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by Joe La Placa
A lot more than the heavens opened up in Londonís Regents Park on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006. No less than 600 VIPís, many with open checkbooks in hand, proceeded up the spiraling entry ramp, which wound through the treetops three meters from the ground, to seek refuge inside architect Jamie Forbertís custom-designed white tent housing the fair. Despite the welcoming deluge of rain, the evening kicked off a four-day-long art-buying frenzy the likes of which London has never before witnessed.

Welcome to the fourth annual edition of the Frieze Art Fair, Oct. 12-15, 2006.

Even if you were lucky enough to get an invitation to the "pre-pre-professional view," giving you first pick of the best works from 152 of the worldís top international galleries (chosen from 480 applicants) before a record 63,000 visitors flooded in, you would have been disappointed. Half the works in the fair had already been sold! †

Many buyers like Francois Pinault, Bernard Arnault, Eli Broad, Mira and Donald Rubell, Rosa del Cruz and the UKís own Frank Cohen were simply there to confirm what they had already bought via digital reproduction, the new paradigm of the way art is sold in the age of virtual mediation. (And dare we say, at the risk of sounding gratuitous, a testament to Artnetís continuing impact on the modern and contemporary art market.)

Although this yearís total sales figures were not published, a confidential polling of the major dealers and collectors at the fair revealed last yearís $57 million in total sales was easily surpassed this time around by at least $10 million. †

Adding some Tinsel Town shine to the proceedings were art-loving celebrities, including Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Claudia Schiffer and the venerable Italian designer Valentino, all spotted cruising the stands.

"Itís astonishing that up until three years ago London didnít have a fair," commented Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate. "Itís a huge achievement that organizers Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp have created something that is regarded already as one of the best three fairs in the world."

In a poll taken by Anders Petersonís ArtTactic, Frieze ranks second, just behind Art Basel/Art Basel Miami Beach, as the top art fair. And Slotover and Sharp were deservedly ranked eighth in Art Reviewís most recent Power 100 issue. †

The personable Pierre de Weck, a member of the group executive committee of Deutsche Bank, Friezeís main sponsor for the third consecutive year, is the man responsible for putting the organizers and bank together. "We are delighted with the outstanding success of this yearís fair and its impact of the global and London art community" he said, smiling.

A more debatable side to Friezeís success were the seven unprecedented contemporary art auctions held in London simultaneously with the fair, at Christieís London, Sothebyís London and the newly opened Phillips, de Pury and Company in Victoria.

When I suggested that Frieze galleries might loose revenues to the auctioneers, Slotover replied the sales actually attract more collectors to London. He also pointed out that Frieze does not allow any dealers who exclusively handle secondary-market works, which make up the bulk of what goes on the block. For primary market purchases, collectors have to come to the fair, which translates into more business for the dealers who make up the Frieze roster.

But with "Frieze Week" auctions totaling over $140 million in sales (not including a significant number of "private treaty sales," estimated to be in the millions), one has to seriously consider the negative impact this expansion at the auction houses has had on the galleries -- particularly those relying on back-room secondary market sales to fuel exhibitions by their primary artists. How else can a dealer pay the production costs for a contemporary artist like Jeff Koons, for instance, without the profits of back-room deals?! And despite Slotoverís disavowal, a quick scan of the list of auction lots showed that many of the artists were the same who were included in Frieze.

In an alarming interview published in Art Review, Christieís contemporary art experts Brett Gorvy and Amy Cappellazzo (ranked 12), claim itís only a matter of time before we see primary artists coming straight into the auction houses. "Weíre the big box retailer putting the mom-and-pops out of business. We will," said an emphatic Cappellazzo.

Could the "Frieze Week" auctions represent the beginnings of an assault on galleries by the big houses, draining them of valuable secondary market inventory? Will ex-Sothebyís chairman Al Taubmanís old plan to "cut out the middle man" now start to apply to the relationship between artist and gallery? One shudders to think of the implications of an art market monopolized by big auction houses, and the possible effect it would have on the production of art in the near future.

Such anxious thoughts find some relief in one of many sculptural works at this yearís Frieze fair, helping to produce what Belgian-born artist Carsten Holler characterizes as "stress busting anti-bodies." His new Plexiglas sculpture High Rise, on view at Gagosian Gallery, is a transparent scale model of an apartment block connected by a series of slides. Holler believes a daily dose of sliding would make us more adaptively resilient to the everyday stressors of living in an urban environment. A larger slide installed at the Tate Modernís Turbine hall certainly produced higher adrenaline levels -Ė and a few bruised sliders!

A more primordial form of fright came in the form of a bronze mutant she-wolf suckling her cubs, a work by Germanyís enfant expressionist Jonathan Meese. †Dr. Pounddaddy (2006), as it is titled, sold for €180,000 at Contemporary Fine Arts from Berlin. His Basquiat-like triptych Untitled fetched €45,000 and a raw 1998 photo collage Emma Peel (Saalprinz essin im Claudiall de lage) sold for €50,000.

