Sunday, October 14, 2007

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It was like a scene from Hieronymus Bosch as the rich gathered at Frieze. Then there was the art...

Stephen Bayley
Sunday October 14, 2007

Frieze Art Fair
Regent's Park, London NW1; finishes today

What is the role of the mobile in contemporary art? Mobiles are dynamic sculptures. Alexander Calder was the best-known practitioner: his mobiles were witty and delicate arrangements of flat metal in primary colours, suspended from and separated by lightly tensioned rods and wires. Their profiles changing with the merest gust of wind, mobiles were nice commentaries on spatial relationships and the play of light, possibly even commentaries on the evanescent nature of experience itself.

They have them around the pool at the Colombe d'Or, the hotel in St Paul-de-Vence where artists paid their bar bills with paintings and sculpture. I know a collector who has a Calder in the bathroom of his Chicago apartment. The other role of the mobile in contemporary art is the 3G thing you clap to your ear as you barge, head down, through the teeming throng of the Frieze Art Fair. They seem to be obligatory.

Just heard someone say into his handset: 'I hef sin you riding plane to Berlin.' Most men have no hair. Women have yes hair. The bald (or shaved) men are in black. The women have legs. Lots of them. I am standing in what, rather preposterously, is known as the Private View. I say preposterous because the giddy scrum of rich intercontinental punters, circling in orbits of self-love, looks as though Hieronymus Bosch has art-directed a Prada fashion show in Frankfurt airport during a crippling baggage handlers' strike. It stretches the semantics of privacy to absurdity. And as to the 'view' bit - that's misleading too.

The Frieze Art Fair is in its fifth year. Other specifics are its site in Regent's Park, London, in a vast, spare structure of 21,000 square metres. This was designed by the Shoreditch-Canadian architect Jamie Fobert who came to notice several years ago when he won the commission to design the Kettle's Yard Gallery in Cambridge. There are 151 stands from galleries in 28 countries. League leaders are UK and the US with 34 each and runner-up Germany with 25, as neat a summary of the geopolitics of the contemporary art business as I can manage.

It is not at all like an art gallery. In my experience, it is more like the sort of events they have at Birmingham's NEC. Perhaps the Gift Fair (where you can buy novelty keyrings). Or possibly even more like Maxx Power, the exceedingly popular event where C1 youth eating testosterone sandwiches displays its extravagantly customised Vauxhall Corsas to pouting girls wearing not terribly much.

I am standing here with two glasses of champagne. This is not mere greed, it is a survival stratagem. The big thing at this vast Private View is knowing where the drinks are. Later, I discover that there is a source behind the scenes, a single point of access. Serving girls leave with full trays of bubbling flutes which are immediately depleted by greedy hands, like estuary seagulls at a landfill, even before they circulate in the forum. It rather puts me in mind of the myth of Sisyphus.

You will notice I have not yet mentioned the art. This is because to comment on the merit or quality of what's on display at Frieze is irrelevant. Once, the direction of contemporary art was determined by lonely, radical geniuses with a vision and an atelier. Now it is determined by hedge-fund managers, or by Deutsche Bank (headline sponsor) redeeming itself in a maelstrom of (mostly) college-standard tat. Art has leapt the species barrier. Its value (as opposed to cost) is no longer determined by critics and connoisseurs, but by all those hundreds of thousands of non-doms who want rapid access to culture without having to work very hard for it.

I bumped into society decorator Nicky Haslam and asked him what it was all about. 'There's nothing here which makes any intellectual demands,' he said. Then I was bounced into Chelsea jeweller Theo Fennell, no stranger to money, and asked him the same question. 'There's a line between having a laugh,' Theo said, 'and having merit.' He did not say, but was unambiguous about, on which side of the line we stood.

Contemporary art has become what money men call a new asset class. It has attracted a new type of collector. People feel it is the influence of Charles Saatchi who started collecting, they say, because the art world gave him useful access to the New York drawing rooms where he wanted to do business for his advertising agency. Previously, he had been just as keen on go-karting. Because of the Saatchi Effect, contemporary art, once difficult (or have you not read Uber das Geistige in der Kunst?), became the optical equivalent of easy listening. Factor in the fact that no one can afford a Titian any more and you get the Frieze Art Fair (and its equivalents Art Basel and the Venice Biennale and Art Basel Miami).

By overheating the art market, Frieze enhances the carbon footprint of Apollo's chariot. There is a trickle-down effect everywhere. In a Sotheby's sale of modern masters timed to coincide with Frieze, an oil painting by Lyonel Feininger (an interesting personality, but a modest talent) is estimated at a preposterous $12.5m. I think I saw a Warhol for $35m in Frieze's tent, but it may have been the champagne.

The event itself is a work of dizzy entrepreneurial genius by organisers Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, who founded the influential magazine that gave the fair its name. Here I must go easy on Frieze because Slotover is the son of good friends of mine. His father is Stockhausen's agent, his mother a children's book publisher. Stockhausen got into trouble when he called 9/11 'Satan's greatest work of art'. I wonder if that is what gave Matthew the idea for Frieze...

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