Where is the champagne? On second thoughts this is not entirely the right question. The champagne is in the ice trough, on top of the elegantly-worn Eames table behind the partition wall. The woman with a pom-pom on her head milling around beneath the late Frank Stellas has a glass of the stuff, as do the men in overcooked salmon slacks, the eternal palette du jour for collectors’ trousers, but it doesn’t seem likely that any of it is going to make it out of the booth they’re standing in, at least not into my hand. Given the circumstances, Who do I have to be to get a glass of champagne? might well be the better question.
‘Of course if it was up to us, and a lot of people we work with, you know, it would just be open to everyone the whole time,’ Matthew Slotover, co-founder of Frieze Art Fair, had told me some weeks prior, a little unconvincingly. Because at 7 p.m. on 14 October, 2015, standing in the aisle of London’s most lucrative contemporary art fair on the opening night, the meticulously planned tiering system is as clear as the shoreline under the Saint-Tropez sun. Slotover has given me a 5 p.m. VIP pass, which in the Frieze running order makes me a fourth-class citizen. Above me are the VVIPs, who can access the tent from 2 p.m.; above them are the VVVIPs, free to mill around from midday; and above them are the VVVVIPs, persons of paramount importance who can enter the tent from 11 a.m., and are furnished upon arrival with a complimentary bag of beauty products. The 5 p.m. VIP pass, then, is for persons of distinctly ordinary importance.
But not to despair, because although I am only fourth on the ladder there are many more beneath me. There are the eager groups of art students sneaking in on the ticket of an art world friend, only to realise, once zapped through the guarded bag check, that Princess Eugenie is back in her castle, Benedict Cumberbatch has left the tent, and the champagne, that damn champagne, is anything but forthcoming. And then there are the 80 per cent of visitors to the fair who actually pay to get in, visitors who are also subjected to the rigours of tiering. Be the first to see Frieze! the website rather disingenuously advertises the Premium ticket, available at an extra cost on Wednesday when the fair first opens to the great and uninvited. By Saturday the collectors have cleared out their luggage from the cloakroom and departed the tent entirely, en route to Dubai or Moscow, having enjoyed the benefits of their nondomiciled status, a boon to the city’s high-rolling international residents that makes splashing out at the fair particularly appealing. Or off to Paris’s Grand Palais for the opening of FIAC, the next fair in the calendar, where many of the galleries at Frieze London will once again lay out their wares, before moving on to Cologne, Miami, New York, Hong Kong… or back across the park to the mansion houses of Primrose Hill for that matter, making way for the hoi polloi of London’s culture-curious on Regent’s Park’s lawns.
If on Tuesday the fair is a chin-tuck in Dior brogues, by the weekend it’s a schoolgirl with a Winsor & Newton sketchbook, diligently cross-hatching her way through a sculpture in the booth opposite, without noticing that seen from behind it is not, in fact, the sincere mid-century meditation on the union of landscape and female form she thinks it is, but a gigantic bronze penis, penetrating itself through its own, Henry Moore-esque orifice; if only she had taken the time to walk around the thing, but she was put off by that rather stiff-looking Parisian gallerist in a tailored suit and trainer shoes, the one doing his utmost to appear as if he were alone with his MacBook in the 6th Arrondissement, waiting for a collector to arrive for a vue intime. Perspective, alas, is not something one learns from still-life lessons alone…
Art fairs have a habit of showing everyone present in an unsympathetic light. Because, of course, the gallerist is not there to offer free tours to school children but to sell art, and has stumped up a five-figure sum for a booth in a prime location, money that will not be repaid by acts of benevolent pedagogy. And that girl studying the bronze, has she not in fact arrived with the rather commendable notion that one might learn something from art, and was she not also enticed to the tent by Frieze itself, which publicises the fair as a place to buy art, yes, but also as a glittering pin thumbed into the map of the cultural landscape? ‘Experience moments of immersion and interaction,’ says the press material, ‘encounter impressive outdoor works,’ ‘explore Frieze Projects, the fair’s non-profit programme of artists’ commissions.’ Experience, encounter, discover, explore, words tailored to an altogether different audience than buy, sell, network and speculate.
Herein lies the crux of Frieze London. It is everything all at once, trade fair and cultural institution, commercial and non-profit, a fair that commissions artists at the same time that it is paid by galleries to show them. Frieze is a microcosm of the art world from the fringes to the moneyed core, and reveals all its dazzling paradoxes. These were paradoxes, I decided, that I should like to get to the bottom of. And so, in the run-up to the 2015 edition of Frieze London, I spoke to three people who have been involved in the fair from its inception – the former Young British Artist Jake Chapman, super-collector Candida Gertler, and the co-founder of Frieze Art Fair, Matthew Slotover – as well as a number of newcomers and casualties, in order to track the various beliefs and investments that follow artworks as they pass through the heart of the market.
