Freeze! You’re … just browsing

Pub date October 22, 2008
WriterAri Messer
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art


While the bankers who took your money were grabbing even more of it last weekend, a different sort of highbrow crowd — those whose investment, whether financial or personal, rests mainly in art — weren’t quite sure what to do. At the Frieze Art Fair in London’s Regent’s Park, the theme was non-commitment. "It feels like the old days," gallerist Jack Hanley said on the second evening of the four-day international fair. "Instead of buying up everything in the first 15 minutes, everyone is taking their time." Hanley, whose eponymous gallery has branches in New York and San Francisco’s Mission District, represented the only Bay Area gallery at either Frieze or the Zoo Art Fair, an equally significant affair that took place nearby.

At Frieze, the shift from a seller’s to a buyer’s market wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gallerists were obviously nervous about waiting to see if all of the expressed interest would translate into sales in the post-fair follow-up. But with the power shifting back to the consumer, there were a lot more intriguing discussions. The resulting atmosphere was suggestive of a free music festivalwhere expectations are actually higher than they would be otherwise, since everyone is out for a damn good time, rather than just looking to get their money’s worth.

I had set out to see how collectors and other fair visitors perceived the Bay Area contemporary art on view, but it turned out that Frieze, a sight in its own right, had a different idea regarding how it should be covered. With sales slow and the mood contemplative, visitors were seemingly uninterested in where a particular artist hailed from and more concerned with smaller spectacles: illusions, dazzling techniques, and pieces that changed before their eyes.

A spectacle, art theorists will tell you, is a social relationship mediated by images. In other words, spectacles become a part of you and demand a certain sense of critique. At Frieze, in the wake of the incessant camera clicks following celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow, George Michael, Kate Bosworth, and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich (who apparently took to Nobuyoshi Araki’s latest photos of bound women), there was a noticeable return to direct experience. Numerous fair projects took advantage of this need for interaction, including Dan Graham’s dimension-shifting Rectangle Inside 3/4 Cylinder and Norma Jeane’s three glass cubes where smokers could experience isolation in the midst of the fair’s chaos (check out the online video at In the first two days of the fair, almost 400 smokers lit up in the booths.

Work by SF’s Colter Jacobsen and SFMOMA SECA Art Award prize-winners Tauba Auerbach and Leslie Shows, all represented by Hanley, drew a constant stream of visitors. Conversations with gallerists, art students, browsers, and collectors at Hanley’s booth revealed a fascination with technique, in particular Shows’ hypnotic use of collage to create unnerving landscapes. "There’s a whole universe in there," said one art student from London about Shows’ Cross-Bedded Texts (The Magnetic Dynamo). Two gallerists from Manchester paced back and forth in front of Shows’ Elise (White Bile), Rachel (Blood), Phoebe (Yellow Bile), engrossed in the triptych’s color combination. Shows had a black piece, too, but there was no room for it in Hanley’s crowded booth.

In focusing on living artists and global undertakings, the fair’s directors Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp (who also own Frieze magazine) deserve props for supporting a personal environment. At Hanley’s booth, Home Country by Londoner-turned-Berliner Simon Evans left visitors discussing their individual experiences of particular London neighborhoods. The piece, a black-and-white subway map with puns, personal statements, and anecdotes carefully placed at many of the tube stops, also left some visitors wondering "why he never went to certain places," which were left curiously blank.

Props also should go to whoever controls the weather, for Frieze was blessed with uncannily sunny days in a city known more for fog than for illumination. Following talks by Yoko Ono, Scottish writer/artist Alasdair Gray, music critic Simon Reynolds, and contemporary Renaissance man (most recently of Edible Estates fame) Fritz Haeg, the crowd was buzzing about what might come next — not necessarily about which lines would next be blurred between auction houses, dealers, curators and buyers, but about which flashy sculpture they would encounter in the garden. As happens every year at Frieze, the talks will be made available for free (at, so put away your checkbook, put on your earphones, and don’t forget to write.