In search of added value: Frieze Art Fair 2010

By Mark Sheerin | 15 October 2010
A photo of an illuminated roadside sign reading Frieze Art Fair
Hard to miss: Frieze dominates the southside of Regent's Park© Mark Sheerin
Event: Frieze Art Fair, Regent's Park, London, until October 17 2010

A small army of dark-suited door staff keep the crowds moving, from the apron out in Regent's Park to the long red corridor into the conference marquee. Bags are checked briefly on the way in, but then much more carefully on the way out for clear reasons.

The Frieze Art Fair features work by more than 1,000 artists as represented by 173 galleries. The atmosphere is somewhere between a sweet shop and a car showroom. Unlike a museum, the stands are full of commodities and not exhibits.

There are no attendants to ensure you keep a reverential distance from the art. Instead there are gallery staff who keep an eye out for likely buyers. Every desk has its complement of iPads and PowerBooks. Even in trainers, the galleristas look expensive.

It cannot be hard to separate sheep from goats. Half the visitors look to be students and amateur enthusiasts; there are tattooed necks, sharp fringes and the odd mohican. The other half wear the look of cheque book bearers: well groomed men or perfectly made-up women. 

Greeting fan and collector alike by the entrance is a wall-size mirror by Jeppe Hein and a sculpture by Elmgreen & Dragset which features a boy on a 10ft diving board. He looks nervous about taking the plunge. The mirror vibrates as if to give a gentle push.

A photo of a crowded gangway filled with people and exhibition stands
All the fun of the fair: Frieze draws the crowds© Mark Sheerin
So gallery Nicolai Wallner sets the tone for the first Fair in the present arts funding climate. Across the way Lisson Gallery feature a neon green sign by Jonathan Monk, which reads "Tax payers money". Perhaps the missing apostrophe would have pushed him over budget.

Lisson is also selling a stuffed bird by Ryan Gander: a piece from the 2010 Tatton Park Biennial. Annet Gelink has a lightbox diptych by Yael Bartana, winner of this year's worthy Artes Mundi prize. Meanwhile Thomas Dane stock a CGI piece by John Gerrard, whose giant projection at Canary Wharf is a flagship work for Art on the Underground. Even the most public artists are to be found privatised here.

There are no brochures or interpretation boards to put the work in context. Unless you ask, you may not realise, for example, that those five lemons in an installation by Ugo Rondinone are cast in bronze and filled with lead.

"When you get closer to the works you realise it's not for real, so you ask material questions and you ask about the real and the unreal," says Björn Alfers, from Zurich gallery Eva Presenhuber. It is pretty deep for a sales pitch.

There is more to Frieze than shopping. Organisers have laid on a programme of non-commercial artist's commissions called Frieze Projects. These include a dance piece by Spartacus Chetwynd, some sound art by Shannon Ebner & Dexter Sinister, and a box office designed to look like a mobile phone store by Matthew Darbyshire.

Four artist's films have also been commissioned for the igloo-like cinema outside the main auditorium. There are decadent scenes in a rose garden by Linder, a high octane discussion of science theory by Elizabeth Price, a film collage with banjo soundtrack by Jess-Flood Paddock and a bad interview with a novelist by Stephen Sutcliffe.

Then there is a highbrow programme of talks. On Thursday artists Nathaniel Mellors, Aleksandra Mir, Roee Rosen and Olav Westphalen lined up to talk about humour in art. Clips from Monty Python were presented alongside ideas by Gilles Deleuze.

The neighbouring English Gardens of Regent's Park also play host to a Sculpture Park. Wolfgang Ganter and Kaj Aune have created a heaving, smoking pile of trash. They emerge from the installation following its 5pm performance via a fridge door.

A photo of a close up of stripey art bicycles
Gavin Turk, Les Bikes du Bois Rond, 2010 (installation view).
A row of stripey coloured bicycles are the work of Gavin Turk. A friendly steward sits by a pile of spanners and reveals they have taken 80 visitors out for a spin that afternoon, all of whom received a signed certificate from the Brit artist.
So while the big money changes hands, there are clearly trickle down benefits. Frieze would even have you believe that, six weeks before opening, a Roman art fair was discovered on this very site. Excavations from this so-called Frozen City may be found dotted around the temporary building.

Between the rows of booths, an archaeology student by the name of Phineas Pett works away with a scalpel and a stone. He claims to be ascertaining if it has been cut with a human hand and plays his role perfectly in Simon Fujiwara's well thought-out and extensive piece.

"It would be fascinating to know what they’ll make of this fair in 2,000 years time," says Pett. "But the pieces would be very hard to date."

For a moment the centuries stretch out ahead and the blue chip artworks all around us seem to accumulate in value like so many antique vases. If not, these could be the last days of Rome.

Open 11am-7pm (6pm Sunday). Admission £25(£15). See the Frieze website for further details.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog or follow him on Twitter.
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