‘When I go to Frieze I think a lot about the idea that if there was an overnight virus and everyone died, and the Martians came down and started trying to catalogue what the fuck people were up to, you know, there would be certain things they could say yep, yep, absolutely, we get that.’ Jake Chapman breaks off from his story, one of many he would tell me over the course of an afternoon at his gated studio complex in Hackney Wick, and picks up the glass in front of him as an example. ‘But there’d be certain things they’d be looking at saying what the fuck is this?’ I ask whether the aliens would approve of the artworks he makes with his older brother and collaborator, Dinos. ‘It wouldn’t last. Ours wouldn’t, no!’ Would the aliens not understand, I enquire, the artworks they produced? ‘I think they would understand them, they’d think children made them! Weird children, very disturbed children.’
Jake Chapman is a big man. His face is peppered with stubble, where his head is not bald it is shaved close to the skull, and his arms are covered in scrappy homemade tattoos. When we meet he is dressed in a camouflage t-shirt, jeans and heavy leather boots. But despite his imposing figure, there is something disarmingly innocent about him. His eyebrows point upwards in the middle in an expression of mild and pleasant surprise, he is prone to debilitating bouts of giggles, and while his rampant verbosity might be unbearable in someone else, even the most convoluted of tales are turned sweet on Chapman’s lips, tales which he delivers with the freedom and gaiety of a bird singing in a tree. These qualities combine in him, so that whatever the argument he is busy extolling, whether Armageddon or the existential crisis of the artwork at an art fair, he gives the impression that his spirit, for all the world, is as light as cotton candy. Here is a man able to be at once deadly serious and completely infantile, and who has built a career out of this particular capacity.
‘I remember Matthew Slotover and Tom Gidley coming up to me years and years and years ago, and they gave me a little piece of paper, a little photocopy,’ Chapman tells me, breaking into a very silly voice. ‘And they came up and they said, we’re gonna do a… they were really little, you know… we’re gonna do this magazine, it’s gonna be called frieze, and we’re wondering if you’d like to write for it. And I remember thinking, ah, that’s sweet. And look at it now.’
The Frieze empire began with frieze magazine – founded by Slotover, Amanda Sharp and artist Tom Gidley in 1991 – and rose to prominence with the Young British Artists – a group whose swaggering, shock-baiting antics featured heavily in the early editions, and who now command vast sums on the international market. The Chapman brothers are among those associated with the YBA moniker who went on to become household names, along with the galleries and dealers who made them. Jay Jopling, owner of White Cube gallery, continues to represent the Chapmans to their mutual benefit; he also launched the careers of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Jopling was never a poor man – the son of a Conservative Baron, he was educated at Eton – but his estimated fortune of £100 million has certainly been bolstered by White Cube’s commercial success. ‘I always liked to collide the establishment with the avant-garde,’ he said of his modus operandi in an interview with the Financial Times‘ art critic Jackie Wullschlager. ‘In art world terms,’ Wullschlager explains, Jopling ‘is the establishment.’
Chapman tells me that he wrote for frieze magazine on a number of occasions, but stopped after deciding that it was too ‘humane’ and ‘confessional’. One of Damien Hirst’s now trademark butterfly pictures featured on the cover of the first edition – a staple-bound magazine with a flimsy, callow charm. By the time that the 174th edition came out in October 2015, the magazine had a print readership of 320,000, and three of the world’s most prominent art fairs had opened under the Frieze umbrella: Frieze London, Frieze Masters, which joins the original fair on the lawns of Regent’s Park, and Frieze New York.
Shortly before the opening of Frieze London 2015, I visit Matthew Slotover at Frieze HQ, on the top floor of a converted Victorian poor school in Shoreditch. The door to his glass-walled office opens, and Slotover rises with a slow, broad smile. He looks good, a trim figure with dark, close-cropped hair who shows little evidence of approaching 50. To the right of his desk is a lounge area of mid-century furniture in black leather and dark hardwood. A rubberised pannier bag unclipped from Slotover’sbicycle is propped against the wall, and strapped to his wrist, catching the light as it cascades through the Victorian window panes, is the blank, glossy face of the latest Apple smart watch.
The initial idea for frieze, he says, was to ‘promote young artists and sell their work directly through the magazine’, but the plan changed when he was advised that wasn’t how the industry worked, ‘that you go through the galleries and there’s a reason for that’, and that it would be ‘tacky’ to sell art through a publication. A nascent contemporary art magazine, of course, would considerably hamper its chances of success by cutting out galleries, the same art world professionals who form an integral part of frieze’s readership, and who shell out upwards of £3,000 for a full page advertisement (advertisements which, in 2015’s November edition, account for roughly half of the magazine’s content). The initial idea to sell art through the magazine was not so much dropped as re-calibrated. Page space and not artworks would be the object in which frieze traded, allowing artists and galleries to become ‘friends’, as Slotover calls them, rather than direct competitors. ‘Doing a magazine’, he tells me, ‘you get to know artists, you become sympathetic towards them. Of course you’re supposed to be critical about them but generally you’re on their side. And if something’s not interesting, we just don’t cover it.’