Animal pleasures of a more nostalgic kind were found at Paul Kasmin Gallery. Using a visual vernacular familiar from 19th-century artist-explorers like James Audubon, Walton Ford produces large-scale watercolors of edgy ecological magnificence, such as the scene of a Grizzly Bear harrowing a hiding human in Astoria 1812 (2006), sold for $250,000. The work is based upon the 19th-century account of Irish-born fur trader Alex Kox (those are his feet dangling from the log), and his disastrous attempt to conquer the new world. "Global adventures can sometimes be difficult and costly," said the artist with a grin. A retrospective of Fordís work opens at the Brooklyn Museum next month -Ė a must-see.

Finding British artistís Mike Nelsonís installation Mirror Infill, commissioned by Frieze Projects, was like playing hide-and-seek in an otherwise regimented grid of stands. A strictly word-of-mouth affair, the work could only be accessed by entering unmarked doors tucked away behind several stands. A rough corridor led to an abandoned photo darkroom bathed in red neon light, stinking of developer, with photos eerily dangling from the ceiling in an adjacent room.

At Galleri Magnus Karlsson from Stockholm, three of Klara Kristalovaís wonderful Art Brut-like stoneware sculptures were snapped up by artist Maurizio Cattelan at prices in the €2,000-€3,000 range. Speaking of Cattelan, it was his controversial Wrong Gallery that created this yearís shock headlines in the British tabloids via its re-enactment of a work by the late Italian neo-Dadaist artist Gino De Dominicis (1947-1998). Titled Second Solution of Immortality: The Universe Is Immobile and first shown at the Venice Biennale in 1972, the original work featured an actual man with Downís syndrome sitting in the pavilion. But in Cattelanís pointless version -- largely received with indifference by fair-goers -- the man was replaced by Susan Billington, an actress with Downís syndrome from the Baked Bean Theatre Company, who specializes in playing men.

Berlinís Galerie Neu literally dropped the bomb of the fair in the form of Cosima von Boninís Miss Riley. The sexy scale-replica of a type V1 Doodlebug -- the kind of buzz bomb fired by the Germans at London during World War II -- sold for €150,000. The thing measures over 9.5 meters long (itís gotta be big!).

Another highlight was Rosemarie Trockelís unique wall piece, Les Sauvage than Others (2006), a molten explosion of platinum-coated ceramic, which sold for €150,000 at the booth of Monika Spruth Philomene Magers. The gallery also reported the sale of several sets of the Untitled (Fotografias, group 14) series by Fischli & Weiss for €30,000 each.

Over at Jay Joplingís White Cube, Jake and Dinos Chapman were painting portraits in a studio built right in the stand, complete with easels and funky wallpaper. One American woman who agreed to be painted was rather shocked to see the results -- two bulging eyes on an orange ground. "Interesting," she quipped before scurrying away to adjust her make-up. Joplingís recently opened mega-gallery in Masonís Yard, Mayfair, was the talk of the town, the return of the prodigal son. His first gallery around the corner, opened in the early Ď90s, was literally a small white cube.

Tantalizing our frontal lobes, Haunch of Venisonís excellent stand of exclusively black-and-white works featured former Turner Prize winner Keith Tysonís Large Field Array (2006). A study for a massive sculpture now shown in part at Denmarkís progressive Louisiana Museum, this marvelous drawing sold for £140,000. Like a particle accelerator creating new elements, the drawing details systems of thought colliding in the form of a three dimensional array of intended sculptures. Outside the fair, Haunch held the largest exhibition of American Pop artist James Rosenquest ever seen in Europe, installed in three separate locations. Bravo!

Equally impressive was Victoria Miroís stand. How refreshing it was to see top quality works by major artists all in one place! The showstopper was the installation of Conrad Shawcrossí Loop System -- Major Third 5:4, Four Part Counterpart (ed. 3, 2006). An arabesque of whirling parts and lights creating the illusion of a drawing in space, Shawcross uses the mathematical coordinates of sounds and turns them into kinetic visual forms. All three numbers of the edition easily sold for £25,000 each. Shawcrossí Binary Star was featured in Miroís spectacular new 9,000 square foot private gallery space designed by architect Claudio Silverstrin and Michael Drain at 18 Wharf Road was another must-see.

One can only hope other dealers will recognize and emulate the supreme efforts of galleries like Victoria Miro and Haunch of Venison, who shone both in the Frieze Fair and out of it. This kind of all-out effort is the most powerful antidote to the ever-looming threat, particularly for the small to mid-size galleries, of being put out of business by the big auction houses. With an increasingly alarming share of the secondary market -- and now even the primary art market -- going to auction houses, galleries must unify to fight back for their share of markets they originally developed.

Great works of art have and will always be produced by spark of connectivity between individuals, not corporations concerned with art as an asset class. Love them or not, dealers are the visionaries who recognize and are willing to stick their neck out to develop the potential of the unknown talent. Long live the independent entrepreneur!

JOE LA PLACA is Artnetís chief London representative.