London Frieze review by Helena Sokol


Our feature writer Helena Sokol visited London’s Frieze art fair to take in the wealth of amazing art and culture along with the bureaucracy and nepotism that rules the art industry.

Published: October 11, 2017Words: Helena Sokol

Iwent to Frieze so you don’t have to – though if you have the chance, you should definitely go. London’s biggest art fair for contemporary art (by living artists) opened for the select few (I wasn’t one of them) Wednesday the 4th of October, and I went there Friday to see what all the fuss was about. Post-fair, my thoughts centered around feminist art, the Frieze Focus, and the weird absence of anything even slightly provocative.

It all started in 2003 with approximately 5500 sqm of space, 124 galleries and 20 million dollars in sales. In 2017, already on the first day, galleries saw sales of over 8.8 million, and if audience numbers continue their trajectory from last year, Frieze is expecting to have more than 60.000, to visit this temporarily materialized stronghold of art.

Lately, art fairs like these and their smaller cousins are increasingly a risky, but necessary investment for every type of gallery. With no guarantee of profit and an extensive overhead, it is especially hard for younger galleries. You need to talk, drink and eat your way through spectators, collectors, academics, and artists if you want to succeed on the market, adding to the ever-increasing bill.

Smaller galleries can easily spend $100-150.000 on fairs, while bigger spend up to a whopping $500.000 or more. That’s also why there are two other art fairs at the same time as Frieze – Affordable Art Fair, and Moniker Art Fair, the latter known for their focus on street art. Bundling these events increases the chances of collectors and visitors to see all three, especially if they are not only wanting to get another Basquiat but also looking for upcoming artists. While the big galleries attract all kinds of collectors, the possibility of sales bleeds over to smaller names.

I usually tell the people who want to go to art fairs, or even museums, to try to go quite quickly through them at first. Personally, I walk quite briskly at first, looking and scouting, and if anything catches my eye, I will stop and look. With something like 170 galleries to go through, I’m afraid my brain would overheat if I had to dissect all the information and works in one day. You can then return for a second round, discovering works you might have missed the first time. However, I do not recommend trying to consume Frieze in two hours, as I did. I was almost in physical pain. Luckily, the Frieze sculpture park outside the tent, free of charge, offers comfort with its larger-than-life cartoon characters, performances, mirrors and traditional bronze works.

The first thing that meets the eye when you enter the fair is The Kiss of Judas, and for a moment I thought that Jeff Koons had bought the original work and proceeded to slap on a shiny blue ball onto the yellow robe of Judas. It seems like something he would do – destroying a 700-year-old painting by Giotto.

London Frieze review by Helena Sokol

I immediately got lost and had to start over because if I were to get through in two hours, some system had to be in place. I was trying to look for something that really would put some thoughts in motion, be it an unusual use of booth space, a work that made me gag, or something in between.

The first gallery to have this was Massimo de Carlo, with five massive variations of the American flag, or at least the colors that resemble it. Polish-born Piotr Uklański used tie-dye, a traditionally hippie method of coloring, to set the scene for a fight between nationalism and naivety. However, as the cherry on top, the gallery appropriately placed a seemingly inconspicuous cubist sculpture by Andrea Ursuta in front of it.

Maybe it’s my anxious nature, but the sculpture had eyes and a nose which resembled the characteristic KKK outfits a little too much – and it was on a little chair! It would have almost been cute if it wasn’t for America’s current chillingly spiraling into white supremacy.

I felt like I was on a roll when I then stumbled into Jack Shainman Gallery, where one of my favorite artists had a mixed media sculpture shown. Nick Cave (not the musician) is mostly known for his “soundsuits,” colorful assemblages of feathers, human hair, everyday objects and decoration like pearls and sequins, integrated with suits in strange and wonderful shapes. However, this was one of his newer sculptures and captured another side to the artist – the objectification of the black male. The stereotypical representation of a black man, found in a flea market, was surrounded by branches and ceramic objects, creating a narrative through imaginary memorabilia – the audience was forced to confront the ridicule and shame and turn to education to condone themselves.

However, my high of seeing art disseminating political themes didn’t last long. I wandered up and down the rows, avoiding furry ladies in high heels and busy black-clad Frieze employees, wondering if the gallery owners and assistants were part of some giant ingenious joke, where they simply sat around texting each other. Maybe it’s just one big performance, staged to show how little anyone really cares about your opinion.

London Frieze review by Helena Sokol

And how much money would you need to have managed to sit in the Deutsche Bank Lounge? Does the personal BMW service offered at the fair drive you there?

There is a special place in hell for people who take selfies with art. There has been a terrifying increase in art being destroyed by people in their search for the right angle. And don’t touch the art, particularly things that glow or glitter – I know it’s hard, but have an extra think before you lean in to get that pic for Facebook. Unfortunately, I think that galleries are feeling the pressure of exhibiting Instagram-worthy art, creating an endless spiral of temptation and need.

Wandering thoughts aside, I felt like there were way too few political works of art. With these galleries having so much power, money, and influence, you would think they would pick up on the current global socio-economical turmoil and act on it. But no.