It would not be until 2003 that Frieze London first pitched its gargantuan white tent on Regent’s Park’s lawns, but the seeds for the magazine’s expansion had been sown some years prior. In 1995, frieze published an article by photographer Collier Schorr titled ‘Who is the Fairest of Them All’. ‘The art fair’, Schorr opens, ‘is the most frequented and beleaguered event manufactured by the art world.’ Full of moustachioed dealers wearing braces and monk shoes, she suggested they were no place for the future faces of the market. There was, however, an exception – for Schorr, and significantly for the young Matthew Slotover – and it came in the form of UnFair.
UnFair was established in 1992 by a group of galleries who had been denied booths by a dinosaur of the fair circuit, the prestigious and long-running Art Cologne. Unlike Art Cologne, held in the great trade fair halls on the edge of the city, UnFair took place in a disused department store in the centre of town. The stuffy old world had been banished; this fair had renegade status.
Slotover recalls UnFair fondly. ‘They had Motown playing over the tannoy,’ he tells me, ‘and Damien Hirst was at the tiny White Cube stand, and he put twins sitting on the stand next to twin frankfurters in formaldehyde – because it was in Cologne,’ he says, grinning. It was at UnFair that the YBAs began to shine in the eyes of the international market; it was at UnFair that the market place could, at long last, be cool.
Gregor Muir, now the director of London’s ICA gallery, remembers UnFair through similarly rebel-tinted spectacles. ‘I hitched a ride to Cologne with frieze magazine,’ he writes in his memoir LuckyKunst: The Rise And Fall Of Young British Art, with none other than a young Slotover behind the wheel. After an encounter with an artist pretending to be unpacked from a shipping crate, who ‘delivered a thigh-slapping proclamation that he would continue to live in his crate for the duration of the fair’, Muir headed to the opening party with Jake Chapman.
‘The atmosphere was exhilarating,’ Muir continues, ‘everyone dancing to the thumping beats that reverberated through the vast interior. I looked up from my triple vodka and tonic and saw Anthony Reynolds, an otherwise reserved London gallerist, boogying on the dance floor’. The night did not end there. At two in the morning, Muir and Chapman returned to the fair, arriving the picture of rebellion, ‘utterly inebriated’ and covered in crumbs ‘from the collection of cakes we’d stuffed in our mouths after passing a bakery preparing for the day ahead’. Once inside, Muir helped himself to beer from behind the bar, and Chapman began swapping the paintings between booths – that is until Muir intervened, fearing their antics would provoke such grave retribution that the pair would be ‘deported’.
UnFair ended after only two years, but it showed that at a fair one really could have it all – boogying gallerists, pickled wieners, performance artists, and no end of minor rebellions. Best of all, like an anarchist fancy-dress party in a hedge-fund office, was the potential to have all this while making vast sums of money.
‘We would go to the art fairs in Cologne’, Slotover tells me, ‘and Basel and Paris and Madrid, and think, “Wow, these are great”. And we would go there as art critics to try and find out about the art, and meet the dealers, and see what artists were doing. So we always thought art fairs were great places, not thinking at all about the buying and selling of it, just as a way of communicating.’ The first Frieze fair was unveiled in 2003, with 124 galleries from across the world participating. By the end of the week, £20 million of sales had taken place within the tent, with Frieze making just shy of £1 million from renting out floor space alone.
The Chapman brothers have been frequent exhibitors at Frieze Art Fair since its inception, showing in the blue-chip section at the front of the tent. If access to the fair is subject to a strict tiering process, so too is the tent’s topography, with galleries organised alphabetically into zones from front to back according to status. Up the ramp at the entrance, drop off your luggage, through security, locate your zone…Universal Studio, the firm who designed the tent, are masters in the art of transforming corporate non-space into a luxury destination. Also on their résumé: the Fortnum & Mason Champagne Bar at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.
The bulk of exhibitors – commercially established galleries working with commercially established artists – are in the Main Stand, with the blue-chippers in the A zone by the entrance where the cost of floor space enters five figures. Such outlays can be recuperated in a single sale: at White Cube’s stand in 2015, Damien Hirst’s painting Holbein (Artist’s Watercolours) (2015) sold for just shy of a million before lunchtime on the opening day.
