Art fair coverage, it’s almost always the same. The collective malaise of journalists and bloggers is palpable. This year, Blouinartinfo.com is offering an iPad mini to whoever can “contribute their craziest, most experimental ideas for covering an art fair”. Initially, fair malaise is countered with hype – and everyone swallows it up. It begins with the mad scramble for free fair tickets as the pressure and expectation mounts on art worlders to go. As the hype dies down, one accepts that all the excitement is over a glorified shopping mall. There’s the spectacle of fashionistas squinting at artworks, and the rich men who ogle at them from behind. Then there is the banal analysis that follows. What were the estimated sale figures, who did well, who didn’t, which gallerists dropped out and why? Almost all of this analysis is useless because it is purely speculative.
I’m not one of those naïfs who deride the confluence of art and money, but I do loathe when fairs attempt to mask what they are. Take the rise of event programs for instance. For a while now, fairs have also begun to host lectures, ‘projects,’ and temporary installations. These events are either an excellent way to break open the art fair mold or a cynical attempt to assuage those who think fairs are all about the money. The artists who are commissioned for such projects often play off this tension. This year at Frieze New York, artist Liz Glynn has installed a secret speakeasy on site. Those who find it (along with a special key) will get to watch bartenders showing off magic tricks in-between mixing drinks. Cecilia Alemani, the Curator of Frieze Projects, has described it as an installation that “creates a dialogue with the architecture of the tent itself “, a superfluous statement that could just as well describe how the fair’s toilets were positioned. If Glynn’s installation is meant to be wryly antithetical to the fair’s other VIP amenities, it will cease being so once the same crowd discovers it.
Frieze New York launched last year, and in a stroke of marketing genius, settled upon Randall’s Island as its location, squeezed in-between Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. Completely side stepping any noxious debate about which borough to set up camp, the organizers have branded the fair as an adventure into unknown territory. I took a cab from Long Island City and asked the driver when he last took a fare to Randall’s Island. “About ten years ago” he replied.
Arriving at the southern tip of the fair tent, it took me a good 10 minutes to walk up to the North entrance. As I approached, Paul McCarthy’s Balloon Dog (2013) loomed into view, an 80 foot tall parody of Jeff Koons’ dog sculptures, the joke being that whilst Koons’ sculptures are painstakingly made to look like balloons, McCarthy’s dog actually is one. It was the fair’s way of breaking the ice. It told you to relax and accept the absurd theatrics within. Don’t overthink anything. Problem is, McCarthy’s work completely eclipsed the other sculptures scattered around the island. From what I saw, very few visitors made the effort to journey beyond the confines of the tent.
As with last year, the ongoing controversy is the fair’s decision not to pay its staff union wages. The teamsters apparently protested with a huge balloon of a rat, but on this particular night, they were nowhere to be seen. The controversy for the most part, remained confined online. I later read that the artist Andrea Bowers displayed letters in support of the teamsters. “I see this as a larger system of exploitation in the art world that includes more jobs becoming unpaid internships, artists being denied payment for their labor, real wages going down and benefits being lost”. Principles aside, the fair treatment of workers is a lost PR coup for Frieze, an opportunity to rise above and set an example to the rest of the art world.
The first twenty minutes of any fair is a haze, a complete sensory overload. You’re suddenly enveloped in noise. Bad art and good art meshes together, punctuated by the occasional celebrity appearance. It takes a great deal of effort to slow down, put your phone away, and focus the eye. Once you repress the urge to identify the artists you already know, you start to concentrate on what actually appeals to you.
The least fussy stands appeal the most, Maureen Paley’s being a great example. Paley’s stand was spacious and minimalist. It left you wanting in the best possible way. Among the works displayed were two photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans and a spooky life-like mask by Gillian Wearing. Victoria Miro exhibited a sumptuous portrait by Alice Neel entitled Abdul Rahman (1964), which deservedly appeared in a great deal of pre-fair press. The silliest work was Tom Friedman’s Untitled (Pea), a styrofoam sculpture of a pea. I wondered how many people missed it in between his sculptures of oversized sweets and a giant pizza.
The worst work on display was a parody of Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’ (1913) by Francesco Vezzoli. This version remained true to the form of the original, save for a pair of high heels added to the figure’s feet. It typifies the contemporary art cliché of riffing off art history in the most listless and ill-conceived manner possible. The result is a gaudy, overpriced one liner.
A couple of hours later, I discovered the exit of Glynn’s speakeasy. As some visitors slipped out, the door locked firmly shut behind them. Two minutes later, we found the entrance and knocked. A small shutter opened and a doorman gazed out. After some deliberation, he instructed us as to how to find a key. “There is a man with curly hair, almost clownish looking. He is wearing a white shirt. You’ll have to find him”. Was it put on? Maybe. Nonetheless for the last hour of the night, I stopped concentrating on the art and scanned the crowds for curly haired men. The fair theatrics had finally beaten me.