Frankly, I think it is their responsibility. While big companies constantly strive to find new and better way to fulfill their corporate social responsibilities, the art world’s mastodons are stuck in the ice age. Instead, they show the same famous names in the same conventional curatorial ways. Some places I visited, didn’t write the artist’s name, and you couldn’t find a price tag no matter how hard you tried.

This kind of secrecy is unique to the art world. So is the notorious lack of service. If an employee in any other retail or service industry continually ignored you, there’s a chance you wouldn’t come back. It is alienating and embarrassing, and I know it has been complained about it since the dawn of times.

Maybe I’m just tired – and at the tender age of 25, hopefully with 40 years ahead of me in the creative industry, it feels like watching a collision in slow motion. With a growing understanding that we as millennials generally have the attention span of a squirrel on Redbull, I don’t have time to see the end. Fortunately, in 40 years, all these middle-aged gallerists may be gone, so new (hopefully) innovative minds have taken over.

Despite my previous expression of disappointment, there were still a few works at the main fair that caught my eye.

Jason Fox had read my mind at this stage with his work, I Don’t Even Know What Okay is Anymore. The many-limbed vampire alien was strange enough for me to walk into the otherwise unimpressive booth.

Kyungah Ham’s mind-fucking embroidery piece Series In Camouflage/Money Never Sleeps was soothing to my soul, particularly when I looked at the accompanying material description, which stated: “North Korean hand embroidery, silk threads on cotton, middle man, anxiety, censorship, wooden frame.” Her imagery and sense of humor were seductive and needed.

London Frieze review by Helena Sokol

I was exhilarated to see Erkka Nissinen & Nathaniel Mellors’ Finnish absurdism at The Box, with works from their series The Aalto Natives. They have built up a narrative around flimsy characters like eggs and cardboard boxes with googly eyes and too much responsibility. I saw them for the first time at the Venice Biennale this year representing Finland, and I have never laughed so hard at an art exhibition.

Other works include Olafur Eliasson’s Instagram-worthy, color-changing glass balls, Berta Fischer’s acrylic glass sculptures, Michael Borremans’ small, but dark painting Angel Dust and Jonathan Meese’s DR. Z.U.K.U.NF.T FÜHRT, WIE SAU, COOL, COOLISM…. (ZEDADDY). There were a few more mention-worthy, but I wanted to make sure to get around the most surprising and mention-worthy part of Frieze.

I want to touch upon the theme of the fair’s special exhibition called Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics, which by the title alone seems highly sensationalist, while at the same time underwhelming and self-explanatory.

Frieze went to great length to explain how these women for 50 years have struggled to get their sexually explicit work exhibited, and how this is an important celebration of how galleries are now brave enough to support and exhibit the artists. Furthermore, we are no longer too prude to look at penetrating penises, dildos, and balloons that touch like nipples.

I would have been very happy with this development if it weren’t for the lack of political context for the artists – except for A.I.R Gallery’s timeline, which showed their collaborations with important people within the movements in the 70’s.

It felt like there was an atmosphere of theme, instead of real research. Next year it’ll be something else, and what impact will it have made? For me, it was the first time to see feminist icon artists, like Renate Bertelman and Betty Tompkins, and I was impressed of course. But does the inclusion of feminist artists really make it feminist?

But on a positive note was Focus, Frieze’s section for younger upcoming galleries, with no more than ten years on their backs. Why they chose such an uninspiring name for the best part of the fair, I don’t know. This part of the fair was bursting with full-booth installations, experimental curating and actual international galleries, not just from New York, London or Hong Kong.

One of the galleries that I immediately became aware of was Stevenson, hailing from South Africa. Their stand was simple, but tight, mostly dominated by Nicholas Hlobo’s ritualistic and slightly creepy work. His wall pieces incorporated ribbon, leather, and sewing, creating a wonderfully organic and intimate world, oozing softness and a slightly rigid sense of gender roles.

London Frieze review by Helena Sokol

I briefly passed by Instituto De Visión, from Bogota, who was representing Mexico-born Pia Camil. She was chosen for the Frieze Projects, for which she had done a series of “habitable paintings” in her characteristic style. These wearable fabrics were shared with whoever wanted them, for use as blankets, capes, ponchos. It was interactive and engaging – something I hadn’t seen yet in the main fair.

The Breeder in Athens had the weirdest piece of work I had seen in a long time. Usually, I don’t like video in the first place, but Theo Triantafydillis melted both my brain and my heart. Computer game graphics, trashy, totally dadaistic and a bright neon palette joined together to show us a world that doesn’t care about your aesthetics or rules – that, and the only sound of the video is the meow of cats.

For me, he is really pushing the potential of digital art, placing it in a context of physical space as an installation that takes up the room instead of staying two-dimensional – and after a little research, I found out he also does ceramics and paints. Swoon.

Frieze was what I expected of a fair of that size. Impressive and disappointing at the same time – some brutal critics say you get the same year after year, but I don’t think that per say. There are repetitions in names and works, and I certainly enjoyed the upcoming galleries part better, but I believe that everybody should try to go to at least one art fair every year, just to broaden one’s horizon and to learn how to act around art, artists and galleries.

And to buy art, of course.