At the back of the tent, bringing up the rear in zones G and H, is the Focus section for younger galleries. Here careers are less established, business more precarious, floor space is cheaper and there is pressure, particularly on debutante galleries, to show artworks of a less straightforwardly commercial nature. ‘If you want to get in the club’, artist Samara Scott tells me, having embedded a pond of fizzy drinks, shampoo and various perishable matter directly into the floor of the tent for the maiden voyage at Frieze of the gallery that represents her, South London’s Sunday Painter, ‘you have to do a difficult initiation act.’ Once the hazing is over, a gallery can pull out the plinths, hang the paintings, and take the easier route to making sales. But ‘it would be distasteful’, Scott says, ‘for a young, upcoming gallery to do something so – oh my god! transparently commercial, how disgusting!’
One of the Chapmans’ most memorable outings at Frieze London was Painting for Pleasure and Profit in 2006, for which they set up shop in White Cube’s booth painting half an hour portraits for £4,500 a pop. ‘I could see what Dinos was doing,’ Chapman says of this venture, ‘he could see what I was doing, but the people sitting couldn’t see, so we’d do two people at the same time, and it was the funniest. He did the most beautiful, really beautiful, exquisite painting of this demure Spanish woman who sat down, paid her money – and it was not an insubstantial amount – and he painted her and she had this lovely necklace and beautiful silk dress, and he painted this. And then he painted this severed neck!’ Chapman’s face concertinas in giggles; evidently, he is immensely pleased by the memory of the decapitated subject. ‘Just the idea of sitting down and not getting your portrait done!’
The demure Spanish woman in the silk dress would have been disappointed, of course, if the Chapmans hadn’t come up with something suitably puckish. The pair thrive on playing the court jester, of presenting the apparently unpresentable to their audience. Among their biggest feats to date are buying a set of Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War etchings from the early nineteenth century and defacing them for an exhibition at White Cube in 1999, and adding rainbows and love hearts to watercolours painted by Adolf Hitler – at least ostensibly, the pair have form when it comes to the art world hoax – for their exhibition If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy We Would Be at White Cube in 2008. Gruesome portraits to order, by their standards, are relatively tame fare. At 2007’s fair they were back at White Cube offering to deface £20 and £50 notes for fairgoers, free of charge – an exhibit that Candida Gertler, art collector and founder of philanthropic organisation Outset, described as among her favourite exhibits to date.
I met Gertler at the Greenberry Cafe in Primrose Hill to find out more about the tightly entwined genesis of Outset and Frieze London, as well as the curious attraction of the super-rich to the ‘non-profit’ sides of the art world. With her ringed fingers sparkling in the North-West London sun, Gertler eased into an origin story of how she, Sharp and Slotover had concocted the plan while out for dinner one night ‘in a little Korean restaurant’ in 2002. The details of this story were evidently important, as if the smallness of the restaurant and the fact that it was Korean displayed not only the intimate relationship she had with Sharp and Slotover, but a subtler form of sophistication. When one could very well eat every meal at the Ritz, it is those things which not only have to be paid for but discovered that are the mark of the truly cultivated.
They hatched a plan: to create a fund of money – £150,000, made up of individual pledges from private donors in Gertler’s network of friends and associates – with which artworks would be bought at Frieze London and donated directly to the national collection at Tate. One of the artworks on Outset’s shopping list for 2004’s fair, Roman Ondák’s Good Feelings in Good Times (2003), would become the first work of performance art ever owned by the Tate. Ondak’s piece consisted of performers instructed to line up in queues between seven and fourteen strong, reading papers, twiddling their thumbs, in areas of the fair where one might not expect a queue to form.
Good Feelings in Good Times was exhibited as a part of the non-profit Frieze Projects, a section of the fair Gertler describes as showing ‘less obviously commercially viable’ artworks. Unlike the majority of artists participating in the fair, whose work is displayed in booths paid for by the galleries that represent them, artists showing as part of Frieze Projects are commissioned by in-house curators to produce site-specific work. Dotted around the tent as a series of theatrical and participatory interludes, the Projects bring to the fair something missing from the rows of paintings and objects on plinths which – typically having little to no conceptual relationship with the tent, the artworks they are displayed alongside or the fair itself – appear ready to be packed up and shipped on. The Projects take seriously the fair’s ambition to be a space of curatorial as well as financial value; they make Frieze appear less like a bazaar and more like an exhibition.
‘There was no price tag to it,’ Gertler tells me, recounting the purchase of Ondak’s work, ‘and I remember standing in the corridor with Jessica Morgan’ – then the Curator of Contemporary Art at Tate Modern – ‘who was at the time part of our team, and Roman said “I don’t have a price for it,” and then they disappeared, and you know, there was two minutes of conversation, and they came back with “£8,000”. OK! £8,000!’
Gertler’s excitement at having bought an artwork without a price tag was palpable. But in reality, buying a performance work from the non-profit section of the fair is like asking a shopkeeper if you can buy the jacket on the mannequin in the window. It might not be the obvious choice, it might be, as Gertler so aptly put it, less obviously commercially viable, but it is a request that is hardly likely to be denied. A shop is a shop, a market is a market, a fair is a fair, and for the right price everything is for sale.
