Mum's the Bird

Claire Bishop around London


Left: Martha Rosler at the outset of her tour. Right: Peter Saville and Darren Flook in the Hotel booth.

Curated by the indefatigable Polly Staple, Frieze Projects—an intensive program of specially commissioned events for the Frieze Art Fair—typically serve to countervail the atmosphere of rapacious consumption in the Regent’s Park big top. This year, though, an “if you can't beat ‘em, join 'em” spirit seemed to prevail, judging at least from Matthieu Laurette’s What do they wear at the fair?, one of a number of walking tours on the Frieze Projects itinerary. In its first iteration (a later version would be led by Isabella Blow), on Friday afternoon, the tour was organized around three dealers’ booths and was led by legendary graphic designer and style authority Peter Saville. A snake of twenty-five people followed the stubbly laidback Mancunian as he meandered through the aisles to visit his friend Darren Flook in the Hotel stand. Darren and Peter proceeded to chat about who one dresses for as a dealer: your artists or your collectors? Darren conceded that here it was mainly for the latter: “No one’s going to be happy giving you £5,000 if you look like you’re going to spend it on crack.” After a brief stop at Klosterfelde, the tour wound up at the Herald Street stand with Nicky Verber and Ash L’Ange. Both were sporting virulently garish hues and confessed that Artforum publisher Knight Landesman, himself no fan of understated neutrals, was their model. Peter wanted to know if London was more stylish than Basel, and the boys said indeed it was: “Here the collectors read Vogue rather than Artforum.”

I was a bit perplexed by this event, but its value became clearer the next day during an interview I conducted with Laurette, Martha Rosler, and the critic Alex Farquharson for 104.4 Resonance FM. Laurette isn’t really interested in the specific detail of punters’ wardrobes, but rather in parodically overidentifying with the fair’s self-promoted image as a cool event and celebrity magnet. Clothes are not what you’re supposed to be looking at when touring the booths, but of course you do. Rosler’s tour also drew attention to what shouldn’t be seen: the toilet attendants, the organizer’s office, the planning department, the catering manager, and so on. Her behind-the-scenes investigation (for which participants had to wear yellow security vests) was perfect foil for Laurette’s fashion foray: ground-coffee grit versus cappuccino froth.

What were they wearing at the Stockhausen lecture? The composer and two musicians were clad in celestial white—half Laboratoires Garnier, half heavenly multitude. The demonstration of flutter-tongue sprachgesange microtones on an alto flute was completely thrilling, even if the full-blown tempest raging around the flimsy auditorium tent clearly annoyed the performers. They should have attended Tom Crow’s lecture the next day, which focused specifically on the competition between artists and their “envelopes” (i.e., the institutional frames). Crow cast the narrative of institutional critique as one of competition in which artists and architects jostle for the viewer’s attention. The lecture was consummate art-historical storytelling, but the mixed reactions to it rippled through that evening’s conversations: Was Rothko’s chapel really the progenitor of “institutional competition”? Was it wise to end the lecture with Cattelan? Wasn’t Crow open to gender critique—all those macho artists who cut and drill, the only exception being Andrea Fraser’s G-string-clad grinding to the Bilbao Guggenheim audioguide?

Left: Knight Landesman and Isabella Blow. Right: The 104.4 Resonance FM booth.

French philosopher and art-world darling du jour Jacques Rancière was Sunday's heavy hitter. He was nervously agitated in his conversation with the unflappable Brian Dillon—but his exposition of the innate relationship between the politics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of politics was incredibly concise and cogent. The theory is way too complex to outline here, since it relies on the precise articulation of a very specific vocabulary—a precision that led Rancière to work up his sentences via small and stammered repetitions to make his point. En route he discussed the Pompidou's “Dionysiac” and the Walker's “Let's Entertain” exhibitions, offering no final judgments but pointing out contradictions in their rhetoric. The audience warmed to Rancière as he got down to specifics, and he seemed to loosen up in response.

An hour later I strode back into the auditorium tent for a discussion about the absolute with '60s conceptual dinosaur Ian Wilson. The seventy-seven-year-old Wilson, clad in a mausoleum-gray suit, his cranium intimidatingly large, took to the front of the auditorium with a microphone. He began by presenting a syllogism about the infinite that ended with the conundrum, “How can we have this awareness of the absolute in a world that seems so finite?” He spoke in such a slow and lulling way that I immediately became aware of the absolute desire to nod off. Various people chipped in to the “discussion,” including one of Andrea Zittel's knitwear-clad hikers, who asked Wilson to clarify what he meant by the absolute. Wilson responded to this intervention, as he did to most of the contributions, with a pause and a “Yes … thank you … I'll have to think about that.” I began to suspect that this was no discussion but a carefully planned performance. Scanning the room for help, I noticed David Lamelas, Laurette, Nicholas Logsdail, and the Frieze editorial team frozen in various stages of hypnosis and/or cynical disbelief. It was exactly how I'd always imagined an introductory Scientology workshop. Nevertheless, there were quite a few people ready to sign up for future sessions of Wilson's intellectual Pilates, including a smitten collector in the front row who had doubtlessly already bought the certificate proving this discussion had happened. Wilson wrapped things up after one hour on the dot and wafted out like a wraith.

Now pleasantly numb to the frenzy of the fair, I drifted to the Royal Academy of Music for a performance by Henrik Håkansson. Or rather, for a performance by a bird—a Eurasian goldfinch—whose contractual rider apparently stated that the audience should be seated at least fifteen minutes before he appeared onstage. The academy's auditorium was a fantastically overblown setting for the gig, featuring pompous Victorian portraits and chandeliers festooned with golden trumpets. On stage were four microphones surrounding a leafless branch, spotlit to receive the avian diva. But the real event was in the rest of the room: a thirty-strong professional film crew manning an elaborate setup of cameras, microphones, mixing desks, and a lighting rig (a single night's insurance on this equipment was rumored to cost £20,000). It was riveting—not least because having a small animal performer threw regular concert protocol into crisis. (Should one clap when he appeared?) Finally the lights dimmed and a young woman in a sequined strapless evening dress walked onstage to put the birdie on the twig. Everyone held their breath; the only noise was the whirring of the 16mm cameras and the shuffling of the film crew, intent on rolling the camera down a track to zoom in on the feathered star. We waited for it to sing. Then we waited some more. Recordings of birdsong were played as a prompt, but the creature refused to perform. So we waited some more. It was by turns electrifying and banally Cagean. Eventually the bird did a poo. The cameramen changed the reel of film. The bird went for a walk along the branch and fell off it. A handler (the birdyguard?) sprang onto the stage to put it back on the branch. Time stretched immemorially; two more reels of film were changed. Finally, the girl collected the bird, and we applauded. I felt devastated. This was the most poignant allegory of entertainment and spectacle I have ever seen: attention and expectation; the machinery of stardom, nature, and culture; the refusal to deliver. Absolute genius and—through the bird's ostensible failure—the most decisively trenchant success of the fair.