On Thursday 6 October, I visited the first day of the London Art Fair, FRIEZE, held annually in Regents Park. Walking in to the large collection of tents is an overwhelming experience. Filled with art students, well heeled art collectors, gallery staff, and interested members of the public it is a vast but cramped space buzzing with activity. There are three aisles that run the length of the tents divided into stands where galleries rent space for their displays. Walking the length of one aisle could take up to an hour with dazzling displays on either side. The aim of each gallery is to display works, which are for sale, which best represent the artists they represent. It is essentially that, a trade fair.
While at Frieze I was searching in particular for ‘works on climate change’ and found only one that explicitly addressed climate change. How can I say it addressed climate change? Because it contained text within the work that explicitly said ‘climate change.’ It was by the Danish activist-artists Superflex. They were ‘selling’ tickets to experience the hypnosis of different animals to see how they will experience climate change. Many of the dates in the future were linked to key target dates in climate negotiations (2012, 2020, 2030, and 2050). The lack of work at the fair got me thinking about the art world’s capability to deal with climate change.
The art fair is mainly a commercial space- where galleries have limited space to display their best artists, and to act as a representation of the gallery. Most of the works on display are for sale or serve as attractions to the commercial nature of the galleries. Scott Wright in the chapter on ‘The Fair’ in Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World views the stands at a similar art fair, Basel, as an “interactive advertisement” for the galleries. Thornton observed that a good stand should “represent and attitude or taste in art; it should declare the gallery brand.” The artist John Baldessari said “At fairs, gallerists are reduced to merchants” and Thornton observes that many artists view fairs “with a mixture of horror, alienation and amusement… they wince at the sight of so much art accompanied by so little substantive context.” In this context, there is not much place for work on climate change. How many collectors would be keen to own a work on climate change- perhaps the rare collector who is also concerned about climate change? But climate change is not exactly a ‘commercially acceptable’ topic.
The work that was on view was mainly textual- one knew it was about climate change because it mentioned climate change. Part of the meaning around the works of art comes from the interpretation- so perhaps there were other works there that could be interpreted to be about climate change, perhaps Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry, which is about consumer culture and brands, but not explicitly- so a work becomes about climate change once someone interprets it to be about climate change.
So this has already raised two possible difficulties around art: the art market and the financial side of art and interpretation.
So rather than gallery booths at a large commercial art fair, I might be more likely to find something at a curated museum or gallery show. In these instances, the curator injects meaning by selecting work around a theme or a body of artist’s work. As British Artist Jeremy Deller summarised after his visit to Art Basel, “After a mind-numbing day at an art fair, many art aficionados crave nothing more than a well-thought out museum show.”