There is evidently an appeal in aligning oneself with artworks that have a less explicit relationship with commerce. Like that little Korean restaurant, such artworks offer something that the big names of the art market do not. When having the bank balance of a multi-millionaire is qualification enough to hang a Spot Painting by Damien Hirst in the stateroom of your superyacht, buying the ostensibly un-buyable is an especially piquant pleasure. By this logic, it is perhaps unsurprising that when Gertler lists her favourite exhibits at Frieze to date, the list should include three exhibits that are less obviously commercially viable, and which all also involved waiting in line – an experience of thrilling mundanity, one can only assume, for those unacquainted with Lidl on a Sunday afternoon. In addition to Ondák’s queue and the Chapman’s defaced bank notes, topping Gertler’s list is rolling down a grass slope as part of Paola Pivi’s installation for the Projects section in 2003, a popular attraction that required a brief spell of the much enjoyed hanging around.
The Chapman brothers have been granted the keys to Frieze City, and in his studio, Jake Chapman runs me through a number of convoluted and improbable suggestions they have floated concerning their participation. ‘We wanted to do a booth where you could go and buy someone else’s work from somewhere else and bring it to us and we’d change it.’ The flaw in this proposal, alas, was ‘the unpredictability of people’s egos’. Another idea involved offering ‘free money’ to homeless people at the fair. For this, he tells me, ‘we’d need to have an ATM, we’d have us drawing, and what people would have to do is take out £20, give homeless people £10 and we’d draw.’ But the mother of all proposals, also including the unsuspecting homeless, was one suggested to Miuccia Prada, head of the luxury goods dynasty, and a major patron of the arts.
‘We had another idea to do a show in Milan at the Prada Foundation, and I just remember sitting and talking to Miuccia Prada and suggesting this as a possible idea. It was called Tramps on Ice. We wanted to build a big ice rink – because Milan is full of smackheads and a terrible sort of drug population, sub-population – and we’d say if you come there you’d get some money and a free dinner. But you have to ice skate for an hour. I mean it’s hugely fascistic but the idea was that when they arrive, they skate for an hour, and then they have a shower, then when they come out we take their clothes, we put them on a hanger and put Prada labels in their clothes, they get Prada clothes, they get a meal and then they leave. So the show’s on for three months, the clothes would get less and less worn because the same people would be coming and bringing back Prada clothes and getting fresh Prada clothes. We’d bottle the shower water and call it Eau de Tramp, and the by-product is that these drug addicts would end up being brilliant ice skaters. Win win! Obviously they didn’t really go for that.’
There was, however, ‘lots of laughing’. And that, of course, is precisely the point. Neither Frieze nor the Prada Foundation – a cultural organisation with a permanent exhibition space in Milan, in a building designed by Rem Koolhaas, one part of which is clad in 24-carat gold leaf – were going to entertain ideas that poke such extensive fun at the conspicuous wealth behind their operations. Not to mention allowing the homeless through their doors, which at Frieze would require extending the fair for at least another week, in order to make space for all the rungs on the social ladder between the VVVVIPs and the destitute – but both were no doubt pleased to be in on the merriment, just as the demure Spanish lady would have been pleased with her severed head. This is the particular appeal of the Chapman brothers. Not only do they have license to mock the cultural aristocracy, but the aristocracy actively enjoy it – it adds a little frisson to proceedings.
In large part, the Chapmans’ prolonged success is down to having mastered a defining characteristic of the contemporary art industry: the fine art of double-tracking. To double-track is to be both: counter-cultural and establishment, uptown and downtown, an exotic addition to the dinner table who still knows how to find their way around the silverware. The exemplary double-tracker, wrote Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word in 1975, arrives at a private view at MoMA in a dinner jacket and paint splattered Levis, exclaiming ‘I’m still a virgin! (Where’s the champagne?)’
Art is a decidedly social industry, where business doubles-up as pleasure; an industry in which clients are friends. Accordingly, collectors don’t just want the clay or the paint or pound shop dreck transformed into cultural gold, they often want a relationship with the alchemist too. And so, as much as artists ply their trade in the studio, they must also ply it on the social circuit, enabling the rich to journey vicariously to the exotic lands of the (relatively speaking) poor, without ever mentioning the arms or the oil or the property portfolios that bankroll such boutique vacations, or the promise of money that explains why the artist is present in the situation at all. ‘I feel at times like a weird escort,’ Samara Scott told me shortly after the 2015 fair, smarting from the pressure of having to socialise with potential business interests. ‘I mean you don’t have to sleep with them, but there’s an exchange that you have to give.’
