LONDON — The first thing to know about the Frieze art fair is that nothing ever changes. It is the “Hotel California” of art events: sprawling endless white hallways of gallery booths where contemporary art lies in stasis. Larger spaces are typically dedicated to blue chip dealers and their wealthy patrons, who seemingly never leave home dressed in anything less than their finest furs and chiffon. Likewise, any press preview of Frieze will invariably involve the same core components of misanthropy: resentment of the art market, lack of specificity in the curation of gallery booths, and the mystifying omnipresence of Hans-Ulrich Obrist at every corner. (Witnessing the über-curator double-kiss hundreds of art world adulators in his fiefdom while his assistant juggled three heavy tote bags was the endurance performance of the afternoon.)
If the preview of this year’s Frieze London fair already sounds like the beginning of a “Scene and Herd” article on Artforum, it’s only because I am avoiding confrontation with the art on view this year. Not because everything shown is necessarily bad, but because the gestalt of the fair is so middling. How do I approach such consistent banality with novelty?
Unlike this year’s New York iteration, Frieze London is strikingly apolitical. Virtually no booth references President Trump and almost none dares to wrestle with the fractious socio-political events unfurling across Europe. Given the looming threat of Brexit, it’s surprising to see such a willful denial within the art world — a flat nothing. It’s almost as if such changes will not affect the culturati who run and shop at the show.
The closest we do get to ostentatious contemporary political commentary is also Frieze London’s most deafening and cringeworthy moment. Paul Chan’s “Pillowsophia (after Trinity)” (2017) hovers above Greene Naftali’s booth, evoking the black hoodie of Trayvon Martin as a ghoulish signifier of the Black Lives Matter movement. What context does this piece have in an art fair? In a huge white tent devoted to the commodification of culture? It’s a strange juxtaposition to make, especially when the remainder of the gallery’s booth is devoted to more de rigueur modernist fare. Ironically, the fan powering Chan’s work did not have the correct voltage. Instead of flapping around wildly, “Pillowsophia (after Trinity)” droops at times — a wonderfully unintentional commentary, in my opinion, on both Green Naftali’s thoughtless inclusion of the piece and the broader apathy of the art world for others’ suffering.
We could also discuss the ill-deployed installation at Andrew Kreps Gallery, which pairs Andrea Bowers’s “My/Her Body My/Her Choice” (2016) alongside performance ephemera from Goskha Macuga’s “Time as Fabric” (2016), which was staged at the New Museum last year. The former is a somewhat gaudy neon sign that blinks its titular message across the booth. The latter consists of a handful of droll cardboard cut-outs from across history, including a dour Angela Merkel and Marcel Duchamp crossdressing as Rrose Sélavy. While each artist’s work is strong individually, their juxtaposition imbues Frieze with a vapid commercial feminism. The mere appearance of now-clichéd empowerment messages alongside some historical figures isn’t going to arouse feelings of solidarity.
Heck, Frieze London’s curatorial organization feels leveraged against real solidarity. Feminism also takes a walloping in the fair’s salacious Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics section. The curatorial scaffolding created by Alison Gingeras and legitimized by A.I.R. Gallery’s inclusion is mere table-dressing for other galleries wanting to exhibit erotic art. Here again, we sense the dilution of feminist rhetoric for commercial ends. The inclusion of Betty Tompkins does not a feminist exhibition make ipso facto — and neither do Penny Slinger, Natalia LL, or even Marilyn Minter. What is Gingeras’s goal, with her exhibition title equating these artists to sex workers, beyond mere sensationalism? With the smell of stale champagne and cologne wafting through the galleries, it’s extremely hard to digest this deluge of genitalia as anything more than a fetishistic amuse-bouche for the crowds. What these artists need is better political contextualization. And that’s why Sex Work’s small bright spot is A.I.R Gallery’s timeline on the section’s back wall, detailing the gallery’s historic collaborations with artists like Judith Bernstein and Mary Beth Edelson. The timeline also includes a selection of works from the above artists that illustrate the changing political tides of second-wave feminism. If only the other galleries included could respect the work of their artists as much.
Most of what I’ve discussed thus far comes from well-established, prestigious galleries; however, everyone knows that the best art at Frieze comes from unexpected places. This year, underdog galleries from cities including Cape Town, Guatemala City, and Mexico City have triumphed with booths that hold tightly curated mini-exhibitions and solo shows.
