I'll Have a Koons, Please: The Current State of Frieze

Andrew B. Myers

When it launched 12 years ago, the Frieze art fair energized London's bustling art scene. Today, it's a lavish blue-chip affair. Whatever happened to the avant-garde?

Every year during the second week of October thousands of people from all over the world descend on London to participate in a uniquely exhausting trial of stamina. Their task? To see all that is to be seen, and hence to fathom the baffling profundities of global contemporary art, during what has come to be known simply as “Frieze Week.” They will run their race not on the streets of the city but within the cloistered arena of the Frieze festival tentage: hundreds of square meters of interconnected marquees laid out in Regent’s Park, within which many of the world’s leading galleries of contemporary art—ranging, this year, from Marianne Boesky Gallery, in New York, to Gagosian Gallery, in London, to Antenna Space, in Shanghai—set out their stalls. 

Frieze is perhaps the most glamorous and certainly the most exquisitely pretentious trade fair ever to have been spawned by the mighty Mammon of global capitalism. The goods on offer, which might range from a few acres of oil painting by the likes of Anselm Kiefer to Damien Hirst’s latest assortment of pickles, are seldom cheap. But that is precisely the appeal of Frieze to the high-net-worth individuals who constitute its target market: After all, what could be more exclusive than a shop where 99 percent of the items for sale are only affordable to one hundredth of one percent of the human race? The VIP areas of the Frieze tents are some of the best places in the world to see people swooning with self-satisfaction as they sip their complimentary Champagne Pommery. 

Cofounded in 2003 by frieze magazine editors Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, the Frieze art fair has already become a pillar of the art market. (In 2012, Frieze also launched a New York offshoot and a historical art fair, called Frieze Masters.) It is no secret that contemporary art, or at least that part of it produced by a small, Midas-gifted minority, has become Very Big Business in recent years; the skyrocketing stock of the sector may be gauged from the fact that the works of even such an indubitably minor painter as Peter Doig now routinely change hands for many millions of pounds each. No one knows quite how vast are the amounts of capital exchanged during Frieze week, but circumstantial evidence suggests they must be mind-boggling. 

Victoria Siddall, who took over directorship of Frieze from Slotover and Sharp this year, admits as much when pointing out the merely ancillary economic benefits to London of hosting the event: “Last year we calculated that people who came to the art fair spent 49 million pounds in the city: hotels, restaurants, shopping, taxis, et cetera.” If that is the sum spent just on the peripherals—the food, the frippery, and the fetching to and fro—goodness knows how much is expended on the main attraction itself. 

here are Those Who Go to Sell (the dealers) and Those Who Go to Buy (the collectors). But they are far outnumbered by Those Who Go to Gawk. Many are members of the general public, drawn by the peculiar buzz and frisson and strangeness of it all (a sculpture made out of what look like pipe cleaners by a German artist with an unpronounceable name, on sale for a million? Really?) Others are art students, to whom a generously reduced price of admission is afforded, and who come, presumably, in the hope of picking up pointers: clues to the climb that faces them, up the daunting mountain of career success. Still others again are sundry art professionals, many of them curators, like the irrepressibly optimistic Hans-Ulrich Obrist, curator of London’s Serpentine Gallery, who sees Frieze above all as a catalyst—not necessarily a revelation in itself, but an annual injection of creative and emotional energy into one of the world’s most vibrant capitals. 

“Until Frieze, this idea of a regular rendezvous, where many people in the art world would congregate in London at a particular moment—well that just wasn’t there,” says Obrist. “People might start with Frieze and then discover more of the city—and they find out that London is a kind of archipelago where what is really most interesting might be happening in Peckham or Croydon, or even in a town outside, like Brighton.” 

Much of Frieze’s success has been built on precisely this narrative about London as a new kind of intoxicatingly eccentric, decentered capital of culture, a city of artists working outside the mainstream, swimming against the tide and into the future.

Whether or not that narrative is actually true anymore is debatable. Emerging artists are relegated to a section of the fair called FOCUS, but the fact remains that because Frieze is essentially a trade event, run for blue-chip contemporary-art galleries selling objects for eye-watering sums of money, it is not a natural home for new or untried talents. The commercial galleries that show there have to pay so much in rent, transport, and other overheads that they tend to exhibit work only by their most established artists. Even the type of work they show is constrained by commercial imperatives. Sellable objects, meaning paintings or sculptures, predominate over the more arcane or rebarbative creations of video artists, performance artists, and installationists. So it is in with Jeff Koons’s shiny bunny rabbits and out with bafflingly odd interventions of a site-specific nature addressing issues of race and gender—and possibly looking, or smelling, as such works often do, a bit horrible. 

