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“From this garish bright assembly,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “we… enter that strange muddle and miscellany of objects both hallowed and ridiculous.” Her words neatly correspond with today’s trip to the Frieze Art Fair, that annual menagerie of all things weird and wonderful in the world of contemporary art. It is a gross misappropriation, of course. Woolf is describing a visit to Westminster Abbey, and while the iconography of the Christian church was in abundance this afternoon (Jesus’s Amazing Technicolour Dream Breath being a memorable example), the distance between these two scenes is marked. And yet the colossal tent in Regent’s Park does contain a strange muddle and miscellany of objects, many of which are hallowed (if such things can be qualified by price tags nowadays), while others are knowingly ridiculous.
There is brilliance in several of the displays; a wealth of self-reflexive, philosophical pieces, interrogating the state of modern man, our relationship with technology, our histories and our future. The Shanghart stand plays host to a seated figure of a Buddha, met at the head with an upturned Roman torso, while the Annet Gelink Gallery contains a piece called Departures, which tells us with muted grey assurance that our trips to Utopia, to Neverland, to Narnia and New Babylon are all on time.
I travel to the Old Selfridge’s Hotel, to find among the exposed pipes and pot plants there an Occasion in the company of artist Isabel Lewis, a Frieze Project held in collaboration with the ICA. She asks her audience to dance, to listen and to smell the scents created by Norwegian smell researcher Sissel Tolaas. Lewis’ efforts to engage in discourse are thought-provoking: a lively testament to the intellect of the Frieze.
But there is humour, too; Woolf’s ridiculousness exists all too clearly here. The crowd break into grins at the absurdity of two boiler-suited dancers reading fragments of art criticism as they move in Adam Linder’s Choreographic Service No. 2, while an Eric Fischl painting elsewhere, entitled Art Fair: Booth #16 Sexual Politics, depicts two observers catching eyes in a scene much like the one it hangs before. The Hauser & Wirth stand wonderfully reconstructs (and deconstructs, if that’s not too glib) the traditional feel of the Freud Museum, with wooden floors, too-busy walls, and a security guard sleeping with a convincing sprawl in the corner. At another end of the tent, the voice-over in a Goshka Macuga video installation from the Kate MacGarry Gallery interrupts a lecture on the relationship between art and technology to answer a phone-call in an acute moment of irony and self-awareness.
This self-reflexivity is everywhere. It is in the work of Tamara Henderson, whose Frieze “Live” installation is inspired by the idea of “vacationing”, a relaxing reprieve from the busy-ness of the rest of the fair. And the suggestion of escaping the chaos of the Frieze is echoed in Keren Cytter’s Constant State of Grace, a hypnotic soundscape of non-melodic noises and deconstructed dialogue intended to draw its listener away from the crush of the crowd.
But nowhere is this mix of self-awareness and self-confidence more evident than at the entrance to the fair, where artist collective Shanzhai Biennial reimagine Frieze as a lifestyle brand, peddling, with pitch-perfect real estate speak, a £32 million house in St John’s Wood. It is unquestionably ridiculous. But it is also oddly brilliant.