Frieze London’s own flair for double-tracking reached its zenith at 2015’s talks programme, organised by the Lucky Kunst himself, Gregor Muir. The talks covered a range of subjects from the social impact of museums to the imprisonment of art activists and the legacy of punk. But the stand-out event was a panel discussion, titled ‘Off-Centre: Can Artists Still Afford to Live in London?’
The event was so popular that tickets had to be reserved in advance, and attendees were advised to arrive twenty minutes early. Behind me as I waited in line a young man in a fur hat and a brocaded coat so long that it tickled his ankles knocked back a midafternoon glass of champagne. By this point the entire queue ought to have known, in fact should have known already, why the talk we were yet to see was flawed. For there may be many artists struggling to afford the cost of London living, and many non-artists for that matter who cannot afford the rise in rent ushered in by the influx of artists, who set up studios in poorer areas of the city, shortly to be followed by coffee shops and craft breweries and property developers, but not one of those people was to be found among the fur hats and the £36 entrance tickets. Nevertheless, such a dose of political engagement makes for a bracing digestif, following those Serrano ham croquettes in the VIP lounge.
Double-tracking is not only a pious mask to cover the whims of the wealthy. It is the thing that allows us all to appreciate the painting on the gallery wall without being deluged by the thought of the machinations and the millions that led to it hanging there. It is what enables us to engage with the world not in its unsavoury entirety, but as an artist presents it to us, and as we ourselves would like to see it.
Without it, it is questionable whether there could be any art appreciation at all. What distinguishes double-tracking from its less discerning relatives – the flip-floppers and the U-turners and the outright conmen – is that it cannot be easily faked or fudged. For the gallery, for the artist, for the middle-men and for the viewer alike, double-tracking requires dedication, and most importantly of all, it requires belief.
As a sign of the significance of this faith, it must be upheld even in the most explicitly commercial contexts. It is something that Frieze insists be carried out throughout the fair, right down to the selection process. Following 2015’s fair I spoke with Barnie Page, director of the London gallery Limoncello. Page told me he knew a number of figures on the London commercial scene who had applied repeatedly to get into Frieze London, but were routinely rejected. The reason, he told me, was that they were seen as ‘dealers’ and not ‘gallerists’. While a gallerist is both a businessperson and a pious servant of the arts – a gallerist must be able to vouch for the quality, and not just the marketability, of the artworks they promote – to be branded a ‘dealer’ is to be tarnished by purely avaricious interests. It is to adhere, and fatally, to only a single track.
In 2010, Matthew Slotover took part in a debate at the Saatchi Gallery. The motion:‘Art Fairs Are About Money Not Art’. Slotover, in the ‘no’ camp along with artist Richard Wentworth and critic Norman Rosenthal, was pitched against Louisa Buck of The Art Newspaper, artist and writer Matthew Collings, and a then-painter named Jasper Joffe.
Joffe was present because he had set up The Free Art Fair, a short lived, alternative model of fair at which artworks were not sold but given away at the end via an elaborate raffle. ‘For once’, reads the now obsolete press material, ‘instead of art going to the highest bidder or those who can afford it, someone who really loves an artwork will be able to have it for free.’ The Free Art Fair had some limited success: of its three incarnations, one was held at the Barbican Centre, and it attracted a number of well-known artists, including Bob and Roberta Smith and Joffe’s sister, the painter Chantal Joffe.
At the debate focus inevitably shifted to Frieze, and Joffe – the least known of the group and evidently the least proficient in the etiquette of debating – lost his cool. Anger tuned his voice, his ample curls were furiously smoothed against his skull, and his cheeks flushed crimson. His main gripes: Frieze exhibits more men than it does women, the selection process is run by a cartel of gallerists, and that by pandering to the tastes of the rich, Frieze does a disservice to the majority of underpaid artists.
Slotover responded coolly, adhering to rule number one of debating: that showing one’s emotions is a mistake on par with a fox offering its bottom to the hounds to sniff. He began by pointing out the history of unequal representation at Joffe’s own fair, listing the disproportionate number of male participants from The Free Art Fair’s press material, before reminding the audience that 80 per cent of visitors to Frieze Art Fair come to spectate and not to buy. Hardly, he argued, a statistic befitting an avaricious cartel.
Later that same year, an artwork of Joffe’s was removed from Frieze London.
London radio station Resonance FM had been invited to participate in Frieze Projects, and planned to use their booth to hold an auction as a fundraiser. One of the intended lots was a painting by Joffe of a po-faced Nicholas Serota, director of Tate, with the words ‘Cheer Up Love’ painted in the background amid a sea of polka dots. Frieze removed the painting before the auction began, citing the fair’s ‘strict policy of selection’. ‘I presume’, said Joffe at the time to the Independent newspaper, doing his best to at least go down in flames, ‘it is because I was recently in a debate at the Saatchi Gallery with Matthew Slotover, and he seemed quite upset and angry that I criticised Frieze.’
