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Art as a mirror of society?

Why sometimes it’s politic to leave politics at the art-fair door

A reflection of our times: Elmgreen & Dragset in the Frieze sculpture park. Photo: © David Owens

Visitors to today’s opening of Frieze London, ready for an afternoon of VIP schmoozing and (perhaps) art buying, may not notice the more activist art environment on the fringes of the fair and beyond.

Although this year’s wider aisles and pristine booths are designed to make the many works on offer look easier on the eye, the Frieze talks and projects around the fair are more uncomfortable prospects. The talks, which are co-ordinated by the Frieze Foundation and Frieze magazine rather than the fair, deal with issues such as gay rights (“Sexuality, Politics and Protest”, 18 October, 1.30pm), racial equality (John Akomfrah, the artist and co-founder of the Black Audio Film Collective, leads a talk on 19 October, 1.30pm) and disability rights (Jérôme Bel discusses his Disabled Theater performance piece on 20 October, 1pm).

Frieze Projects, organised by Nicola Lees, even takes into account the rights of children (the Emdash Award winner, Pilvi Takala, has given the £10,000 prize, minus project expenses, to a committee of children aged eight to 12 to spend). The Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander’s participatory project addresses the pertinent issue of surveillance.

This is in keeping with the many biennials on show around the world that are reflecting an increasingly politicised international environment. At the 13th Istanbul Biennial (until 20 October), the concept of public space as a political forum, in relation to the country’s ongoing turmoil, is a central tenet, according to its curator, Fulya Erdemci. The fourth Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art (until 31 January 2014) directly addresses the economic upheavals and crises of national identity facing the Mediterranean region.

Biting the hand

Reflecting complex social issues, political situations and personal causes is important to many artists, but confrontational works are commercially difficult, so they are hard to find on the stands at Frieze London.

“Looking for the voice of protest in an art fair might seem strange, irrelevant and impossible,” says the artist Bob and Roberta Smith, whose recent public protests have taken on art-related issues such as education. Jennifer Kabat, a writer who is chairing the “Sexuality, Politics and Protest” talk at Frieze, says: “Collectors don’t have the same relationship with the issues as artists. There is and has historically been a gap between them: collectors are not necessarily dying gay men. Plus, death, loss and injustice can make for difficult work.”

Activism, more overt than its gentler political cousin, is not only a visual hard sell; it is also difficult to box into a recognisable art-world framework, given that processes such as intervention and site-specific interruption are the norm. For political works, too, the profile of some of the art market’s newer collectors has an impact. Tastes in the Middle East, China and Russia are notoriously conservative and prohibitive—why bite the hand that feeds you?

In addition, one of the biggest political issues in the Western, developed world is the increasing gap between the wealthy and the rest. This involves the so-called “one-percenters”, who are emphatic participants in moneyed hobbies such as art collecting. The art market itself has become the focus of artists’ activism, notably through movements such as Occupy, and in the past week, some press articles have questioned the relevance of fairs such as Frieze, given the struggles in the world outside. “There is, of course, a sensitivity about the rich getting richer, particularly in London, but you can’t accuse a symptom of being the cause,” says Matthew Slotover, Frieze London’s co-director.

What should art be?

It’s not just a question of taste; the issue of artists’ responsibility to society also raises the long-standing debate over the function of art. While there is an arguably elitist view that art that simply looks good cannot be meaningful, there is also a valid argument that politics does not always suit an artistic medium. Last year’s seventh Berlin Biennale was criticised for having plenty of social and political activism but not enough art. “It is all very noble having a political theme in a work, but, ultimately, how the work looks is far more important,” says the London-based investment banker and collector Mervyn Metcalf, who buys work by artists including Dan Colen and Ryan McGinley. “If you feel strongly about a charity or cause, isn’t it better to donate rather than buy a piece of art that you otherwise wouldn’t collect?”

There is also, as ever, a broad range of responses within the definition of “political”, and many collectible artists are addressing issues, if not through aggressive means. Satire has certainly crept into the Frieze tent and sculpture park this year. Elmgreen & Dragset’s But I’m on the Guest List, Too!, 2012 (FL, S3, through Victoria Miro, FL, F5, priced at £95,000)—a mirrored VIP door in the sculpture park that had its own bouncer when it was shown at the Liverpool Biennial last year—raises an arch eyebrow at the cocooned art-fair mentality. Another art fair in-joke is provided by the artist Mark Flood at Peres Projects (E10): his practice of subverting and recontextualising corporate logos takes a dig at the Frieze fair’s main sponsor, Deutsche Bank, in Deutsche 96, 2013 (around $70,000).

Feminism seems to be one of the more acceptable areas of protest in contemporary art: the British collector David Roberts owns work by the artists Ellen Gallagher and Jenny Holzer. Other historical movements that had their strongest impact in the past but still resonate today give Frieze London an edge rather than an out-and-out confrontational face. Wilkinson Gallery (FL, C2) has brought Untitled, 1986 (£12,000), a “Black Painting” by the film-maker and Aids activist Derek Jarman.

The effects are contained in the context of an art fair, however, even within the context of a booth. Jarman’s piece is one of many on Wilkinson’s stand, with the gallery reserving the big impact of his works for a show in its East End gallery (“Derek Jarman: Black Paintings”, until 1 December). Sadie Coles HQ (FL, D4) and Kurimanzutto (FL, D8) have brought recent works by Sarah Lucas, but the full effect of her feminism is felt in her exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery (until 15 December). The works by Sandra Gamarra (Genesis 1:26…, 2013, set of 12 priced at €24,000) at Galería Juana de Aizpuru (FL, G6), in which the artist has oil-painted over the images that accompany unsettling news reports, are intensely political, but they are unlikely to catch the fair-goer’s eye anywhere near as much as Jeff Koons’s super-sized kitten peering out of a huge, brightly coloured sock at Gagosian Gallery (FL, C13).

Whether or not protest belongs in an art fair, the tension is currently underpinning critical views of the art market. The artist Grayson Perry’s first of four Reith lectures for the BBC, which was broadcast yesterday, questioned the barriers to entry that the cost of art brings. Although responsibility for the world’s problems cannot be laid at the door of the art market, its participants are arguably willing volunteers ­­­(although many at Frieze this week say they welcome the debate). Bob and Roberta Smith says: “The onus is on the gatekeepers and funders of art—museum directors, art-fair organisers, curators and indeed artists—to get rid of the barriers to understanding that high prices and exclusivity bring.”

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16 Oct 13
17:48 CET


A quite excellent comment cum think piece on the launch of FRIEZE events by Ms Gerlis. A reporter to watch !

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