Frieze Art Fair special: a whirl of its own

When does an art fair resemble the throbbing pink of a mobile phone concept store? When it is Frieze – opening on Thursday and demanding, if you want a ticket, that you queue in a loud, confusing oblong tent, adorned with functionless gadgets and what artist Matthew Darbyshire calls “buzzy accents and terminology”.

The tent is Darbyshire’s “Everything Everywhere: A Ticketing Experience for Frieze Art Fair 2010”, which remodels Frieze’s ticket booth as a T-mobile shop and – since there is no other way to enter the fair – makes every visitor instantly a participant in a work of performance art.

Darbyshire says his piece, one of nine commissioned for Frieze Projects, the fair’s non-selling arm, is a take on life as “one big corporatised cultural nightmare – akin to the Ballardian vision of shopping malls”. Darbyshire is highlighting what a vulgar souk an art fair is: selling commodities as disposable and replaceable as mobile phones, to customers ready to shell out for the newest brand, the instantly recognisable, high-status models.

At Frieze this year, according to your budget, those could be an elongated nude on canvas, “Mademoiselle” by John Currin (Gagosian Gallery), a two-metre fibreglass flower painted with Yayoi Kusama’s trademark dots (Victoria Miro), a photograph of a man’s neck by Wolfgang Tillmans (Maureen Paley), or a pencil drawing for Charles Avery’s epic series “The Island” (Galleria Sonia Rosso).

Frieze has always thrived on sending itself up. Playing with illusions of immediacy and collapsibility, its very structure – a flimsy tent – jests with its position at the pinnacle of the establishment cultural calendar. In 2007 visitors were greeted by Richard Prince’s Dodge Challenger luxury car rotating on a mirrored showroom platform, parodying and enhancing the shine and excess of the fair. Routinely, artists offering wares – from Bert Rodriguez’s foot massages (2008) to Tracey Emin’s custom-made neon signs (2009) – ridicule yet profit from the market system under the same roof that showcases the world’s leading galleries effecting their most lucrative deals.

That delirium of irony flatters every category of visitor: the international collectors, dealers, artists, curators who converge here from across the world, and the majority, who come as spectators of both art and people. Frieze’s mix of self-mockery and contemporary chic is embodied in the view from Regent’s Park: Darbyshire’s pink tent alongside the Buckminster Fuller-esque geodesic dome that is Frieze’s temporary cinema, designed by architects Caruso St John. The pairing makes a stunning, surreal outdoor still life – cool and stylish. But inside, the point is the whiff of dissent. It is a tightrope act unimaginable at either of Frieze’s art fair rivals, gaudy Miami or stiff Basel, but emblematic of London’s freewheeling cultural approach.

The fair’s mood of controlled anarchy is masterminded with particular care this year within Frieze Projects, curated by Sarah McCrory. Even before you enter Darbyshire’s tent, you might stumble across Ei Arakawa and Karl Holmqvist’s “pOEtry pArk”, a temporary camp on Regent’s Park offering “poetry-related” performances, “communing with the elements and hugging trees”, according to Holmqvist, which “look for a type of confirmation other than that of monetary exchange”. Similarly, Nick Relph’s invitation to selected artists to design donation boxes for a charity of their choosing aims to contrast the display of modest amounts of physical cash, collected in the boxes installed across the fair, with the millions of “invisible” money acquired daily by the galleries. Dotted outside, meanwhile, Gabriel Kuri’s painted metal sculptures replace the fair’s outdoor ashtrays: Kuri says he is “creating shapes that are hard-edged, clean-cut and monochromatic but that invite this inevitably dirty and smelly form of intervention”. Will they be more or less valuable after four days’ worth of cigarette butts?

What all these works share too, McCrory insists, is “an element of performativity”. Spartacus Chetywnd is choreographing an outlandish fancy-dress live game show involving teams made up from Frieze visitors (“The Oppressed Purée” versus “Women Who Refuse To Grow Old”).

Jeffrey Vallance presents an audience question-and-answer session involving psychic mediums who will channel the spirits of Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gogh, Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock, and express the view-from-the-dead of today’s art market. Annika Strom proposes that “Ten Embarrassed Men” distribute alternative guides to the fair and offer bespoke tours.

All these contribute to the sense of Frieze as a self-enclosed world, with its own rules, language, hierarchies (the bigger, more powerful galleries occupy the central aisles), shops and bars – Frieze even publishes it own daily newspaper. This is surely what Simon Fujiwara, inspired winner of this year’s Cartier Award, is alluding to in “Frozen”, his installation of fictional archaeological digs that implies there is a lost city underneath the Regent’s Park site, with its own distinctive spaces – an artist’s studio, a brothel, a cemetery – and artefacts revealing a forgotten civilisation.

“The structure of Frieze Art Fair is similar in many ways to that of a Roman town plan: it has axial streets, booths that are close in scale and form to Roman houses, open public areas and even auditoriums and theatres,” Fujiwara says. Within this self-sufficient fantasy world, he wittily and poignantly contemplates the fetishisation of art objects on which Frieze depends.

An art market so potent that it makes one little room an everywhere is alluring. It is also limiting. It is a truism that at Frieze you rarely make discoveries; rather, fashions and trends are confirmed and consolidated, and the accent on conceptual art is overwhelming. Artists tell me each year at Frieze how hard it is amid the conceptual clamour to find works of imagination, individuality, those evoking solitary attempts in the studio to find meaning and expression.

Frieze Projects gives the appearance of challenging the fair’s market-driven impetus; it in fact underlines the conceptual jargon, and by providing the buzz of activities that draw you in, gives you a role in the ongoing generalised performance piece “The Art World”. For Frieze not only places itself beyond criticism because it is so financially successful: it is a crowd-puller by being above all about spectacle and participation.

“If you go shopping now, it’s a retail experience; if you go to Tate Modern, it’s easy to envisage the T-mobile dance happening in the Turbine Hall,” says Darbyshire. As art becomes entertainment, its buying and selling, the activities of leading dealers and collectors such as Larry Gagosian and Charles Saatchi become part of that display. Frieze lays bare our fascination with the relationship between art, money and celebrity honestly and seductively.

It is a class act, its momentum so powerful that Frieze now calls the tune for London’s annual art calendar. Commercial galleries and auction houses tie their activities to Frieze, but even leading museums open their key exhibitions in Frieze week: from Tate’s unveiling of Ai Wei Wei’s installation for its Unilever Series to the National Gallery’s Canaletto exhibition. Public spaces benefit from the Frieze effect, too: visitors encountering the eclectic work of Adel Abdessemed, for example, at David Zwirner’s stand at the fair might make the trip to the artist’s solo show at Parasol Unit; Lisson’s Frieze showing of Angela de la Cruz draws attention to her work in Tate Britain’s Turner Prize exhibition.

When Frieze was launched in 2003, it was unimaginable that within a few years Tate and the National Gallery would be in thrall to an art fair. Art’s bargain with commerce, of course, is age-old, but only in the democratised 21st century has it evolved from a behind-the-scenes affair to a centre-stage attraction. Recent events and exhibitions such as Damien Hirst’s 2008 Sotheby’s sale “Beautiful Inside My Head” and Tate Modern’s “Pop Life: Art in a Material World” last year marked that shift. Frieze does better: it shows, not tells, the global art world at work and at play, and invites everyone to join in – a project as disconcerting as it is irresistible.

Frieze Art Fair runs October 14-17.

For Edwin Heathcote’s article on the making of Simon Fujiwara’s ‘Frozen’, and a slideshow of the finished work, go to

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