Frieze Diary #1: “All I See Is Overworked Gallery Staff and Awkward Rich People”

The White Pube’s [author]Zarina Muhammad[/author] offers up her account of Frieze Week 2021 in the first of five diaries written by five different writers

Blindspot Gallery, Frieze London 2021
Blindspot Gallery, Frieze London 2021

I wake up late on Wednesday. I always wake up at 6.30am and I am always out running in the park by 7am. But today it is 8am and I am late. I think it’s because winter is approaching and sunrise is getting later. I still stretch my glutes on the kitchen floor, I still run 5k at recovery pace, I still stop for coffee from the van in the park. On my way back home a chunky blue staffy with a wide smile comes up to sniff me. I give it a little rub on the head and it licks my ankle.

I ram down yesterday night’s fried rice and race to the station. When I come out at Great Portland Street, I have already spotted three white guys in shirts with the collar unbuttoned, bootcut jeans & half zip fleeces. We all walk down to Regent’s Park together.

The little COVID tent is new, but I queue up to show them my vaccine card. The guy I show it to tells me he likes my writing and I blush behind my mask. He says the fair’s OK, the art is bearable, but people watching is much better. I nod in agreement as I collect my wristband.

“I say I hate Frieze, I complain and whinge, but I’ve gone every year since 2015”

Ah, now, listen yeah. I chat shit all the time. But I chat the most shit about Frieze. I say I hate it, I complain and whinge, but I’ve gone every year since 2015. That’s fan behaviour. I secretly love it because it is silly and frivolous. There’s this glossy coating that tries so hard to make it all look glamorous, but all I can see is overworked gallery staff and awkward rich people.

No one is as socially graceful as they think they are and it’s always a bit too hot inside the tent. There is something so delicious about seeing what that glamour looks like from the inside and up close.

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  • Left: Arcadia Missa. Right: Tiwani Contemporary, Frieze London 2021

I start at the blue Focus end, where the smaller galleries are located, because I have learned to count on them having something more interesting and relevant to show. I am always interested in what Arcadia Missa are saying, because there’s always a familiar face (I actually used to work there in my 2nd year of art school: I did some invigilation shifts until I got literal bronchitis from the cold). I see a massive glass cabinet that must belong to Jesse Darling: there’s a spiky stick with a glove on the end. It makes me laugh because in this case, the familiar face is the work rather than the person.

“I am just in awe of painters. Imagine being able to conjure up an image from nothing? It feels like alchemy and magic”

At Blindspot I see Sin Wai Kin’s It’s Always You. A boyband where the artist is four distinct characters, bursting colour, music video (with karaoke subtitles), cardboard cutouts and posters (complete with folds that make them feel worn and beloved, like they’re fresh from a CD case). I smirk, but I hope everyone takes it seriously (because it IS serious).

Now to Tiwani Contemporary, I peep through the crowd at Andrew Pierre Hart’s enormous paintings. They tower over me but aren’t imposing, I want to crawl inside them. All purple and black and optical, they’re inviting, like a cosy envelope I can nestle inside. Andrew is there with a sandwich, he talks me through it all and I am just in awe of painters. Imagine being able to conjure up an image from nothing? It feels like alchemy and magic, a powerful and fundamental thing. But I guess making it look effortless is the skill, because just from looking around the fair I can tell you that not all paintings are magical, only the good ones.

Proyectos Ultravioleta, Frieze London 2021
Proyectos Ultravioleta, Frieze London 2021

It’s not all familiar faces though. I peek round the corner at Proyectos Ultravioleta, they’ve got a work by Edgar Calel. A crowd of rocks sit on the floor, they’re topped with various fruits, some of which are whole and some of which are cut open. I see a friend who tells me the rocks have been blessed by the fruit, they’re now little altars made sacred by the offerings and intention. I am surprised but glad to feel a little moment of tenderness in this chaotic tent.

“She didn’t introduce herself until the end of the conversation, so I had no idea what was going on or if I’d ever met her before”

Now for some gossip. Have you ever heard of blind items? They’re these snippets of celebrity gossip, carefully worded and descriptive, so you know who it’s about without names actually being mentioned. Well… let me channel the essence of blind items. This director of an established London gallery south of the river came up to say hello to me, but was so awkward and strange. She didn’t introduce herself until the end of the conversation, so for our entire interaction I had no idea what was going on or if I’d ever met her before.

This prestigious award-winning artist was genuinely surprised when I told him the Arts Council had rejected every funding application we’ve ever submitted. He gave me a lil pep talk and now I feel justified in thinking that maybe they just probably hate us. Also overheard: an anonymous individual sniffing loudly in the toilets. I’m just glad someone’s having a good time. That’s it, that’s all I think I can get away with. The rest will have to stay in The White Pube WhatsApp chat, or maybe I’ll tell you if you ask me nicely.

Copperfield, Frieze London 2021
Copperfield, Frieze London 2021

I make it to the other end of the tent just as they start to break out the pink champagne. I see some friends who tell me that Matches Fashion are giving away free chocolate, though the La Prairie people are being stingy with the skincare freebies. But I’m knackered and I’ve had enough. I want to go home and have a cigarette in peace, scroll through TikTok with no headphones and limitless elbow room.

On my way to the exit, a friend texts me about an Evening Standard afterparty at a fancy West End Club, but my social battery is on 0% and the idea of running into George Osborne in my current state isn’t tempting. If I ever do meet him, I want to be on top fighting form, ready for the bareknuckle brawl of the century.

“If I had my way all the art would be 50% off, buy one get one free and there’d be supermarket style self-checkouts”

In 2016 me and Gab snuck into the fair with a friend’s free pass. She’d gone round the fair the day before us, on the VIP day, and saw George Osborne and Kanye West gawking at the same thing. I hope they made small talk, but I can’t imagine what it would’ve been about. Our friend said Kanye was shorter than she expected and George Osborne looked like Noddy in real life. Maybe they spoke about the weather? Maybe they compared notes on what they were gonna buy?

Do people actually buy things at Frieze? Because that sounds fake to me. I’ve literally never seen anything resembling a transaction. So discreet, so polite. If I had my way all the art would be 50% off, buy one get one free and there’d be supermarket style self-checkouts. I make my way back to Great Portland Street station and on the platform I finally get to stop and think for a moment. Where does that massive tent go for the rest of the year?

Zarina Muhammad is a writer, art critic and artist. She is the co-founder of The White Pube, an online criticism platform focused on art, video games and food

All photos by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze


Frieze Diaries, London 2021

Read all five of the diaries written by five different writers