This diary first appeared on Apollo Magazine’s website.
Monday, 13 October
There was something weird in the London air, and it wasn’t the rain. E-mails from PRs were hitting my inbox like the salvo from a battery of Gatling guns, and I’d already bumped into one art critic on the point of nervous collapse.
‘Just. Don’t,’ she shot at me when I asked her about all the launch parties I wasn’t invited to. So here we were: on the verge of Frieze, waiting for the ice to break. By the end of tomorrow, art dealers, PRs and journalists would be running screaming through the streets of central London, from Regent’s Park to the river. Gossip would become stronger currency than the Swiss franc.
Complain all you want about Frieze and its satellite fairs – and believe me, I will – but we love it all really. For us art world parasites, it’s the one time of the year when anyone bothers to suck up to us. And we like being sucked up to. We like it a lot.
Tuesday, 14 October: Mayfair
Barely 24 hours in, and I was already wiped out. I realised I needed an accomplice who wouldn’t, unlike me, run screaming at the mention of the word ‘itinerary’. Thank god, then, that I ran into one of the most clued-up art editors in the business. She’d already devised a plan, and very kindly invited me to join her in a tour of the Mayfair private views. There was just one snag: she had to be at a dinner on the other side of town by 8pm. This left us 45 minutes to attend seven exhibitions.
But we did it, starting at Blain|Southern on Hanover Square and ending up at Italian gallery Mazzoleni’s new space on Albemarle Street. It was knackering – you know you’re beaten when you come within inches of mistaking a Justin Adian painting for a coat hanger. Mayfair became an assault course, polite conversation a Herculean feat.
But, incredibly, I wanted to go back to almost everything. I loved the Adian show at Skarstedt enough, and if you’re into your Arte Povera, Frieze week was a blast. Luxembourg & Dayan on Savile Row were showing Alighiero Boetti’s stunning i Colori series and the Mazzoleni exhibition, which featured work by Fontana, Manzoni, Scheggi and Burri, was the sort of thing you’d describe as ‘world class’ if you were pushed for time. And believe me, I was.
My accomplice dashed out into the rain to get to dinner on time, and I tossed a coin to decide between ‘Mirrorcity’ at the Hayward Gallery and‘New Sensations’ in Bloomsbury Square. The Hayward lost out, and I wound up at the Saatchi gallery’s annual youthfest, soaked to the skin by a sudden downpour as I emerged from Holborn station.
There may have been some great stuff at ‘New Sensations’, but after 10 minutes of squelching around I threw in the towel – and not without good reason. Wednesday I faced three art fairs in the space of four hours.
Wednesday, 15 October: Frieze
‘But it’s so BIG!’ I heard an angry American journalist exclaim. And she spoke the truth – Frieze is big. For those readers who have never had the opportunity or indeed the stamina to visit, picture this: a normal art fair with two others plonked down on either side, with another landed a bus ride away. Or, in normal parlance, two Emirates stadiums plus Highbury, plus hotdog stands magically transformed into gourmet pizza outlets. You get the picture.
When you walk in it takes 20 minutes to adjust. People are not so much individuals as asteroids. You can’t stop and look at anything. You have to keep moving, lest one of these asteroids scores a direct hit. Then, gradually, you become part of the crowd, too. People become people again. Sometimes you recognise the odd one, struggling to acclimatise.
But what about the art? How does Frieze 14 – the fair’s 12th edition – actually square up? How does it command its infamy, its buzz, its singular place in the arts calendar?
I’ll tell you. There’s the fun (Carsten Holler’s installation, a Day-Glo playground called Kindergarten), the good (Spruth Magers’s stand is particularly strong), the bad (I would but, oh, what’s the point) and the OK. There is a lot of OK stuff you wouldn’t mind if you saw in isolation. But you can have too much of it: and when it’s under lights like these, too much really is too much.
I spent five hours in Frieze, and was I glad to get out. But I didn’t dislike it. Frieze is necessary – it gives the London art circuit a certain buzz, and what’s more it is one of the honest-to-God strangest and best people-watching opportunities there is. It has an atmosphere quite unlike anything else.
Frieze Masters, then, was like a decompression chamber. The stands, catering to a different kind of customer, were spaced further apart, painted in a tasteful shade of Farrow and Ball grey. People walk at a slower pace. It’s an altogether less frantic experience, best negotiated with a glass of complementary champagne. Looking at Leon Kossoff’s ‘drawing paintings’ at Annely Juda and Mitchell-Innes and Nash’s collaborative stall, or an enormous 18th-century map of London at Daniel Crouch’s space was like getting into a bath after a long day on the tundra.
Visiting Frieze’s Regent’s Park colony is like travelling to another planet, a notion reinforced by the difficulty of leaving the place. I foolishly chose to get a shuttle bus back to the Marylebone Road from the Frieze Masters site. It took me three times as long as it would have done on foot – and when finally my feet touched the pavement, it felt like a lucky escape. I ran to the tube, scared witless that I’d be pulled back into orbit.
Thursday, 16 October
In the first instalment of this diary, I referred to myself as an ‘art world parasite.’ This was not self-deprecation: it is my station and I am not proud of it. Well, maybe a little. But even parasites must play by the rules: in this case the sacred one is that beggars can’t be choosers. If you’re invited to something, you don’t turn your nose up at it. On Wednesday I let the side down. After the Sotheby’s Contemporary party, I was invited to an after-hours do at Soho’s New Evaristo club. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t find the strength. Clearly, this week was taking its toll.
