Visiting Frieze New York on Randall’s Island is like being sucked into a black hole. You get on a ferry (or a bus, or a bike, or a taxi), enter a giant, spacious tent, and then time stops. Or it disappears. Or it slips away. Next thing you know, you stumble out dehydrated and drunk off your speakeasy cocktail (more on that tomorrow) and notice the sun starting to sink in the sky.
In other words, it’s easy to forget about the rest of the world, especially if you take the ferry, since it drops you off at the north end of the fair, which is precisely the opposite end of the fair where the Teamsters began protesting today with their inflatable rat. The union representatives are trying to call attention to Frieze’s ongoing use of non-union labor, which allows them to pay their workers $15–18 an hour, a paltry amount compared to union wages of roughly $75/hour.
If you miss the rat and the protesters, the most the inside of the fair offers in the way of a reality check are three artworks by artist Andrea Bowers, one at the booth of Milan gallery Kaufmann Repetto and two at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. The first is actually a composite, a wall of colorful protest posters arranged in a grid. An update on an earlier piece, the installation now features signs with the slogan “Don’t Frieze Out New York Workers” alongside others that read “Feminists are just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.”
The other two Bowers’ are big, classical-style murals done in marker on cardboard, hanging on opposite sides of the same wall. One features a woman standing on top of a globe and carrying a banner that says, “Equal work deserves equal pay”; the other shows a man who represents labor being attacked by the mythological creature of capitalism. At the top, the angel of socialism comes trumpeting in.
Theses pieces, naturally, are for sale. (This is an art fair, after all.) But dealers in both booths confirmed that Bowers intends to donate part of the proceeds to either the unions or “the Occupy group,” in one gallerist’s words. And hanging alongside each of the works, in lieu of a label, is a letter written by Bowers to “the Art Fair Leadership, Gallerists, Artists and Patrons.” In the letter, Bowers speaks out against Frieze’s labor practices and enumerates the workers’ concerns. She treads firmly but a little lightly, writing, “Ultimately, I do not want to create an adversarial relationship with the Frieze Art Fair as they are an important venue for supporting artists’ practices, economic stability and career success.” I don’t know about supporting artists’ practices, but career success, sure. She ends by urging everyone to encourage Frieze to negotiate with the workers.
Beyond Bowers’s statements, there isn’t much of the outside world to be found at Frieze (besides the food). Untitled’s booth features a painted-black mixed-media piece by Henry Taylor with the words “Once we were a union look at us now” over it in white — the artist apparently added the text last night after speaking with some of the Teamsters — and Galerija Gregor Podnar is showing another marker on cardboard piece, this one by Dan Perjovschi, that skewers the Cold War and political protest in his spare but biting style. But for the most part, the art on view is apolitical and some combination of pretty, smart, and/or evocative.
No, if you wanted politics today, you had to look at Twitter, where the drama of Free Cooper Union’s occupation of the president’s office was playing out in their feed, offering a bizarre juxtaposition of two different types of art worlds. If you looked up from your phone, at Frieze, all you saw were VIPs and collectors lunching over Mission Chinese, visitors sunbathing outside in the grass, and plenty of shiny objects. The bubble remains inflated, right next to the giant rat.
Frieze New York opens to the public tomorrow, May 10, and continues through Monday, May 13, on Randall’s Island. Tickets and directions can be found here. Members of Arts & Labor and the Teamsters will also read a statement of support for union workers at a Frieze panel tomorrow at 4 pm.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.