phalluses. “This is the city gate,” he tells me. “They’re supporting a frieze depicting figures arriving in the city by boat, tired and badly dressed, then leaving again debauched, exhausted, with slaves carrying their things.” Is it a Roman city, I ask. “It’s somewhere between 79 and 200AD,” he replies, “pre-Christian Roman. But it’s also a place of exchange and trade. It coincides with the Han dynasty in China – completely coincidentally – and the gates face the east, so it’s a little like me in its mix of east and west.” (Fujiwara, half-Japanese, half-English, was born and raised in London, and is now resident in Berlin and Mexico City.)

He takes me into the city. “The first site beyond the gate is the brothel,” he says. “Normally, archaeology is about finding a shoe and extrapolating a civilisation, but here we have the city and need to figure out what went on in it. At first they thought this was a coliseum, they found this helmet (he points to a new-looking artefact which hasn’t been “weathered” yet), but they realised it would have been useless to a gladiator, with those spikes sticking out, and they saw it was some kind of fetish object. And they might have realised how smart these people were, parodying their own blood sports in their sexual practices.”

We move towards the main square, a macellum, or marketplace, with a mosaic floor of repeating swastika motifs. “They represent change,” he says, not entirely convincingly. “And there are some items which will be ‘found’ by the archaeologists during the show: a Blitz-era teacup, a newspaper, and a number of cast brass hands, which suggest they were some kind of religious symbol.”

He shows me a skeleton, its skull penetrated by a sword. “This,” he says, with a half-smile, “is the artist. We know that there were no artists in Rome, only artisans, so this discovery of the artist may be an autobiographical detail. We also have to speculate on why he died. Was he murdered by another artist, jealous of his success, or did he become bored and complacent and kill himself?”

Then there is the patron; a woman, the details of her life are built in a complex layer of artefacts. There are fragments of correspondence between her and the ill-fated artist, spun into longing, loving letters. There are artfully arranged objects, jewellery, a cosmetic case, a hair clip. And there is a shoe stuffed into the skull’s maw. “She was killed by her own possessions,” he says, deadpan.

Finally, there is a “Death Diner”, a room full of bones, animal and human, tangled together in what appears to have been an obscene feast. “It implies that the ultimate luxury in this society was also the ultimate taboo: cannibalism.” This dig is, needless to say, situated beneath the Frieze fair’s dining room.

It is hard to imagine a more barbed narrative; a tale of decadence and debauchery aimed at the collectors at the fair. But then, this is a world which revels in the shock art of Paul McCarthy, Takashi Murakami or the Chapman brothers. Fujiwara’s decadent world of instant gratification is almost gentle in its long-dead antiquity. That, perhaps, is its point. “There is a suggestion that this site was excavated by the Victorians,” he posits, “but that they covered it up again. They couldn’t handle what they found, this gigantic masturbatory fantasy.” Ultimately, he says, “it’s all about the presentation of history, not the history itself, because the presentation is all we have.”

Fujiwara seems to want to penetrate the apparent superficiality of the contemporary art scene, revealing a world of Freudian fetish and fear. But what will happen to the work? I can’t think of a more deliberately site-specific installation. For the first time, Fujiwara seems lost for words. Then he smiles. “Do you want to buy it?”

Simon Fujiwara is the winner of the 2010 Cartier Award. The FT is a media partner of the Frieze Art Fair: October 14-17, Regent’s Park, London. To see a slideshow of the finished artwork, go to from Tuesday October 12.

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