Frieze Art Fair: fascination, opposition and the spectre of institutional critique

Like every year in London around mid October, Frieze Art Fair kicks in and all hell breaks loose. The number of reviews and commentaries across the international art press keeps growing with every edition, along with the urgency to cover not just the fair (two fairs now, in fact, with the recent addition of Frieze Masters) but also the parties and off-programme events that the local institutions and galleries host during the week. But, what exactly are we judging when we consider Frieze fair? Is it the quality of the selection of galleries and artworks displayed? The interest of its parallel programmes of talks, screenings and commissioned projects? How tightly curated its “younger” sections are, Frame and Focus? Or it is perhaps the sales figures achieved by the end if it all? The thing is, we judge it all, at the same time. And who or what could stand the weight of such a frenzied, multi-faceted trial?

Many artist friends speak of the unease they feel when they either show work in or visit an art fair. It is a recurrent, and inevitable, source of angst amongst artists – more subdued perhaps in the case of critics and curators. Artists speak of the almost pornographic quality of art fairs, which shamelessly expose the true colours of the system in which they work: the art market. But the questions is that without this market, (contemporary) art wouldn’t exist within the parameters we understand it. Commodification, exchange and class signification are the very essence of art, it’s raison d’être, even after decades of challenges in the form of conceptual and dematerialised practices, earnest in their intentions but, eventually, processed by the market like a boa constrictor digesting a mouse. Therefore, even if the so-called ‘art fair boom’ is somewhat recent –peaking about four or five years ago–, the materialistic compulsion it embodies and exacerbate commenced a long long time ago, with the very first artistic manifestations. And even if artists need to turn a blind eye towards the market in order to create work that holds some degree of currency and authenticity, the structures of funding and exchange that enable the exposure and dissemination of such work are still lurking behind every step of the artistic process. This is what the art fair exposes and what artists hate to see.

Mark Leckey, Pylons, Nylons & Klossowski AD (2013). Installation view at Frieze Art Fair 2013

Mark Leckey, Pylons, Nylons & Klossowski AD (2013). Installation view at Frieze Art Fair 2013, Cabinet gallery.

The fact is, art fairs do display interesting art. At this year’s Frieze London, for example, I was particularly taken with a painting by Pierre Klossowski that was used, ready made style, in Mark Leckey’s installation at Cabinet, which, as it happens, won the Best Stand prize. The painting, a softly coloured drawing of delicate lines, titled Ogier morigénant le Frére Damiens (1990), shows a young man resisting the advances of a clergyman lying on a bed. The seditious aura of this work is perhaps amplified by its inclusion in an event so closely aligned with ‘power structures’. In this context, the painting could have been instantly institutionalised and neutralised, but it somehow manages to retain its critical agency. Pierre Klossowski –friend of George Bataille, brother of Balthus and mentor of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Maurice Blanchot–, makes for an uncomfortable and fascinating art fair encounter and, for me, enacts the subversive cracks and potentialities that can transpire in such prescribed events.

Our general fascination with art fairs – and with this London art fair in particular–, plays out a set of contradictions that are ripe in artists and cultural agents that operate within what we call critical or political practices. How to make work which criticises neoliberal politics or the dangers of immaterial labour, for example, while striving to be part of this tantalising bonfire of vanities? The cognitive dissonance required for this is, I believe, the key asset to successfully navigate the moral dilemmas endemic to the art world, to reconcile the need for attention and support from it while having enough distance not to fall for its empty promises and siren songs. In this sense, the advantage of the Frieze fairs resides perhaps in their synergy with Frieze magazine, which also spreads its monthly contents across emerging artists, established figures and critical trends, while occupying half of its pages with glossy advertising sold to blue chip galleries and institutions from all over the world but managing to keep the credibility of brand intact nonetheless.

I will wrap up my musings with a final idea: The opposition to art fairs lies, I think, not too far away from the domains of the classic principles of ‘institutional critique’, interesting and seminal indeed –as were some of the artworks these ideas produced– but ultimately doomed to become a parody of themselves, paraded and capitalised by the very structures they seek to undermine.

This text was originally published on the website of Revista Concreta in November 2013

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About Lorena Muñoz-Alonso

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