I mention to Slotover that I had seen this debate. Joffe, he tells me, had made a ‘big deal’ about their confrontation afterwards. He ‘edited my Wikipedia page to make it really big, and stuff like that. It’s all been a bit… stalkery.’ And, as a final nail in poor Joffe’s coffin, ‘not being selected, I think, was his main problem.’ This seems a rather cruel dispatching of the subject, cruel, because it was no doubt true. If something’s not interesting we just don’t cover it, Slotover said of the magazine’s selection policy, and at the fair, as it is at the magazine, not being selected is a judgement that offers little room for reply.
‘Facts’, wrote Aldous Huxley, ‘do not cease to exist because they are ignored.’ The same cannot be said for careers in the arts. A week prior to meeting Matthew Slotover, I had breakfast with Joffe. At his suggestion we met in a co-operative cafe in Hackney, the day before it was due to shut down. Over rye bread toast and fair-trade coffee Joffe spent an hour expounding on the evils of the art world, revealing that he has subsequently quit art altogether, setting up in publishing instead. The narrative of being a dangerous agitator excluded from the market, a Guevara to Slotover’s Kennedy, disarmed of his aggravating spotty canvases, evidently suited him well – just as it suited Slotover to write Joffe off as ‘stalkery’.
‘I would question people who feel they’re excluded from Frieze. Are they excluded from other fairs as well, that have nothing to do with us?’ Slotover reasons, considering from the apex of the golden ladder the man who has slipped down a snake to the bottom of the board. ’Unfortunately, a lot of the time you come to the same conclusions. And not through any collusions because it’s not in anyone’s interest. So, you know, it’s competitive. But life is competitive!’
Slotover’s fondness for broadcasting that 80 per cent of Frieze Art Fair’s visitors come as spectators and not buyers is a masterstroke of double-tracking, which does much to reframe the fair as something other than a trading floor. It is a statistic that can be found repeated in numerous publications. The New York Times have it, The Spectator too. It is even cited, no less, in the first lines of Frieze Art Fair’s Wikipedia page. And come the non-buying spectatorship do, for there is nowhere better to see a comprehensive who’s who of the commercial art world. The fair provides an annual survey of the artists and artistic trends at the forefront of the international market. It also provides an opportunity to witness gallerists and collectors in action, those agents of the commercial art world so often invisible to the gallery-going public, and so often just out of reach for aspiring artists.
What was not listed on Frieze’s Wikipedia page was the pleasure of arriving at the fair as one of the 20 per cent, with the sole purpose of spending large sums of money. And so at Frieze HQ, I ask Slotover perhaps the most obvious question of all. Why is buying an artwork better than simply looking at it? ‘Well, like you I never used to own it, partly because I couldn’t afford it – but you know there are editions and things that one can buy that are not expensive,’ he says, graciously empathising with my financial status, before taking the opportunity to advertise the cheaper end of the market. ‘When you go to a fair it takes on a different atmosphere when it’s like, “OK, I’m gonna buy something.” There’s an excitement about it, and you’re looking at art with that view, so it’s like, “OK, what do we like, how much is it, is it available?” And you kind of have a motive, you know, a mission. And then you buy it and the dealer’s really happy and the artist’s really happy, and then you get it shipped home or you take it home, and you find somewhere in your house for it, and you look at it every day. And then a year later you might move it around, brighten up a room that was a bit dull or boring before, and it’s amazing.’
The dealer’s happy, the artist’s happy, the new owner’s happy – the art fair, according to this description, is at least a peaceable kingdom.
The suckling child may well be playing on the hole of the asp, or have his hand in the cockatrice’s den for that matter, but only, one suspects, because he has learnt to tolerate the poison. Slotover’s vision of the fair is a far cry from that of British artist Jesse Wine, who first showed at Frieze Art Fair in 2013 with his London gallery Limoncello, and who entered the proceedings by way of a baptism of fire. In order to secure their place in the Focus section of the tent, dedicated to younger galleries, Limoncello proposed that the three young men they were exhibiting would be present in the booth alongside their work for the entire duration of the week.
It is highly unusual for an artist to man their own booth. After overseeing the installation of their work, if indeed their oversight is required, artists appear tentatively in the tent – at the private view, to meet with collectors or journalists at the request of their gallery, or to take a furtive, midweek glance at what else is on display. (A case in point. When I ask Jake Chapman if he will be participating in 2015’s fair, he replies with the sort of nonchalance that is the sole preserve of the firmly established: ‘I think Jay will probably drag something down there.’) Unless an artist is in a position of power so considerable that they are able to demand complete control over the manner in which their work enters into circulation, they keep their presence to a minimum and for good reason. ‘Artists don’t make art to make sales,’ Wine tells me, but at Frieze, the boundary that distinguishes an artwork from a commodity, and for that matter an artist from an escort, is in serious danger of dissolving.