To be fair, the day had been a long one. I started at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House. I turned up late and had to do a whirlwind tour round. This I quickly regretted – there’s some seriously good stuff here. I was particularly taken by Galerie Iman Farès’s room (yes, 1:54 gives entire rooms to its exhibitors – bliss), where I saw Congolese artist Sammy Baloji’s extraordinary Retour à l’authenticité series. This is a photographic project based around the ruins of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s farcical project to ‘re-Africanise’ what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The detritus of an invented past stands as a terrifying reminder of the corruption and horrendous violence of the regime it symbolised.
Next up was Steve McQueen’s film Ashes at the Thomas Dane Gallery in St James’s. I dropped by the David Hammons show at White Cube in Mason’s Yard, then crossed over to the PAD fair at Berkeley Square. I always end up visiting PAD after I’ve done Frieze, and the relative calm is a tonic.
There are no surprises there, but that’s not really the point. PAD is exceptionally good at meeting its remit – that is, exhibiting top-notch art and design in a very elegant setting. I spent slightly too long eyeing up the very desirable photography at the Michael Hoppen gallery. The staff started giving me odd looks, so I got out before I was pushed.
Then it was the predictably astonishing show of Gerhard Richter’s recent work at the Marian Goodman gallery off Golden Square, then Nabil Nahas’s new paintings at Ben Brown Fine Arts, then Tim Noble’s grim Sue Webster at the Door at the Society Club… then I just stopped taking notes. Jesus. Will my marbles be the first to go, or my liver?
Friday, 17 October
A champagne brunch at the Pippy Houldsworth gallery on Heddon Street (where, incidentally, David Bowie was photographed in a phone box for the cover of Ziggy Stardust) would normally be the highlight of a week. This morning, though, I’m facing deadlines like the 300 faced Xerxes at Thermopylae. I’m also feeling like a haunted house, with all its windows broken.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Instead of going on to a party on Wednesday night, I ended up in Vauxhall, having not quite made it home. The next morning, I woke up to a panorama of London’s riverside construction boom. If you want to make yourself feel unwell, there’s no sight that does it better. Matthew, my host, stared at me in pity. To put things in perspective, he was having extreme difficulties making a cup of tea. The tube was heaving when I got to it, a vision of hell. I hopped off at Pimlico to visit the late Turner exhibition for the third time. I saw the Turner Prize show, too. Not, it has to be said, an awe-inspiring year.
Later on, I schlepped back to Frieze to see Phyllida Barlow in conversation with Luke Syson. My friend Robinson and I turned up at Regent’s Park to meet a writer from the Financial Times. We waited and waited. But there was no sign. Finally, Robinson received a call: ‘Are you even at Frieze Masters yet?’ We weren’t. A farcical half-hour walk through the park got us to the talk in the nick of time. Phyllida Barlow is one of the most exciting artists alive, and if ever you get the chance to hear her speak, take it.
I hovered for a long time afterwards. When you’ve been to more than 40 shows in three days (a list of which I’ll drop into my final diary entry tomorrow) you start to feel a little … displaced. But I needed to find a show at a commercial gallery to cover for another assignment. I chose the John Piper exhibition at Beaux Arts, and bloody hell it’s good. I hadn’t yet been to Beaux Arts’ new space near Hanover Square. It’s great, but you can’t help but feel nostalgic for Cork Street. Robinson and I got a bit teary talking about it as we walked through Mayfair to St James’s. Cork Street was something truly special – not to sink into psychobabble or anything, but it really did feel like the spiritual home of the British art world.
I failed to get into the Christie’s auction at King Street, so I went down to their rooms in South Kensington where the opening party for the Multiplied art fair was taking place. By this time, though, my powers of observation were well and truly spent. I don’t really remember much after this, bar the fact that I ended up on the South Bank, clueless as to how I’d got there. I felt appropriately appalling Saturday.
Saturday, 18 October
Now I promised a full list of every exhibition I’d been to this week. It will not be forthcoming, chiefly because I just can’t remember. The Other Art Fair had some nice stuff from unrepresented artists, and the photography was very strong; my tip is Polly Tootal, whose hyper-realistic images are by far the best thing at the fair. Then there was Moniker, the street art fair. I could be desperately ungenerous, but instead I shall refer you to my review from last year. Kinetica, just around the corner, was worth it entirely for UCL’s Interactive Architecture Laboratory. Google them – what they do is ingenious. Better still, visit the fair and get chased around it by a giant metal ball. Terrifying, but not un-fun. I was supposed to get to an evening event at Ryan Trecartin’s show at the Zabludowicz Collection in Kentish Town, then the Art Review party. But yet again, I had to turn down an invitation. The week had been well and truly done me in, which is why I was finding it quite difficult to move my legs.
What amazes me is that I’m still capable of looking at art without my eyes glazing over – there has been some seriously good stuff on show. In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, there has been no hugging and no learning. I will take no wisdom away from this year’s Frieze week, other than the fact that champagne kills brain cells. This may be why I’m already looking forward to next year.