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Frieze Projects 2012

by Emily Nathan
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The New York version of the Frieze Art Fair, May 4-7, 2012, only opened to the public this morning, and already it has garnered its share of complaints. Sprawled across from the Harlem Mall on Randall’s Island in the East River, a 20-minute ferry ride from Manhattan’s Murray Hill, it’s expensive -- $40, tickets online only! -- hard to get to, smells a bit like sewage, and inside it’s pretty much art-fair-as-usual.

But if you’re not there to buy, Frieze Projects -- an annual program of artist commissions curated this year by Cecilia Alemani, the new director of High Line Art -- makes the trip worthwhile. These eight installations and performances by John Ahearn, Uri Aran, Virginia Overton, Ulla von Branderburg, Rick Moody, Joel Kyack, Tim Rollins and K.O.S., and Latifa Echakhch, all but one of which are located outside the big white tent, are scattered about the island like lost children, unmanned by guards and appealingly lacking the mercenary energy of eager dealers.

Instead they require a little hunting, which gives them a wild, living feeling -- art to be experienced outside, far from the art-fair bustle of number-crunching and negotiations. In that critical spirit, the Israeli-born, New York-based artist Uri Aran (b. 1977) has taken over one of the more iconic landmarks on the island, an abandoned ticket stand by the pier, to stage Untitled (Ticket Shack), a delightful satire about the expectations of authority.

Having transformed the tiny shack into a makeshift examination room, Aran has jammed inside a cast of eight or so actors, including a drummer, a trumpeter and a flautist, who play live music throughout, all dressed as doctors and nurses. Viewers watch the action while standing outside, glimpsing what they can through two dirty panes of glass. The script consists exclusively of one phrase, “I am a nurse, I am an engineer,” which the actors repeat when prompted by Aran, who, wearing all black and a pair of gloves, moves toward, around and away from the shack, directing his actors through the window like a conductor at the stand.

Inside, a strangely serene hilarity ensues. A child begins with his back to the viewers as a white coat pokes and prods him, lifts his arms and lets them fall -- an amusing parody of a check-up. Soon, the child begins playing the doctor, adopting his gestures and reducing the doctor to the patient. Along with the surrounding nurses, who stand staring blankly out at the audience or busy themselves with ridiculous tasks, like carefully arranging dog biscuits along the structure’s dirty ledge, the pair continues to volley that phrase -- “I am a nurse, I am an engineer” -- back and forth.

The meaninglessness of the proclamation, and the emptiness of what it connotes, are painfully evident. The musicians strike up the band, play a jolly tune, fade out, then begin again; Aran beckons the flautist to step outside and he turns to face the actors inside, performing for the performers, before joining them again.

A sense of absurdity reigns, Ionesco-like in the reduction of a familiar and established power dynamic to a farce. The show ends without announcement; the audience doesn’t know whether to clap, or to leave, or to wait -- another well-rehearsed system flipped upside-down -- and the awkward silence, the joke on us, is the perfect encore.

Aran’s affecting dramatic momentum is maintained across a gravel road next to the ferry dock, where Paris-based German artist Ulla von Brandenburg (b. 1974) has installed a small theater inside a striped circus tent. Projected on a wall in the dark room, which is equipped with six wooden benches and a handful of laminated librettos, SHADOWPLAY draws on the traditions of the commedia dell’arte, burlesque and 19th-century Parisian shadow plays. On screen, the silhouettes of two men and a woman sing melancholy, operatic strains about lost love in German while they perform a romantic tragedy that ends in a duel. The visual effect of their shadowy movements is hypnotic, and the music is a striking accompaniment; it’s a winning, sincere performance.

Other Frieze Projects require less concentration. Moroccan artist Latifa Echakhch (b. 1974) has transformed a lush expanse of sweeping green grass behind the big tent into an idiosyncratic landscape dappled with tumbleweeds. It is an elegant, restrained gesture, one which is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention, though blaringly wrong once you notice it. Felix Mendelssohn’s 1828 composition to accompany Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream explodes from speakers installed under Tim Rollins and K.O.S.’ shady canopy, where they have created an open painting workshop for children, inspired by the play.

Los Angeles-based artist Joel Kyack’s cynical Most games are lost, not won is a country-fair game trailer, good humouredly parked across from a fancy Van Leeuwen ice-cream truck, which he has turned into a giant body. One game takes place in the trailer’s “mouth” and the other in its “ribcage,” and though most won’t win, Kyack says it’s about “leveling the idea of acquisition.” Thus his games’ prizes, presumably -- a series of full-length mirrors on which he has painted an isolated function of the human body, from fallopian tubes and a uterus to the endocrine system. If you win, you can gaze forever at yourself in the mirror, but the grotesquely obvious fact of your human body, one you share with everybody else, will be mapped all over you.

Lastly, a treat inside. Amid a reconstruction of his legendary 1979 exhibition, “South Bronx Hall of Fame,” which he displayed at the now-closed pioneering alternative space Fashion Moda, New York-based artist John Ahearn is making casts again -- this time of his collectors. For $3,000, an interested party can be cast in molding gel and plaster by Ahearn and his original collaborator, friend and fellow artist Rigoberto Torres, right there on the spot. The casting takes 15-20 minutes, and within a few weeks, it is painted and delivered. “In the ‘70s,” Ahearn told Artnet Magazine, this was like the 3rd Avenue Social club. But now, we want to give collectors who have been interested in our work all these years the opportunity to participate, to be part of the art.” Ahearn and Torres make three casts a day; sign up on site.

Frieze New York, May 4-7, 2012, Randall’s Island Park, Manhattan, N.Y

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email