This, then, was a masterstroke for a young gallery: to say to the beast how beautiful it is, what a pleasure its company. Abercrombie & Fitch may employ the services of shirtless, six-packing gym bunnies to entice customers into their stores, but they’ve got nothing on the appeal of three fresh-faced colts at an art fair, instructed to be as available as possible and no doubt rendered desperate by the task at hand. For six days Wine stood in the booth, enticing the passing crowds to stop for a while, to take a seat with him on one of the chairs provided with such tête-à-têtes in mind. ‘I just sort of thought,’ he says of the experience, ‘if I look the devil in the eye a little bit with this art fair stuff, and am present and see exactly how it works, and see the emotional transaction and the financial transaction take place, then I won’t be able to be disturbed by it.’
Speak to any artist who has exhibited at an art fair, and they will likely tell you that while the conditions for display are far from ideal, participating is necessary if you intend to make a living. Speak to any gallerist, and they will likely tell you their business depends upon it. ‘The one thing that I would say that really makes sense,’ Wine says of mounting a commercially successful booth at Frieze, ‘is to be consistent in your display. Because it’s the same as when you go to a shoe shop. You don’t see a pair of stilettos next to a pair of Timberlands next to a pair of flip-flops. You don’t see that. You see four different colours of Timberlands. Because then you’ve got a choice, but within a confined environment. And I think that’s how the fair operates, that’s why the people with the display which turns over the most cash – and that is obviously the goal of it – are the ones that fucking treat it as a normal commercial environment.’
London gallery Stuart Shave Modern Art is no stranger to the logic of the shoe shop. In 2015 it was declared winner of the Pommery Champagne Stand Prize, receiving as its reward £10,000 and a bottle of Pommery the size of a small child. On the walls of its booth were five works by artist Mark Flood, identically sized and evenly spaced in a range of colours, each a pixellated image of a Mark Rothko painting. Here, surely, is that choice within a confined environment, a reproduction of a popular product for sale in bubblegum pinks and greens, as well as deep purple and midnight blue for the more soberly inclined. And on the floor of the booth, a line of sculptures by Yngve Holen – seven washing machines, each topped with a warped sheet of plexiglass, and model aeroplanes pointing in various directions. The masterful control of minor differences – the choice between an aeroplane pointing East or West, of plexiglass bent upwards or plexiglass bent down – and of course the domestic scale they offered to Flood’s Rothko’s – useful as an indication of how they might fit in back home – ensured the stand was triumphant. No mention of the ‘different-colours-of-Timberland-boots’ approach was made by the judging panel, who praised instead the ‘intellectual and formal dialogue’, but one can only assume it had been tacitly acknowledged.
With the financial stakes so high for artists and galleries alike, and with certain types of artwork proving bankable, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see how the art fair has begun to dictate the nature of artworks being produced. This idea was given short shrift at Frieze HQ. ‘Look,’ Slotover tells me, ‘I think it’s your duty as an artist to make the best work you possibly can. And to follow your interests and your dreams and whatever.’ But, ‘if the gallery is exerting pressure on you as an artist to make work that you don’t think is good, well, there’s no gun to your head. It’s your decision. If a gallery says, “Oh, I quite like that piece but can you make it smaller, and in pink, because we could sell it?” you’ve got a choice. Either you say “Great, I’d love some money this month, and if you think so, I’ll do one in pink.” Or you can say “How dare you tell me what to make. I’m off, I’m going with another who’s not going to do that.” Eventually, it’s down to the artist. And all artists have to think about it. “Am I interested in selling stuff, do I want the market to follow me or me to follow it?”’
I ask Jake Chapman about the experience of exhibiting at an art fair, and he replies with characteristic merriment. ‘When you go to Frieze and you see the scale of things, and you see the works in such a homogenised environment – in a sense you get to see how hopeless a work of art is, as a thing which can actually fulfil all of the things you want it to do when you’re in the process of making the thing. And that’s easier to have when objects can gang up on the viewer, when there are enough objects or enough paintings that can build some kind of cosmology of meaning based on their context. But when it’s one thing, then another thing, then another thing, it’s like watching the existential crisis of the work of art, not being able to actually get away with what it’s supposed to do.’
Shorn of any affinity with their surroundings bar commerce, Chapman concludes, all artworks can be at the fair are ‘little punctuation marks in someone’s journey through this screaming forest of little existential objects which are just so totally orphaned, because their meaning is attached to context’. I recount this rather bleak appraisal to Matthew Slotover, who replies with an act of double-tracking parexcellence. ‘That’s very good’, he says. ‘Did he write that or did he come out with that?’ When I tell him it came straight out of Chapman’s mouth, he is evidently extremely pleased. ‘Really? That’s excellent!’