The circus is coming to town. The tent is going up in Regent’s Park and the hordes of gallerists, collectors and devotees are moving in. It is time for the delicious and baffling spectacle that is Frieze London.
Frieze is a mysterious beast. It is a super-capitalist cattle market for the artworld to show off and trade its most prized specimens. It is also a cultural welter where big time collectors, small time crooks, celebrities and artworld groupies gather for the inevitable theatrics.
At the centre of this drama, ideologically separated from the bustle of the marketplace, there is a space of tranquillity. The Sculpture Park sits at the intersection of Frieze London and Frieze Masters, showcasing artworks old and new, curated by Clare Lilley. In its largest presentation to date, the selection includes works from the medieval period through to the present.
The Sculpture Park is free and open to the public; it offers the opportunity to experience some important artworks at a slight remove from the bustle of the fair. In this sense, it veers away from the market and back towards what one thinks should be the open, free, democratic nature of art. In contrast to the mystifying claustrophobia inside the marquee, this open-air museum welcomes everybody and anybody to simply look, contemplate and savour.
Elmgreen & Dragset, But I'm On the Guestlist, Too! , 2012; Courtesy Liverpool Biennial/Victoria Miro.
This year’s selection combines immaculate quality with coherence of art historical reach. The lineage between Joan Miro’s Statue (1975), Norbert Prangenberg’s Two Figures (2005) and Matt Calderwood’s Strapped (2013) is an intelligent survey of abstraction. Rachael Whiteread, Detached 3 (2012) and Oscar Murillo, social anomalies from a factory (2013) offer a snapshot of recent exhibitions of sculpture in the Capital. The highlight is the endlessly magical Elmgreen & Dragset, while the biggest disappointment is another statement of sweet nothings from David Shrigley.
But it is hard not to be incredulous when Frieze, its corporate sponsors and the world’s commercial galleries all convene on a serene patch of grassland with one clear objective in mind. If you close your eyes and block your ears, the Sculpture Park retains its autonomy and sense of grassroots passion for art, but then you cannot see the work or absorb the atmosphere. And therein is the paradox: in order to enjoy this escape from the madness of the fair, you must be embroiled in its highly charged posturing and celebration of unashamed inequality.
Helen Chadwick, Piss Flowers, 1991-1992; Courtesy Richard Saltoun.
Although Frieze is the purest expression of well-worn complaints about how art has become a commodity and an idle infatuation of the super-rich, it is, in the final analysis, also a lot of fun. Like the circus, it stirs a moral disquiet at the same time as providing boundless entertainment. The Sculpture Park promises to be an oasis that is well worth a visit, since it – and the fair in general – offers a precious opportunity to see some great art before it is snapped up into the vaults of collectors, perhaps never to be seen again in one’s lifetime.
(Image on top: Rachel Whiteread, Detached 3, 2012; Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.)