Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button

Close Encounters


by Linda Yablonsky
Share |

The Frieze Art Fair takes place each October in central London, under a very big tent in Regent's Park. The 2011 edition, the fair's ninth, accommodated 173 galleries, and from the Oct. 12 VIP preview through the Oct. 16 close, 60,000 visitors passed through. It's anyone's guess how much money changed hands -- with those numbers, presumably quite a lot. Despite the sinking global economy, there is money for art in London. There is also art for money.

At Frieze, Michael Landy and Christian Jankowski presented projects that made that point crystal clear. Landy is the YBA who publicly destroyed all his possessions in 2001-- more than 7,000 items, everything inventoried beforehand -- in a giant machine he built for the purpose, as a site-specific project for Artangel.

What a difference a decade makes. Landy brought a new, more Tinguely-like machine to London dealer Thomas Dane's stand at Frieze. This crowd-pleaser, a 12-foot-tall assemblage of saws, animal skulls, hand puppets and countless gears, destroyed credit cards proffered by game collectors. In return, each received a drawing in marker made on the spot by the same machine, but signed by the artist. (The machine was priced at $189,000. No word on any takers.)

Jankowski's readymade sculpture was even more absurd. One of nine commissions for Frieze Projects, a nonprofit (ha!) program curated by the Frieze Foundation's Sarah McCrory, it was actually an Aquariva Cento speedboat that was dry-docked beside the model of a Ferretti super-yacht, the kind super-rich collectors parked in front of the Giardini during opening week of the current Venice Biennale -- Jankowski's inspiration for the project.

Both boats were for sale, either as personal sailing vessels or as Christian Jankowski artworks -- lusting collectors had their choice. (For the speedboat, the price was £500,000; as an artwork, it went up to £650,000. The built-to-order yacht was going for €65 million; as a certified Jankowski, it would cost €75 million.)

A salesman from Ferretti, trained by the artist, was on hand to make the pitch either way. "Only by completing the deal does the artwork exist," Jankowski said. At this writing, it is still a boat. And Frieze is still a marketplace, though I did appreciate the attempt to provide commentary and context for the fair's vast expanse of art merchandise. And humor is always welcome when serious money is afloat.

Still, salesmanship is the name of the game at an art fair, where the best art is the art that sells itself. Evidently, that was the case at the front-and-center Gagosian Gallery stand, which was wrapped in posters gathered by Franz West. The artist was also represented by a pink, raised-finger bronze, a smaller version of the one he made for Venice. It sold early on, as did a Dan Colen painting that featured a supermarket cart and went for a good six figures.

Also at Gagosian, a fetching wall work of bulging ceramic pots by Piotr Uklanski was priced at $150,000. An equally effulgent red-on-black resin painting by Uklanski held a wall at the booth of Milan dealer Massimo de Carlo, who was offering as well a palm tree-on-bathroom tile painting by Rashid Johnson and a cartoony Kaari Upson drawing that amounted to an exegesis of her work to date.

Though Gavin Brown's enterprise won the fair's award for best booth with a clean, straightforward hang, I pegged Greene Naftali's for the most colorful presentation. Anchored by a red, white and blue flying-drawing-table construction by Guyton/Walker, it showed a silvery, Jacqueline Humphries painting that is among her best yet, a terrific Rachel Harrison amalgamation, and a wall of monochrome paintings by Paul Chan that used old books as canvases. "It's about the ambiguity of knowledge," Carol Greene explained.

Dealers trade in information, and like everyone else, I went not just to look at art but to talk about it. Conversation is what rules an art fair, which is just another word for social networking, allowing people who might envy or despise each other in normal circumstances to bond over art. The passion grows in the aisles and spreads via daily after-fair dinners and inebriating parties, where the discussion continues, and deals are consummated, alliances are created, and opportunities for further discussion crop up.

Talk, as the one of the Sunday papers would note, is the new art form, and London was full of it. The fair hosted its own series of artist conversations, while at the ICA, Paul Chan had a face-off with Museum Ludwig director Kasper Koenig. Artist and filmmaker Duncan Campbell appeared at Hotel Gallery's new Herald Street space (Wolfgang Tillmans' former studio) for a discussion of European economic theory with author John Lanchester that was as stimulating as Campbell's postcard-based film about German economist Hans Tietmeyer was engrossing.

And at the Serpentine Gallery, co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist hosted his annual Frieze weekend marathon, an avant-garde variety show of brief lectures and performances. It really should be televised, though I'm not sure that Rodney Graham's lobbing of potatoes at a gong would be as edifying on the small screen as it was in person.

In fact, what Frieze has going for it is London, where exhibitions in museums and nonprofit spaces opening at the same time lend some welcome depth to the homogenizing effect of sheer commerce.

Tate Modern had Gerhard Richter and Tacita Dean. The Serpentine had films by Anri Sala. The Hayward Gallery had retrospectives for Pipilotti Rist and George Condo, the Whitechapel Gallery featured Wilhelm Sasnal, and the Camden Arts Centre had new videos by Nathalie Djurberg, who went all out at the fair and installed her furry, fantastically grotesque plasticine puppet sculptures in the stand of Gio Marconi from Milan.

If I had been a buyer at Frieze, I might have gone for an untitled abstract painting by Glaswegian Cathy Wilkes, a beauty that The Modern Institute sold easily for £15,000. I also liked Ryan Gander's Self-Portrait, a spread of palette-like glass discs bearing paint smears, that Lisson Gallery sold for £60,000.

But I was most intrigued by a Richard Wentworth book sculpture trailing audio tape and ribbons and placed high up on a mirrored shelf in the same booth -- the only work in it that didn't find a buyer. "There were conservation concerns," said Lisson's Nicholas Logsdail. 

No such issues came up at Hollybush Gardens' booth, where a long scroll of cheap paper marked with council-flat coal dust by Knut Henrikson was selling to DIY-minded collectors who relished the chance to recreate it themselves as soon as the paper disintegrated.

That and the Landy and Jankowski gestures aside, however, daring was not in the fair's character. Not that it ever can be when the stakes are high, though that seems all the more reason for dealers to be bold.

A twisted Madonna and Child painting and sculpture by Jake & Dinos Chapman, at the entrance to White Cube's booth, was about as radical as anyone got, but it wasn't half as compelling as Miroslaw Balka's skull-like glass rock encased in rusted wire, a work from 2007, in the same booth. Nor was it as sexy as Tillmans' big blue abstract C-print at Maureen Paley's stand, where it sold for $78,000.

But who cares about prices when there are discoveries to be made? That was the draw for the Sunday fair, Oct. 13-16, 2011, an unpretentious satellite show of 20 young galleries organized by Limoncello Gallery director Rebecca May Marston. As the fair was located in the bowels of a university basement, finding it alone was an adventure. Inside, its open plan strongly resembled New York's Independent fair, with overlapping presentations and friendly young dealers eager to do the required duty -- talk about the art.

But what brought it all back home were the four elevating gouaches of plastic bottles and glassware by Allyson Vieria offered by Lower East Side dealer Laurel Gitlen. For me, they were the art highlight of the week, exciting enough to make me wish for $4,500 to burn.

Just goes to show: when it's truth and beauty you want, look first in your own backyard. Come May, that's where Frieze reappears next -- on Randall's Island in the East River. How well it makes the transfer to the shores of New York is open to question.

Let's talk.

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.