It’s Frieze week, which means the London art world is at its busiest. Many of you will attend either Frieze itself or one of its satellite events – a great opportunity to get a comprehensive snapshot of what’s going on in the art world in London and beyond, and perhaps a helpful way to work out the different directions in which you might take your own career. Ben Street, an art critic and director of Sluice art fair, tells us more.
It’s easy to hate art fairs. They’re trade fairs (so they’re only for buyers and sellers). They’re badly installed (strip-lighting, wobbly walls). They’re huge (a dystopian metropolis of gridded booths). They’re crowded with the less likeable denizens of the art world (the mega-collectors, oligarchs and consultants). And yet there are plenty of good reasons to make selective visits to the crop of contemporary art fairs about to open in London, principally because the majority of art fairs on offer aren’t really art fairs as conventionally understood.
With the huge rise in UK public interest in contemporary art (arguably datable to the opening of Tate Modern in 2000), art fairs have had to alter their identities to cater for the crowds willing to wait for an hour or so to fork out £29 to visit what is, ultimately, a trade fair aimed mainly at those working within the art world. So Frieze, the one that marked a distinction between the art fair as trade fair and the art fair as event, has every year given the public more reason to attend. This year, talks by prominent cultural characters like Adam Curtis and Daniel Buren have made Frieze a kind of catch-all cultural symposium (albeit one with a hefty entrance fee). Meanwhile, Frieze Projects, a series of onsite commissioned works by artists including (this year) Pierre Huyghe and Bik Van Der Pol, create an appropriate sense of the carnivalesque.
However, the real appeal of Frieze is in its slicing open of the art world anthill. Whereas visits to commercial galleries will often be pretty quiet experiences, with a lone gallery assistant and a pervasive air of missing the party, at Frieze the gallery owners themselves are on the shop floor. The work on display, by dint of its being hung in a vast art fair, has to compete with others around it, and the Darwinian pressure can produce more interesting work by well-known names. It also means that most of the work you see won’t have been seen before. Inevitably, there’s a great deal of art about art fairs, from Jake and Dinos Chapman signing visitors’ paper money in 2007 to this year’s offering from Christian Jankowski: a real speedboat that can be bought either as a speedboat or as a work of art. The latter choice is, obviously, much more expensive.
Despite much general ambivalence towards Frieze, one of its positive effects has been in the creation of spin-off or alternative art fairs, spearheaded by the now-defunct Zoo. Sunday, based in Ambika P3 in the University of Westminster, is a reliably high quality fair which splits its time between London and Berlin, and features young galleries in an accessible open-plan environment. Orchestrated by three galleries (Croy Nielsen (Berlin), Limoncello (London) and Tulips & Roses (Brussels)) and sponsored by the Zabludowicz Collection, Sunday lacks the ossification of the worst of Frieze, and its informality and approachability is a boon for young artists trying to make contacts.
This year’s new crop of art fairs force an expansion of the term. Sluice [disclaimer: I’m co-director], located 15 minutes’ walk from Frieze, is an alternative art fair featuring smaller galleries, including artist-run and project spaces. Aiming to provide a platform for the huge diversity of art practices today, Sluice will feature screenings, performances, workshops, artists’ books and a panel discussion on the nature of art fairs and their effect on contemporary artists and the public. Sluice might be seen as an art fair about art fairs, a platform for discussion, creation and interaction.
Video art generally suffers from the art fair experience due to its demands on the visitor’s time, and galleries in Frieze often steer clear of it for that very reason. To address this deficit, excellent New York gallerist Edward Winkleman is setting up The Moving Image, in the Bargehouse on the Thames, a few minutes’ walk from Tate Modern. Featuring celebrated video artists such as Dara Birnbaum, Eve Sussman and Hannah Wilke, Moving Image intends to redress the balance, and by its nature will be a slower and more contemplative tonic than the frenzy of Frieze.
Moniker Art Fair represents street art, another form of art that rarely finds a home in Frieze but doesn’t lack a voracious audience. Based at Village Underground in Shoreditch, Moniker plans to be a blast of anarchic energy quite at odds with its ‘Friends’-referencing title. (That is a joke).
Finally, The Other Art Fair bypasses the gallery system entirely, by inviting unrepresented artists to submit works themselves, and also occupies the Bargehouse from 24-27 November. Selected by a jury including Godfrey Worsdale, director of BALTIC, the work can be bought direct from the artists. For those feeling the cold economic climate, or if you have anything left over after the speedboat, Harry Pye and Jasper Joffe will be creating a 99p shop selling work they’ve made. With art the cost of an ice cream, there’s pretty much something for everyone.