As British bigwigs at the Frieze Art Fair raved, "This fair changes everything! The city's not just an art capital but a major market force now," I kept thinking, "Let's not get carried away. This is just an art fair." Yet the event had a real buzz about it. It was organized by Frieze magazine's ultra-savvy founders, Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, who excel at boldly jump-starting situations with a mix of smartness and sexiness. The four-day fest, staged in an enormous, swanky tent in London's tony Regent's Park, was crawling with collectors, dealers and curators. It made me think that those bigwigs were onto something: London did seem different, or at least it had the potential to be.
Then, skeptical of the hype, I turned paranoid. All this, I reasoned, was an elaborate bait-and-switch operation where what seemed to be happening in front of me was actually a cover for something else. Maybe it was all the money changing hands. Or perhaps I was just resentful. After all, the advantage and disadvantage of London's art world have always been the same: its smallness. On the downside, English art can be insular and provincial, which is why much of it doesn't travel well and why British kerfuffles seem so silly to us. On the upside, the British art world sees itself as a single organism -- a sort of giant, palpitating queen termite that regularly defends itself against a marauding tabloid press. The fair, like the London art world, was based on a very British model: the club. Sharp and Slotover handpicked a committee of hip gallerists to choose 120 other galleries. This, the organizers claimed, assured "curatorial focus." Although most art fairs are assembled this way, the Frieze fair -- skewed as it was toward emerging artists -- felt hipper than most. The approach was clubby, but it did keep the crap quotient low.
Outside the bubble of the fair, the British scene is gradually growing more diverse, and a bevy of international dealers have established or are planning to open spaces in London. Nevertheless, the current crop of gallery shows -- with notable exceptions like Paul McCarthy, Slater Bradley, Cheyney Thompson, Doug Aitken and a young Mexican artist named Dr. Lakra -- ranges from ho-hum (Andreas Slominski) to bogus (Bill Viola). More indicative of the change going on in London was how depleted the old-school YBA art looked at the recently opened Saatchi Gallery and in three solo shows of original "sensation generation" artists, Gillian Wearing, Damien Hirst and Fiona Rae. Much of the art at the Saatchi space looked stuck in some neo-Pop/Dada time warp where the controversies have all been forgotten. Elsewhere around town, Wearing's photographic transformations of herself into various family members were mildly entertaining but too Sherman-esque; Hirst's exhibition -- a combination of the Mtter Museum and Joseph Cornell consisting of cow heads in vitrines and bloody medicine cabinets stocked with scientific paraphernalia -- was god-awful; and the always academic Rae looked even more so in abstract paintings composed of smears, letters and other painterly marks.
The best way to understand the change taking place in London is to think about what's not going on: scandal. Although Jake and Dinos Chapman's realistic sculpture of two bronze blow-up dolls engaged in mutual oral sex, unveiled last week in the Turner Prize exhibition, is sure to raise a ruckus, a new generation of British artists appears to be turning away from the shock tactics of yesteryear. Evidence of this is at the Tate Modern, which, despite the insipid thematic installation of its permanent collection, is settling in nicely and looking good. The change I was sensing was most obvious in people's reaction to a very theatrical, somewhat sentimental, but nonetheless enthralling work by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson in the museum's gigantic Turbine Hall.
The Weather Project, as Eliasson calls it, looks like an enormous glowing sun, and features a huge yellow-orange, semicircular disc of low-sodium lights hung behind a translucent screen that turns into a full sphere via a fully mirrored ceiling. As this radiant planet hovers in midair, reality and illusion, inside and outside, merge. It's a high-tech mirage by way of religious icons, landscape painting, neon signs, and ads for island paradises. More than 100,000 visitors stared in wonder at Eliasson's piece (many lying on the floor, basking in its aura) in the first week it was on display.
It occurred to me that the British art public wasn't caught up in subject matter and sensationalism, so much as sensation itself; they were having the experience of looking at, rather than reacting against, art. It's a festival-ready production, to be sure, but The Weather Project is nevertheless primarily visual and abstract. Until recently the English art world has been event-driven, careening between brouhahas. Plainly, the Frieze Art Fair was an event, but it was an art-driven one, albeit rife with carousing and cash. Next year, it will undoubtedly be bigger; more galleries and museums will synchronize their shows with it; and young artists will mount guerrilla exhibitions. This should shake things up even more. If London can keep its sense of smallness without being small about it, and dispense with some of the hysteria and theatricality, this scene may have a more vital and permanent international presence than it's ever had.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.