All the fun of the fair

Frieze Art Fair, London – October 2012, Regent's Park

Frieze Art Fair, London

Art fairs are exhausting. There’s no avoiding the fact that gathering that much art in one place is never going to lead to an especially relaxed viewing experience. But then that’s also what makes art fairs a great chance to see a lot of art in a short space of time. So, in an optimistic frame of mind and my most sensible shoes I headed to Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park. As if one art fair wasn’t enough, this year Frieze has grown a second space and a new entity, Frieze Masters, for art made before the year 2,000. In the interests of keeping art overload to reasonable levels I find I need to take things a day, and a fair, at a time, so Frieze Masters will have to wait. As it happens, so will the sculpture garden. Somehow, despite good intentions, once I get in the tent that houses Frieze, I seem unable to leave until required to do so at the end of the day. Having seen more art in a day than I normally would in a month – and by any standards, I see a lot of art – still I leave with the feeling that I have barely scratched the surface.

Thomas Bayrle, Sloping Loafers/Smooth, 2012

Thomas Bayrle, Sloping Loafers/Smooth, 2012 (detail, part of one of the Frieze Projects)

Though Frieze is all about the market, space is given over to new galleries and there are also commissioned works (and talks, though I’m generally not organised enough to get to those) in the form of Frieze Projects which are often the works that stay with me longest (certainly Pierre Huyghe’s Recollection which was one of the first things I wrote about here is one of the things I remember best about last year’s Frieze).

So what of this year’s fair? This is the tenth year of Frieze and in that time what’s come to be known as Frieze Week has become the key focus of the London art calendar. With the eyes of the art world on London, this is the time of year that major galleries open new spaces (think, amongst others, Hauser and Wirth’s Savile Row spaces in 2010, or the arrival of David Zwirner in London this year). In a way of course, this all adds to the corporate feel of Frieze; it’s this aspect – the annual reminder of the commerce that underpins the art world – that I tend to struggle with. I see exhibitions in commercial galleries all the time, but seeing so many galleries gathered together in the same place at the same time is always somewhat sobering even if Frieze Frame (galleries set up since 2001) and Frieze Focus (galleries set up in the last six years, each showing a single artist’s work) offset the corporate feel of the big players somewhat.

On the whole, although I found a lot to like this year (indeed, I’m sure a string of posts about work I saw there will follow this one) there was probably rather more that either didn’t hold my attention or held it in entirely the wrong way. As is often the case, the big name galleries really aren’t where the most exciting work is to be found. In a way perhaps that’s inevitable; it’s the unexpected finds by artists I’m not as familiar with that I’m here for, not yet another glossy Gary Hume. The art fair format brings the strength of some gallery lists into sharp focus – in this respect, for me at least, the likes of White Cube and Gagosian have nothing on Frith Street or Anthony Reynolds or Glasgow’s Modern Institute (though the fact that pretty much every Turner Prize shortlist now includes at least one Modern Institute artist was always a clue there).

Jenny Holzer, Blast, 2012

Jenny Holzer, Blast, 2012 (texts: Living, 1980-82; Survival, 1983-85 and Erlauf, 1995)

I’m never very sure what makes art fairs work. Faced with wall to wall art as far as the eye can see, how collectors decide what to buy baffles me. Often the works that assert themselves most strongly visually do so in a rather off-putting way; I almost always like Jenny Holzer’s work, but Blast, on show on the Sprüth Magers stand, is too shiny for its own good in my opinion. Bling as art is seldom appealing. Very often art I would happily spend an age with in a gallery or a museum leaves me cold when surrounded by so much else. But of course in the brashness of the art fair environment is a difficult one for all but the showiest works to hold their own; in this respect it’s perhaps telling that it’s often the moving image works or installations shown in their own spaces that I remember the longest. I’m also a sucker for art that makes me laugh; Tim Parchikov’s unexpectedly violent video work in which four snowmen get attacked by an axe-wielding shirtless man is something I think I’ll be smiling about for a long while to come.

Frieze Art Fair and Frieze Masters are in Regent’s Park, London until Sunday 14 October 2012. 

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