Joakim Borda-Pedreira visits the art fairs in London and reflects on the differences of this year’s edition of Frieze and its sister fair Frieze Masters.
The days when Frieze Art Fair was the art fair everyone wanted to see and be a part of feels somewhat remote. The increasing competition from fairs like FIAC across the channel, or the Art Basel franchises in Miami and Hong Kong, in combination perhaps with the fact that the London art scene never really recovered from the credit crunch traumas of 2008. In spite of a once again booming art market and the renewed spending force of Russian oligarchs and Qatar investors, there is a nervous cautiousness in the air still.
Or is it possible that what I read as thinly masked financial anxiousness is really a newly born sense of economic sobriety? Gone is the decadence of the ‘naughties’, replaced it seems by bourgeois austerity. Yet in the art world, most people will say business is good at the moment.
As last year, Frieze has divided into two pavilions this year. Nominally two separate fairs, Frieze and Frieze Masters seem more like an attempt to cater to all tastes and ages. Less and less looking like a fair, Frieze this year has opted for the ‘contemporary white cube look’ with painted grey floors and white fluorescent light tubes. All the notable galleries participated this year, as always. Gagosian, Lisson Gallery, White Cube and Hauser & Wirth showed the usual blue chip names, although carefully selected and not at all badly presented. In fact, I felt everything this year was unusually elegant and understated. Apart from a few ridiculous works I saw very little of the attention-seeking ‘spectacularism’ of past years, although the obligatory Jeff Koons mega-sculpture was there – one of the balloon hearts – and seemed to have its own TV-crew broadcasting it at every moment. I had a sudden feeling of déjà vu, was it not there also the last time I was at Frieze? Or was that one red?
Some nice revisits though: Tanya Bonakdar showed Haim Steinbach, whose shelf pieces I have not seen for years. Wilkinson Gallery gave a delightful taster of their present exhibition of Derek Jarman, just a small painting. And at Victoria Míro I saw a lovely drawing-room-sized cast of Elmgreen & Dragset’s Boy-on-rocking-horse sculpture they originally conceived for the Fifth Plinth on Trafalgar Square. I had another encounter with that work the day after at the V&A, where the artist duo has a clever installation which stages a story of a ruined aristocratic architect whose family mansion is being taken over by a former pupil/lover. Their recycling of both structure and some of the interior elements of their project for the Nordic pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennial proved economy of means and created a thematic context for the installation.
Back to Frieze, I could not help but notice the weak Scandinavian presence there this year. In vain I looked for Magnus Karlsson Gallery, from Stockholm, who usually participates as the only Swedish gallery. They were not there this year. From Norway Standard (Oslo) had a large stand where they showed works by the celebrated artist Fredrik Værslev, as well as some of their American artists. If somewhat sterile a presentation, I was told by the gallery assistant that they changed the display every day and thus were able to present all their artists at the fair. I thought that was a very clever idea and only regretted that they had showed Ann Cathrin November Høibo the day before I arrived. Her work I always enjoy.
The only other gallery based in Norway was VI, VII, who up till recently have occupied the basement of a church in east Oslo, but now is moving to a new space on street level, the owner told me. As part of the Frame-section of Frieze they showed a solo-presentation of Eloise Hawser, a London-based artist from their stall.
There were, however, some Scandinavian artists here and there, notably Ida Ekblad at Green Naftali, with a huge painting which I thought to recall from her great exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm a few years ago. And another of my favourites, Klara Kristalova, from Sweden, showed a few ceramic sculptures with Alison Jacques Gallery.
Later the same evening at a gallery dinner, a German gallerist based in New York tells me the sales this year where much better than the last. “Last year Frieze Masters did much better than the main Frieze fair, but this year it was the other way around” she said and confided that she thought the market in Europe was becoming too difficult for American galleries.
The slow business in later years may account for the hysteric programme of this year’s Frieze. Apart from three sections (Main, Frame & Focus) to divide galleries on age, size and importance, there was yet another section entitled Frieze Projects, with unclear agenda. It looked like a messy undergraduate exhibition of a lesser art college and consisted of garbage-filled installations with kinetic functions. One ‘art work’ shot paintballs on a window for instance. And as if that was not enough, there were countless talks, lectures and film screenings on the programme, and naturally a sculpture garden outside in Regent’s Park.
But if Norway and Scandinavia was more or less absent in this years Frieze, I cannot quite say the same of OCA and its former director Marta Kuzma, who seems very popular among continental art dealers in spite of the recent controversies here in Norway. A couple of Swiss dealers held her in very high esteem and assured me that OCA has done a great job in making Norwegian art more visible internationally. Several German art dealers said the same, and although they did not name any Norwegian artist in particular, they mentioned having seen OCA:s logo in many places and they all knew the former director by name, lauding ms Kuzma for her achievements. I thought it better not to mention any of the political squabbling between OCA and the Government, it seems so petty to talk of public administration when abroad.
Predictable and homogenous
If Frieze was a bastion of cool, filled with much of the same neo-conceptual stock of art (and it was), over-populated by funnily dressed old men and their sharp-featured 20-something lovers, Frieze Masters was an altogether different matter. Much more elegant, with directoire furniture, soft carpets and discreetly handsome gallery assistants in beautifully cut tweed and hand-sewn brogues – alternatively little black dresses and pearls – the mood was set for aesthetic experience. The art however, consisted mostly of American post-war minimalists, French modernism and suitably quite a lot of old masters of varying quality and importance. Some personal highlights included a beautiful study of the Arthur Atherlay portrait by Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), an August Strindberg (1849-1912) landscape and a pair of well known gothic pictures by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). The London-based Daniel Katz Gallery had a fascinating display recalling a heavily velvet draped Victorian mausoleum, with some fascinating objects, including a French 19th century terracotta sculpture of a gorilla slaying a gladiator. Perhaps a counter-Darwinist comment of its time? Say what you will, but Frieze Masters was full of unexpected things, which raises the uncomfortable question that the contemporary art market is becoming too predictable and far too homogenous for its own good.