“The Frieze Art Fair is a good thing. It’s like having a poker stuck up your ass or electrodes somewhere. It makes everyone put their best foot forward,” said The Guardian’s Adrian Searle over a glass of red last weekend. The earthy remark was a change from the unhinged cheerleading of other members of the British press, who see the fair as an “impossibly hip”—no, make that a “fantastical”—big-top experience. Without a hint of irony, the Sunday Times declared: “On the surface, it’s an art fair, but beneath that it’s an art-world conspiracy to subvert the system.”
Indeed, the Frieze fair is more than a trade show; it’s a roller coaster of a week, one of those indoor-outdoor rides, full of smoke and mirrors, that’s a tad grueling for those with an aversion to crowds. For me, the week began on a high point. At 7 PM on the Saturday before the grand art bazaar commenced, I attended the opening of “The Return of the Real,” Phil Collins’s exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery. With a stage-door-style sign out front, the gallery had been rebranded as Shady Lane Productions, and both floors of the main space were devoted to video works that Collins had researched from his office-installation at Tate Britain during last year’s Turner Prize. With the exception of diehard collecting couple Vicky Hughes and John Smith, who don’t seem to mind drinking beer with the hoi polloi, there were no Frieze VIPs present. (The champagne crowd would be attending a much more private view a few days later.) Even Collins’s various dealers—Kerlin, Tanya Bonakdar, Victoria and her senior staff—were absent. Apparently, they were next door, sitting around a boardroom table, having a pricing meeting. In a testament to the demands on dealers during Frieze week, it was the only time they could schedule it in. Merrily, this meant guests were free to spend quality time with Collins’s humanoid Deep Throat works, teleprompters with scrolling testimonies from people who’d worked on the muckraking Trisha chat show. They offered the most engrossing conversation I’ve had at a preview in a long time.
On Monday, I’m glad I made it to Thomas Dane Gallery for the opening of Steve McQueen’s looped single-frame 16-mm film, Running Thunder, which depicts a horse, just dead, lying in the grass. As the on-screen sun faded and rigor mortis set in, a vital artery of the art world fumbled in and out of the dark. It was very Edward Albee—absurd in the best sense of the word.
The next evening, I hit Lisson Gallery, where owner Nicholas Logsdail was gladly caught in a triangle of collectors anxious to acquire paintings from Rodney Graham’s “Wet on Wet—My Late Early Styles.” Graham told me that the exhibition wasn’t a homage to Morris Louis, but “more about a guy who saw Louis’s last show and thought it looked easy.” A large light box called The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962, 2007, shows Graham dressed in navy pajamas, smoking a cigarette as he pours paint onto raw canvases in a vintage 1960s living room. When I asked Graham whether he would be attending the Frieze fair, he said, “I guess I should go, except I know I’ll end up thinking, Wow, this is so today, and I’m so yesterday.”
Finally, it was Wednesday, the invitation-only first day of the fifth-annual Frieze Art Fair. At 11 AM, big-spending VIPs scurried into the tent, too intent on shopping to air-kiss fair directors and art-world darlings Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, who loitered by the entrance in well-tailored suits. I started the day by shadowing a leaner-looking Charles Saatchi on his sprint through the stands. When he stopped to form a minyan of collectors on the Herald St booth, Anita Zabludowicz looked up from a Peter Coffin neon floor sculpture and said, “Are we all fighting over this piece?” The new space in which she is showing off her collection—named, simply, 176—had been making a stir. “For one year, you’ll be the queen,” said Saatchi. “Then pffft,” he added, with a smile and a ruthless downward swipe of his hand.
I bumped into Matthew Higgs, who asked me: “So what’s the story this year? The car, the banknotes, the flea market?” The good curator had summed it up. Richard Prince’s contribution to the fair came in the form of an orange 1970 Dodge Challenger, which he had placed on a revolving podium and draped with a young girl endowed with booming boobs. In a tone not unlike the deadpan of his joke paintings, Prince told me: “I wish there was less art and more cars at these things. I thought I was contributing to a car fair when I was invited here.”
Next on the news agenda was Jake and Dinos Chapman’s latest art-fair ruse. Punters were queuing around the White Cube booth to submit twenty-pound notes, which the artistic duo would deface for free. The Chapmans, who have a habit of drawing on other people’s work, concentrated on “enhancing” the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II with mustaches, fangs, and cat ears.
Why don’t you sign them? I asked.
“Can’t spell,” said Dinos.
Do you like the queen?
“Never met her,” he said.
Are you a monarchist?
“The only reason to be a monarchist is if you’re a member of the Royal Family,” he declared as he gave Her Royal Highness a black eye.
Just then, English rose Tracey Emin leaned in to her gallery stablemates and said: “I’m calling the police! I’ll have you arrested!”
Across the aisle at Gavin Brown was Rob Pruitt’s Flea Market. With works like the legendary Cocaine Buffet, 1998, and the fabulously honest press release for his curated show “Teacher’s Pet,” 2007, Pruitt has unveiled the mixed mores of the art world like no other. On this occasion, he’d invited fifty artist and curator friends to hawk their wares. Nick Relph, sitting at a card table, was selling bootlegs of his and Oliver Payne’s videos. “They have a crappy black-and-white cover and no certificate, but apart from that, they’re the same thing,” he said, as he burned another disc on his MacBook Pro. “They’re twenty pounds each or six for one hundred pounds.” Artist Jonathan Horowitz had sold ten of his found plastic figurines, which he’d recaptioned with lines like LIPSTICK LESBIANS ARE PEOPLE TOO and LARRY GAGOSIAN IS A PERSON TOO. Horowitz told me that he had already sold ten works at fifty pounds each and was looking forward to personally off-loading the lot.
As I basked in the familial fun, a jubilant Gavin Brown sauntered over in a black blazer adorned with two badges. One declared I’M THE BOSS; the other commanded SHOW YOUR TITS. He glanced avariciously at my notebook and asked, “Do you have anything to sell?” When I informed him that I had nothing but my clothes, he replied, “We’ll sell your dirty knickers.” Next to a rack of vintage Vivienne Westwood, I discovered a closet hung with bigger-ticket items—a Laura Owens embroidery, an Elizabeth Peyton canvas, and three Martin Creed marker drawings. Pruitt caught me at the door and affirmed, “It doesn’t violate the integrity of the idea.” Actually, the closet added a conceptual kick, and I complimented Pruitt on the clarity of his site-specific work. He nodded gracefully, then said, “Would you like a hash brownie? They’re under the table over there. Three pounds each.”
Thankfully, other participating galleries also understood the difference between moving inventory and building reputation. Eva Presenhuber took risks with her real estate, as always, and offered an architectonic stand featuring young artist Valentin Carron. Jose Freire’s Team gallery offered a made-to-measure installation by Gert and Uwe Tobias that integrated twenty-seven pieces, including ceramics, typewriter drawings, and large, colorful woodblock prints. Still, there were enough unimaginative white-walled cubicles for artist George Shaw to assert: “The thing I love about art fairs is that they’re a great equalizer; they make established artists look like they’re having their degree show. Actually, I think artists should turn up with their parents.”
It’s amusing to observe the way fairs bring out gallerists’ status anxiety. At least 50 percent think they deserve a better location, not because they would make more money if they were twenty yards to the left, but because every corner offers a unique frisson of distinction. So it’s refreshing when a dealer with a modest, midrow address like F31 seems genuinely content. Hats off to Louise Hayward of Store, who told me: “I’d rather be up here than in the lion’s den. It’s our first year; we have to grow claws before we can go down there.”