The two Frieze art fairs held simultaneously in London every year are now, according to received opinion, the biggest temperature taking, temperature raising events in the whole of the UK art calendar.
As I write this, late on Thursday, after the fairs first fully public day (there was also a V.I.P. preview on Wednesday), the twin events have already received and an immense amount of publicity, with the London Evening Standard well in the lead. On both days, the two temporary fair buildings were thronged with visitors. Clearly, the London public, local and international, has taken to contemporary art in a big way. Outside the two fairs, throughout the city, there is a host of ancillary exhibitions. You could wear out a lot of shoe leather tramping your way around them all.
The questions then are: do they deliver? And, if so, what in fact do they deliver?
The second of these questions is a lot easier to answer than the first. To visitors, British and foreign alike, they provide what may be described as a buzz of belonging. Reassurance, despite the stress of Brexit, with Theresa May’s hapless government trapped like a fly on a giant, tenacious piece of fly-paper – can’t you hear poor old Boris Johnson frantically buzzing? – that London remains at the very centre of global culture. Pictures – or should one now call the exhibits simply ‘art objects’? – speak louder than words.
One curious feature of the event, however, and more particularly of the main Frieze, is that so many of the works on view consist of just that – words. This year’s Frieze is a festival of banal sloganeering, sans-serif type-faces preferred. ‘Do Not Eat Octopus’, you are adjured. ‘How Can I Be a Better Person?’ another painting asks.
‘Other People Think’, a third work tells you. ‘This as That – Be That As It May’ – this last a slogan from the well-known American artist Lawrence Weiner. Maybe somebody should offer it to our embattled Prime Minister.
There are enough Christmas cracker mottos here to provide fillings for a big box of festive goodies, a couple of months from now. The only problem being that the crackers themselves would have to be of giant size.
One of the things that tend to distinguish the main Frieze from Frieze Masters is that the contemporary artists included in the latter tend to be either very senior, or actually dead. Gilbert and George – tick. Peter Blake – tick. Caro – alas, recently departed. The rest of the offerings are various. One thing this year’s Frieze Masters tends to demonstrate rather thoroughly is the increasing scarcity of really important Old Master paintings. If you want to lay hands on one of those, you have to go to one of the major auction rooms and spend your millions there. There is also a lack of really big names from the more recent past – Bacon or Freud, for example.
What you get instead are quite a lot of dealers in antiquities of more than reasonable quality, though nothing that would qualify as a big surprise if it suddenly turned up on the open market. No long-lost equivalents for the Elgin Marbles, suddenly surfacing here. Often these items come from lesser known, and perhaps less thoroughly policed parts of the ancient world. For example, two exquisitely simplified South Arabian alabaster sculptures of faces from around 300 b.c. And there are also some haunting ethnographical pieces – an African helmet mask. These are very much in step with contemporary taste, and likely to cost you a lot less than a recent production by Jeff Koons.
One amusing and neatly provocative example of this overlap in taste is, however, to be found, not in Frieze Masters, but in the main Frieze Fair. Hauser & Wirth are offering a cluttered mini-museum of bronze objects – ancient, antique, and fake (all meticulously labelled), intermingled with items by a few well-known names, and co-selected by none other than Mary Beard. Viewing this, you find yourself instantly transported to some neglected institution in the British provinces. Much more than the smug slogans, it makes a moral point.
There is another kind of moralism, of a more familiar kind, in the section of the main Frieze that is devoted to the theme of sex. This, inevitably, tends to be raucously feminist, rather than being – God forbid – sex for its own sake. But you do at least know exactly what you’re looking at – and what the message is. No need for words.
In fact, in their own paradoxical way, this year’s two Friezes take you back to Victorian times. Forget about pleasure. The basic message tends to be a moral improvement.
Words/Photos Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2017 Top Photo Do Not Eat Octopus by Jeremy Deller