One of the biggest challenges faced by the fair in recent years has been that of furnishing its tented modern-art marketplace with at least an aura of whatever passes nowadays as the avant-garde. As Frieze Fairs director Siddall remarks, “We noticed that galleries rarely bring any performance-based works, so we have addressed that by introducing noncommercial programming of our own.” The organizers are giving free space this year to six galleries that will show interactive art or performance art, the kind rarely seen in such fairs. For example, the Brazilian artist Tunga will reenact an old piece of his in which a pair of 11- or 12-year-old twins with very long hair will walk round the fair with their hair braided together. “They are like Siamese twins joined at the hair. It’s quite a spectral sight,” says Siddall. “We’ll also have an artist called Ken Kagami from Tokyo. He’ll be seated at a desk, drawing portraits. The portraits have a twist, though. If you’re a man he draws your penis, if you’re a woman he draws your vagina, and then he gives you your portrait. We don’t want to publicize that too much in advance, because it’s meant to be a nice surprise. Or not.” 

The woman in charge of trying to make sure such interventions do not go off at half cock is Nicola Lees, this year’s curator of Frieze Projects. Other noncommercial initiatives to take place under her guidance will include

the entrance corridor to the fair itself, to be created by the elusive female American artist Lutz Bacher. As Lees explains, “You’ll walk through some butcher’s curtains reminiscent of New York nightclubs in the ’80s in the Meatpacking District, to enter the fair. And then, because she spends a lot of time buying or reclaiming parts of B-movie sets, we’ll be reinstalling 50 panels of a corridor from a movie set, and she will be creating a whole environment for people to walk through. It will be quite minimal, with black walls, a black floor, a black ceiling...” Elsewhere, a collective called ÅYR, a group of expatriate Neapolitan architects now working in London, will be creating a “secret space within the fair, which will be a little like walking into a David Lynch movie,” and Jeremy Herbert, a set designer at London’s Old Vic theater, will be tunneling out a subterranean space beneath Regent’s Park “intended to evoke his experience of visiting Egyptian tombs in the Valley of the Kings in 1984,” according to Lees. 

To recap, Frieze 2015 will feature: an entirely black entrance hall, an experience from a horror movie, and a crypt of morbid Egyptian-necropolis memories. It hardly sounds very cheerful, and seems to suggest some kind of half-suppressed masochistic desire on the part of the fair’s organizers themselves—a perverse longing to shift the very focus of Frieze visitors away from a cornucopia of consumables to reflections on death. The worm in the apple? Dutch still life painters of the 17th century did something similar when they placed skulls, guttering candles, and other symbols of mortality on tables loaded with fish, fruit, and game. 

So what does Frieze, in its modern manifestation, most truly symbolize? According to the long-established rhetoric of the show, it continues to cement London’s newfound ascendancy as, if not the center, then one of the centers of global art. But that seemed a lot truer in 2003, when the fair started, than it does now. Back then, the energy of the original Young British Artist generation—Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, Michael Landy, and their peers—was still just about palpable in the London air. These days, it is much less in evidence. Real live young artists are getting thinner and thinner on the ground in London. Studio rents in even the most down-at-heel parts of the city have risen to the point where they are simply unaffordable. The kinds of warehouses where Hirst and his contemporaries staged their groundbreaking shows of the late ’80s and ’90s have been turned into luxury apartments for City types. The kinds of commercial buildings that new galleries like City Racing could once rent for 100 pounds a month have been pushed further and further east, or have disappeared altogether, absorbed into the fabric of the money-spinning megalopolis that London has allowed itself to become. 

And the one type of person you will not bump into at Frieze, because they do not qualify for the same discounts as art students do, is an actual practicing would-be up-and-coming artist—for the simple reason that they could never afford the $50 ticket, plus transport. The truth is that London is no longer a great place in which to make art, and has become instead a place in which to buy it, in fact quite possibly the favorite shopping destination of super-rich collectors—although whether that will actually last, once the super-rich cotton on to the fact that their money and influence has drained the city of the energy that drew them there in the first place, remains to be seen. The frenzy that still surrounds Frieze may prove to be the last spasm of an impulse that has almost run its course. None of that is reason not to enjoy a visit. It is certainly worth gawking at. 

Photograph styled by Andrew B. Myers