Hailed by many as a ‘mega art year’, 2017 was packed with art events of unprecedented magnitude. Take documenta14 for instance, the quinquennial event which this year took place in the original Kassel and additionally Athens. As such the Frieze Art Fairs in London packed a punch with headline-making sales, and brave and strong choices in their special sections and talks. Frieze has become the go-to art extravaganza in Europe, being attended by both art world professionals and art enthusiasts alike, despite Brexit gloom.
When it came to collectors, the VIP preview day saw an increase in attendance by visitors from the Middle East and Asia. However, that didn’t necessarily translated into immediate sales. ‘Most of our sales happened on the following days,’ said 2016’s Focus Award winner Proyecto Ultravioleta’s Stefan Benchoam. His booth showed a series of photographs and videos by Regina José Galindo that dealt with the uneasy history between Germany’s weapon industry and Guatemala’s civil war. Nonetheless, newcomer New York gallery Jack Shainman reported several sales on the preview day including a new work by Kerry James Marshall, ‘Untitled (Bathers)’ which sold for $875,000.
Following on from 2016’s immersive booth trend, Frieze London 2017 featured plenty of conceptual booths such as Pilar Corrias’, Marian Goodman’s and Esther Schipper’s. The standout one, however, was Hauser and Wirth’s which was entirely turned into a fake dusty bronze age museum. The walls were turned into vitrines replete with items including bronze artefacts on loan from British institutions, alongside artworks from many of the gallery’s artists. These included works from Thomas Houseago, Louise Bourgeois, Henry Moore, as well as Marcel Duchamp’s bronze cast sink stopper. Curated by classics professor Mary Beard, the idea certainly drew in the crowds. However it raised questions as to whether it showed the artists’ works in an appealing and genuine manner, and whether it mocked the state of museums in the UK. To finish it off, it featured a genuine gift shop selling postcards and souvenirs, with all the proceeds going to charity.
Another trait that was first observed in 2016 and came into full force in 2017 was the omnipresence of female artists. So it wasn’t by coincidence that the curated section of Frieze London 2017 was dedicated to radical female artists. Entitled ‘Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics’, it featured nine solo presentations of women working at the > fringes of feminist practices in the 1970s and ‘80s. Some of the artists included Marilyn Minter and Mary Beth Edelson. And while one shouldn’t forget that this new section is still placed within a very commercial context, it succeeded in highlighting the importance of these artists in the art canon.
Politics was also a theme that was pervasive in many booths to varying degrees of explicitness. South African-based Goodman Gallery showed a new painting by Mikhael Subotzky in which the artist whitewashed a Victorian imperialist’s face, and sold for $15,000. While P.P.O.W. gallery was selling Hew Locke’s photographs of British and Irish colonialists statues that were covered up with jewellery. Equally, the solo show of Frieze Artist Award-winner Kiluanji Kia Henda ‘Under the Silent Eye of Lenin’ delved into the function of witchcraft in the Angolan civil war and its relationship to the USSR. Cairo’s Gypsum gallery, on the other hand, debuted at Frieze with the message ‘The Future Belongs to Us’ via artist Basim Madga’s bright yellow work ‘Our Prehistoric Fate’ (2011) in Frieze Focus. This section, which offers special conditions to young galleries, featured an array of newcomers from all over the world including Cape Town’s blank projects and Bogotá’s Instituto de Visión.
The special sections of Frieze London such as the talks also brought together a diverse group of art practitioners to explore art’s capacity to disrupt notions of what’s real in the age of ‘post-truth’. The events included a performance by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Philipe Parreno, as well as a session of ‘sung lectures’ by Nástio Mosquito and Mx Justin Vivian Bond.
Frieze Masters also had a series of talks featuring more art heavyweights including Isaac Julien and Marina Abromović. At Masters everything is grander, more excessive and also more expensive, all the way down to the coffee. This sixth edition really offered something to all tastes as its historical spectrum ranges from ancient Rome to the late 1980s. As per usual religious art featured heavily with dealers such as Sam Fog and Jean-Luc Baroni offering European religious art and Islamic art.
Over here it was also possible to see immersive booths. This time, Waddington Custot gallery took it one step further by relocating Sir Peter Blake’s studio to the Frieze Masters stand including all of the English artist’s paraphernalia, like his kit and caboodle, model elephants and mannequins. It was a little confusing to anyone interested in buying but it certainly wowed visitors who likened it to being in a real house. Yet the best concept went to Ropac’s stand which only showed works made in 1984 as a nod to Orwell’s novel which dealt with state control and paranoia, hence perfectly resonating with what’s happening politically in the West. This way the gallery managed to showcase works by modern masters including Georg Baselitz, Joseph Beuys, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol.
Another impressive solo show with museum ambitions was Lynda Benglis’. Represented by Cheim & Read and Thomas Dane Gallery, the pioneer of feminist art showed a series of wall sculptures that are both biomorphic and surreal. Perhaps as a response to the uncertain times we live in today, Surrealism was present in many other stands such as Davi Lévy’s with Hans Bellmer’s half doll, or Alison Jacques Gallery’s Maria Bartuszovás’ sculptures with intriguing round forms.
Also surreal were the combinations and variety one could find here which are much starker than over at Frieze London. There are unrestored Günther Ueckers meters far away from a genuine Egyptian mummy’s sarcophagus or a bust from neoclassical Rome. It’s dazzling and it’s dizzying much like the forbidding prices which are often over a million dollars. However, as of late these price tags have been challenged. Recently, a Francis Bacon estimated at £60m failed to sell at Christie’s, as well as works by Damien Hirst. ‘I see the market attempting to correct itself, I think people are seeing through the hype,’ says Natasha Arselan, founder of AucArt, the world’s first online interactive auction house. ‘I think we’re going through a spring cleaning period and I see a glimpse of democratisation, and hopefully more transparency.’
Every year the Frieze art fairs promise to show the best new and old art of the world. And every year their programme of cultural projects and discussions expands in what seems to have slowly become a cultural institution in its own right. Yet Frieze makes no pretence that it is in fact primarily its own art market, proving that culture and commerce are not only much more connected than we realise but that they need each other in order to thrive.
Kiluanji Kia Henda, Frieze Artist Award, Frieze Projects 2017
Photo by Lewis Ronald. Courtesy of Lewis Ronald/Frieze