Disruption at Play: Frieze Art Fair Becomes the World’s Stage

With social media already a ubiquitous part of our daily lives, it was only a matter of time before it would pervade the art fair circuit. But instead of simply becoming the passive subject of a slew of Instagrams, tweets, or fleeting Snapchats, this year Frieze is embracing and even embodying social media and the spirit of a generation of millennials, where disruption is celebrated and emojis and hashtags have become a new language of sorts. Since the VIP opening of both Frieze London and Masters on Tuesday, the general impressions and themes at the fair have become these buzzwords of the week: Curation, Disruption, Collaboration, Play.

At Frieze Masters, generally considered the more civilized of the two fairs, a walk through traditional, well-lit presentations by the likes of Marlborough (showing Francis Bacon) or Gagosian (showing Helen Frankenthaler) led to an immersive, cinematic showing by Helly Nahmad that reimagined the display of modern masters. (Nahmad collaborated with movie set designer Robin Brown and producer Anna Pank on the booth.) Diverting from a formal booth, the gallery hung works by Joan Miró, Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, and other artists in the imagined flat of a fictional collector in 1968 Paris—strewn with gallery receipts, artist monographs, and stacked exhibition catalogues. “It was one of the best things I’ve seen in any of the fairs in the past years,” said Abdullah Al-Turki, a London-based collector who noted the rise of curated booths. “With so many art fairs at the moment around the world, [and] Frieze and FIAC back to back, [there should be] more than just artwork in the fair, and more proponents of performance art, and musicians, architects, involved in being part of Frieze.” And when disruption, curation, and collaboration raise the bar this high, the pressure is on. “This year, we did well, but it’s far more competitive,” said Angela Westwater, of New York’s Sperone Westwater, who reported strong sales including works by Gilbert & George, Richard Long, and Bruce Nauman. “Now my job is to think about what we’re doing next year.”

Meanwhile, many galleries took up booths at both Masters and London, making Frieze London once again an incubator of experimentation, bringing ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’ back to the fore. Overall, ‘playful’ was the boldfaced word at Frieze London. Jessica Witkin, Director at New York’s Salon 94, featuring a curated booth of works dedicated to the pop-inspired smiley face, told us: “I think with the display of Frieze [London], people are saying: Okay, this is the place to bring your emerging artists again, and show them alongside the heavy-hitters, and do something fun, new, and cool. I think Frieze used to be that—the fair to see work by emerging artists—and then it wasn’t, but this year dealers are showing new work by young and exciting artists.” A continuation of the Smile Face Museum—founded in 1992 by Mark Sachs in his Maryland basement and revived last spring in Brooklyn—and featuring grins from the likes of Richard Prince and Marilyn Minter to Jayson Musson and Stillhouse Group’s John-Mercer Moore, the brightly colored booth was the feel-good spot for fair-goers. 

Nearby at Lisson’s booth, Ossian Ward, the gallery’s Head of Content, wasn’t in the typical prim and proper VIP opening day attire; instead he wore a white Cory Arcangel hoodie and limited-edition white Yo-yo criticism 2014 Ryan Gander Adidas trainers, hand-painted by Ryan Gander to create the “mud effect.” “My daughter thought it was chocolate,” said Ward. “It’s made to look like you’re running from Frieze Masters to Frieze [London].” Nearby, friends of Gander wore his prison uniform transformed into “dandy” suits, embroidered with prison symbols introduced in the British Empire in the 1870s as a Hawthornian mark of shame. “What I’ve heard is that people have been playful with their booths and not stuck to serious presentations,” explained Ward. “Part of the idea is collaborating or disrupting the normal function of a booth, which is what all of the artists are doing in some way.” He was appropriately on to his next task: performing a Cory Arcangel piece where he downloads Anchorman 2 and watches the film instead of working. “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it,” he quipped. 

On the other end of Frieze London, the ‘feel-good’ came from emerging galleries, elated by acquisitions from major museums and collectors. Valentina Suma, co-director of Milan’s Fluxia Gallery, gushed over having sold half of the works by 24-year-old artist Olivia Erlanger by the second day of the fair. “We are in Milan, so it’s not a place where a lot of international collectors go. For us, it’s very important to be present abroad and to show our artists in international art fairs.” Close by, Lukasz Gorczyca, director and co-founder of Warsaw’s Raster Gallery, shared that—for the second time—a work from the gallery’s booth had been acquired by the Tate. “This is one of the most important reasons why we’re here,” he said. “It’s a really good platform to communicate with the institutions. We are always trying … to focus on one or two of the artists, to give [them] better exposure.” (We saw MoMA PS1 Director Klaus Biesenbach Instagramming the acquired work during Frieze’s #EmptyFrieze initiative.) “It’s transformational to see London like this,” said Alia Al-Senussi, chair of the Tate’s Young Patrons program, amongst other institutional committees, of the opportunities for galleries during Frieze Week. “Not just of course for the major galleries and institutions, but for the young galleries that are in town and really bringing their ‘A’ game, because they know that this is the world stage and this is their moment.”

Collaboration, disruption, and play were also embodied in Nick Mauss’s on-site ballet, part of Frieze Projects, set to a soundtrack by Kim Gordon and Juliana Huxtable and enlisting ballet dancers from northern England; a collaborative booth-meets-nail salon by ‘It’ artists Korakrit Arunanondchai, Ed Fornieles, and Oscar Murillo at the Carlos/Ishikawa booth; and Carsten Höller’s art fair playground, featuring an oversize die as centerpiece that converted onlookers, young and old, into impromptu performers. Meanwhile around town, Isabel Lewis’ ICA Off-Site Frieze Week performance evoked a Gertrude Stein salon meets Dalston hipster hangout, where Lewis collaborated with her audience on atmospheric, beatbox, spoken-word happenings. And Wangechi Mutu’s mythical solo show at Victoria Miro played to the social media undercurrent, capturing attendees of the gallery’s annual Frieze dinner taking bites of Mutu-designed chocolate mermaids with the Instagram hashtag #mutumermaids. 

But in the end, while social media became both subject and popular currency for dissemination at Frieze this week, the IRL (In Real Life) couldn’t be subverted. As Biesenbach observed: “Art is always a good catalyst to start talking about important things. I think we’re historically in such an important time that I would still hope that impulses for reaching out into the real world would come from such a congregation of so many creative people.” 

—Marina Cashdan & Molly Gottschalk

Explore Artsy’s Coverage of Frieze Week 2014.

Isabel Lewis image courtesy of the artist; photograph of Helly Nahmad Gallery’s booth by Stephen Wells, courtesy of Stephen Wells/Frieze; all other photographs by Linda Nylind, courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze. 

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