Letter from LONDONby Sherman Sam
Frieze Art Fair at Regent’s Park, Zoo Art Fair at Burlington Gardens, ’07 Art Fair at The County Hall
It’s October again. Fall has finally arrived and so has the Frieze magazine crew with the 5th edition of its art fair road show. Once more, a blanket of excitement and anxiety descends over the town. Art fairs are vehicles of pure commerce, dragging the one aspect of the art world never meant to see the light of day entirely to the fore. Yet, like roadkill, our eyes are inexorably drawn in that direction.
Dave Hickey, one of this event’s star speakers, lamented over the hyper commercialization of our current art market. He described this moment as one of “raw, rapacious capitalism at its most fun.” Since there seems to be more artists interested in making money than making art, “you can do right by doing good,” meaning that there is no better time to “behave honestly, honourable and meticulously. If you want to be an icon of virtue” you would certainly stand out from the pack.
With these observations in mind, it seemed to me that the most commercial projects were, at least on the surface, the “purest” and even the more “critical” or ironic. Last year Jake and Dinos Chapman, London’s eternal teen-badboys, set up camp at the White Cube booth to paint portraits for “reasonable” sums of money, but this year in a neat inversion they offered to deface any pound notes with the Queen’s portrait for free. In a manner similar to their “rectifications” of Goya’s etchings, they “improved upon” the Queen’s face, but very appropriately did not autograph their handiwork. This intervention, however, was not as egalitarian as it might appear, as the duo seemed to only have set up shop during the VIP private view, thus privileging the well-to-do and well–connected once again.
While Jake and Dinos were hard at work at White Cube, across the corridor Gavin Brown had allowed Rob Pruitt to create a stand to out-shock the pair’s antics. It is a reconstruction of his 2000 installation, Flea Market. Laid out on foldout tables like your typical flea market, with brownies, bootlegs, vintage clothes, artists’ “editions” (my favourite being a box of Tony Oursler’s autographed remote controls—this must be the contemporary equivalent to Leonardo’s paintbrush)—drawings by other artists’ children, and Yoko Ono stamps, all available for sale at bargain basement prices. The Jeremy Deller poster in Arabic in the corner was even free. Pruitt himself had set up a stall to augment any money put before him. My £5 note had a speech bubble from the Queen saying, “Fuck the poor!” The next day you could have your Polaroid taken with Pruitt (dressed in a panda suit) by White Cube artist Sam Taylor-Wood. There is a cynicism to Pruitt’s piece but its participatory nature seemed both an apt critique (oblique though it is) and a decadent pleasure. Does this constitute art? Or even proper critique? Possibly. It definitely fulfils the Hickey quote that decorated the frieze magazine stand: “I would like to see some art that is courageously silly.” Maybe outrageously silly.
Perhaps nothing could be a more obvious statement of the commodification of the art object than Richard Prince’s car. Mounted on a revolving podium, complete with model in hot pants and bikini top, the bright yellow-orange 70s Dodge Challenger seemed better suited for a car showroom or an episode of Starsky and Hutch (though that was a Ford Torino; Prince’s filmic references are actually Two Lane Blacktop and Bullit) than at an art fair. This “work” was one of the Frieze Foundation’s commissions for the event. Perhaps it partly explains his interest in jokes, or maybe it is a statement about aesthetics. It is his car after all. Robert Irwin had famously driven a critic out into a desert to observe craftsmen hand-restoring cars, arguing that—at the time—this was a great Californian art form. I suspect that Prince is not quite espousing this particular notion, rather it is a sort of movable American readymade. Within the context of an art gallery or museum, I do not think that Untitled, 2007 would make much of a statement; however here at Frieze it offers an amusing Duchampian twist.
These interventions, and perhaps some of the Frieze Foundation’s commissions, provide a counterpoint to the unbridled consumerism. Still, the commercialism is inescapable, and even those of us who are not spending money turn into visual consumers. If you care for considered and sensitive artworks, the brash and speedy nature of an art fair generally does not provide the right scene. Instead, several booths that had been “curated” comprised a mini-exhibition within the fair, and were the more satisfying experiences. Last year, the ’06 Fair created a similar effect by inviting primarily artist-run spaces into an old school building, but this year it was the Zoo Art Fair (an invitational fair for younger galleries chosen by an independent selection committee drawn from critics and curators rather than dealers) that took the prize for the more engaging collection of booths, especially Ritter/Zamet’s narrow project space for Jennifer Evans and M+R’s organised series of performances/interventions by Nina Jan Beier and Marie Jan Lund. The Colony Gallery created a frieze from wood and cardboard upon which they hung artworks, while the artist-run space Associates turned their stand into a store or office—complete with doorway and door knocker (both artworks by Matthew Harrison).
For myself the two most interesting booths were the work of curators acting like artists. Raphael Gygax from the Migros Museum organised the stand of the artist-initiated gallery Freymond-Guth & Co with a series of “five obstructions” stencilled on the wall. The rules stated that no original art was to be displayed, instead photocopies stood in their place and could be sold (at the prices of the artworks), and a gift of an artwork “could” accompany each photocopy. The price for a Louise Bourgeois photocopy seemed very high to me, but then you might just get an original as a gift!
’07 Art Fair at
The County Hall
The Fair Gallery at Frieze provided an even more collaborative concept. A project between four galleries—GB Agency (Paris), Hollybush Gardens (London), Jan Mot Gallery (Brussels) and Raster (Warsaw)—it was curated by Aurélie Voltz with invited artists. Double Fond looked like the front room of a house: a closet in the corner, a chair by the wall, a painting, a shelf full of coins, even a modern carpet with circular patterns. With its combination of sensationalism, pretense and artistic intervention, Voltz’s installation turned the stand into an Alice in Wonderland experience. Inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of space, she selected objects that were loaded with significant purpose but resembled domestic objects. It had a relatively quiet presence. Kathrin Sonntag’s installation at first glance appears to be a closet in the corner, but in fact it hides a room showing a Super8 film of a magic act. A bookcase by Rafal Bujnowski was designed after those belonging to Pope John Paul II, while a black, Calder-like mobile by Mario Garcia Torres hangs over a child’s cot (by Deimantas Narkevicius) filled with paraffin. The floor is covered by a rug with evenly cut holes; this is to expose a false floor that turns out to be a Pierre Bismuth intended to remind us of the artifice of the situation. Finally, Roman Ondák ’s performance with a mother teaching her child to walk serves to distract viewers during their stride from booth to booth, a moment of love glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. A moment to slow us down—what more could you hope for at an art fair.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.