Frieze London, Behave!

Forget the talks and performances. Get back to where you once belonged.

Eric Bainbridge, The Embarrassment of Jimmy The Nail (2014), mixed fur fabric, plaster, timber and steel Installation at Workplace Gallery.
Photo: Courtesy Workplace and Frieze London.

It’s surprising what a difference architectural space can make. For years, the gallery booths at London’s Frieze art fair were arranged, inside the fair’s huge marquee, in several long alleys, running south to north, which seemed to go on forever. And due to the slight upward incline of Regent’s Park, as you walked along the rows of stands, you always had the back-of-the-mind, nagging sensation of going slowly up or downhill—a vague, barely present feeling that made the whole place feel tilting and unstable.

It might be an odd first observation, but it’s a welcome shock to find oneself on level ground at this year’s Frieze London. Credit due to the new designers of Frieze London’s “bespoke temporary structure,” Universal Design Studio, who’ve gotten over the nagging slope by, well, basically introducing a number of short ramps at a number of points, so turning the fair into a set of stepped levels, which serves the added function of zoning the galleries into distinct size categories. It’s not rocket science, but it works. And since any architectural theorist will tell you that architecture is the expression of power, this year’s Frieze London has the mega-galleries up front near the entrance, with lesser galleries assigned zones farther up the levels, until you get to the small booths of the Focus galleries, those “emerging” galleries established in the last 12 years.

The shifting balance of power—between galleries and between art fairs and galleries—seems to lie behind a lot of this year’s remodeling, and not looking like you’re selling is the latest trend, at least if you’re at the top: Carsten Höller’s “Gartenkinder,” a crazy, kid-friendly pedagogical play zone at Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth’s Mark Wallinger–curated wunderkammer and Lisson’s all-over-installed three-person presentation are “gallery-style” shows designed to declare that, Hey, we’re such rich galleries that we can do what we want here. (White Cube, as a contrasting example, holds on the tried and tested formula of setting out a range of works by their artists, without all the fancy installation-and-curating fiddling. It looks a little plodding.)

That shift—from looking like you’re selling a bunch of stuff at a fair, to “curating” or “installing” is everywhere. It makes for great solo presentations (like Eric Bainbridge’s absurdist sculptures at Workplace) as well as elegantly organized stands of mutually conducive works by a gallery’s artists (such as at Esther Schipper or Andrew Kreps). But that shift is a bigger deal than just being able to put on a decent-looking stand. Maybe it indicates how the biggest galleries are becoming brands in their own right, and it certainly suggests that the first business of being at an art fair is no longer just selling your wares; the first business is demonstrating your credibility to the crowds of collectors who attend. (It’s a recurring private complaint of gallerists that collectors are less inclined to visit their galleries, waiting instead to “see you at the fair.”)

There are losers in this changing game. Quietly shelved this year was the Frame section of newbie galleries (those fewer than eight years old), the Focus section having been expanded to “account for the needs of emerging galleries,” with some previous Frame galleries brought into Focus. It’s a sensible move to simplify what had become an increasingly fragmented fair, but it also reflects how the continuing art market boom hasn’t benefitted the many small galleries that exploded into life in the frothy expansion of the late 2000s. Gone are the slightly ridiculous bare floorboards, DIY aesthetic of the Frame section—now every gallery gets carpets. Having carpets, of course, indicates seriousness and professionalism.

The mutating shape of fair has also affected the supporting program; it’s now conventional for art fairs to offer other stuff for people to do—talks, commissioned projects—but Frieze London continues to downplay these. You’d be forgiven for missing the Frieze Projects, since there are as many happening “off-site” as inside the fair; tucked into a little side room adjacent to the main entrance, Jonathan Berger’s quiet homage to US cult comedian Andy Kaufman, presenting documents and Kaufman ephemera, in a space occupied periodically by various friends and associates of this enigmatic figure, seems almost to be hiding in plain view. More missable are the talks, a handful of short thematic musings by big theory bigwigs and in-conversations with high-reputation artists, timed, it seems, for those who need to have a sit-down after a big lunch. Oh, and kooky-or-irritating gonzo journalist Jon Ronson talking about his new book, for some reason.

But who needs talks at a fair? After all, if you want talks, you can head over to the Serpentine Gallery’s high-turnover Gustav Metzger–curated “marathon” this weekend, where lots of thoughtful art-connected people will be wrangling over the cheery issue of “extinction.” But while those old formats might be going a little stale, this year sees Frieze London experiment with performance in its new Live section, with a number of galleries staging live, performance-based projects—some new, some historical. It’s not surprising that the vogue for institutionalizing performance art should turn up at Frieze, but as this survivor of the alternately awkward and ridiculous 14 Rooms project (devised by Obrist with Klaus Biesenbach) at Art Basel this year can attest, live art doesn’t always take well to being put in a box for the titillation of well-heeled passers-by.

Still, Frieze is at least trying to make sense of the shifting forms of contemporary art while turning them into something that might just about work in an art fair format. The lines between the selling and not selling, of commissioned projects and solo “project” gallery stands are getting a little fuzzy, a fuzziness exploited to the hilt by Shanzhai Biennial’s Shanzhai Biennial No. 3, “a multinational brand posing as an art project posing as a multinational brand posing as a biennial,” whose gaudy “showroom” greets visitors before they even get to the ticket gates. While Frieze London’s sister fair Frieze Masters continues the relatively definable business of selling prestigious historical and 20th-century modern art objects, Frieze London is having to take account of the unstable, increasingly mixed economy of the art world, where selling and circulating objects is not the only game in town. That’s perhaps why the prevailing look and feel is less that of department store and more of the fun fair. It’s art, sure, but as entertainment.

JJ Charlesworth is a freelance critic and associate editor at ArtReview magazine. Follow @jjcharlesworth on Twitter.

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