Blank Projects may be a newcomer to Frieze London, but it has wisely chosen to focus its efforts on one artist. Billie Zangewa represents the Cape Town gallery, furnishing its emerald-green booth with delicate silk tapestries. Her hand-stitched textiles depict scenes from everyday life in South Africa. Zangewa configures beautifully silent and poetic tableaus of quotidian repose — her subjects recline and embrace each other; they surf the web and read their books. All is not serenity, however. The artist violently tears fabric away from her images. These abrasions often impale her subjects, severing their limbs. What was once a purely romantic scene becomes complex and unnerving.
From the capital of Guatemala, Proyectos Ultravioleta presents a retrospective on the films of performance artist Regina José Galindo. Every day, the gallery will feature a different recording of Galindo’s work from the past five years. On the day of the press preview, “The Shadow (La sombra)” (2017) was on view. The piece consists of Galindo running through a field outside Berlin for 9 hours while a massive German war tank, called the Leopard, roves behind her. “The Shadow” allegorizes Germany’s imperfect relationship with Guatemala. (The European country is a major arms manufacturer, while the Central American country has one of the highest murder rates in the world.)
Nearby, Sicilian gallery La Veronica showcases Maryam Jafri’s “The Wellness Industrial Complex” (2016), which documents the US military’s newfound fascination with meditation. Adopting the principles of Zen Buddhism, soldiers are now instructed in the art of self-care. The military views meditation as “mindfulness training,” a soft technology that promotes inner peace while waging outward violence. Accordingly, Jafri’s three small installations from the project are as deceptively innocent as they are subversive. “American Buddhism” features a public domain video of army meditation training atop a rough wooden structure containing plush Buddhas and fake orange flowers. “Meditation Square” conflates contemplation with adoration; it features photographs of meditating recruits below a toppled statuette of Saddam Hussein. Caught mid-collapse, the statuette is adorned with wooden prayer beads. Here, Jafri further exposes how deranged the US army’s appropriation of meditation is. Through mental power alone, the soldiers appear to be toppling Hussein’s regime.
Outside of global political intrigue, some artists on view at Frieze are making truly wonderful aesthetic strides. Mexico City’s Galería OMR is showing an enthralling textile work by Yann Gerstberger. “Overdetermined System” (2017) bravely synthesizes Cubist illusions with Mexico’s rich tradition of iconography and textile-weaving. A French expat living in Mexico, Gerstberger effortlessly imbeds elements of Picasso’s work into a tapestry of bright patterns. Cumulatively, “Overdetermined System” is a psychedelic retelling of Mexico’s founding myth. Legends tell of how Aztec settlers founded the ancient city of Tenochtitlan after a vision sent by their god. The precursor to Mexico City would be found where an eagle was perched atop a cactus while devouring a snake. The Aztecs found such a gruesome scene occurring on a small islet near Lake Texcoco and called it home. Gerstberger interprets this story with dramatic flair. The main elements of the story are here, but the artist has also included an anthropomorphized bird-man approaching the islet from the foreground; he wears a cape-length primitive mask on his back.
The best part of visiting Frieze is always leaving it. Passing into the manicured gardens of Regent’s Park, I start to review my day inside the big white tent. A few stray thoughts and observations meander through my mind as I see (who else?) Hans-Ulrich Obrist also exiting the fair, tote-toting assistant in tow.
- How much wealth do I need managed in order to access the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounge? Do they accept student loans?
- Why is Frieze London inexplicably filled with potted plants this year? Are we all just trying to fill the hole in our hearts with ferns?
- I almost gagged when the gallerist at Greene Naftali tried to explain that Paul Chan’s “Pillowsophia (after Trinity)” was meant to “draw the viewer into a one-on-one encounter, allowing the viewer to envision themselves as Trayvon Martin.”
- Absolutely nobody I spoke to (guests, gallerists, volunteers, organizers, etc.) would admit that they were stressed or even slightly tired. What was in the VIP champagne?
- I should probably like Lucy and Jorge Orta’s Antarctica World Passport project, but it’s totally this year’s Soylent. Just another feel-good “global citizen” moment in a season of overwhelming atavism.
- Two women unknowingly reenact a Lydia Davis short story verbatim while looking at Leonor Antunes’s supremely boring bronze curtains in the Marian Goodman booth: “It’s extraordinary,” says one woman. “It is extraordinary,” says the other.
Frieze London 2017 continues in Regent’s Park (London, UK) through Sunday, October 8.
Correction: A previous version identified “Pillowsophia (after Trinity)” incorrectly as “Pillowsophie,” which is a wordplay on the ancient Greek word philosophia, and the word “limpy” in the description of the work was been changed to “droops at times” after the artist of the work informed Hyperallergic that the work intentionally appears that way whether or not it had electrical issues. Mr. Chan did say the gallery informed him there were electrical issues, which may or may not have impacted the inflation.