I’m cycling down Kennington Park Road, a straight line from north to south. It’s 10am and I arrive late and flustered at Studio Voltaire in Clapham, to find artist Anthea Hamilton standing beside her newly installed cauliflower fountain and brown-tiled garden.
We’re here to see the new artist studios at the gallery, but everyone I speak to can’t stop talking about Anicka Yi’s multisensorial showing at the Tate. Someone rolls their eyes at The Guardian’s original headline (since changed) which alluded to the Turbine Hall smelling of vaginas. So reductive, we all nod. Everyone agrees that they clicked on the article nonetheless.
After cycling back to central London, I check Instagram and see that people are beginning to post toilet selfies of themselves in the new Studio Voltaire loos, redesigned in shades of hot pink, yellow and orange by artist duo Joanne Tatham & Tom O’Sullivan. I am petulant that I missed out on my own selfie, which surprises me. Frieze fervour must be getting to me already.
“I don’t know who you are,” a harassed producer barks at me. “Why are you here?”
Men in hard hats and high-vis are moving around the enormous basement at 180 The Strand. “I don’t know who you are,” a harassed producer barks at me. “Why are you here?” I almost knock over a projector on the floor, feeling impossibly large and foolish at every step.
The LG-sponsored media art exhibition, titled Lux (Latin for light, as the show notes weakly inform me), showcases 12 works of art that rely on the sponsor’s technology to immerse viewers in digital imagery. Huge projections flit across curtained walls, and television screens come stacked in columns.
I stand in front of a Universal Everything video alongside two construction workers there to install the show. We watch as a creature transfigures from solid to liquid, fire and air, and ponder what it all means. “I think they’re just trying,” one of them says, “to sell us TVs.”
On the way out I overhear two security men discussing an altercation with Bill Murray. In town for the premiere of the new Wes Anderson film, it seems he was turned away from the LG exhibition the day before as he wasn’t on the list. I only hope that he intoned the unforgivable words, “Do you know who I am?”
“A rich-looking man in a suit remarks on the high quality of the champagne, so I get a refill as quickly as I can”
On the way to White Cube in Bermondsey, I spend almost an hour on the tube alone with my thoughts, and it’s a shock to be spat out suddenly into a party full of people. A rich-looking man in a suit remarks on the high quality of the Champagne, so I get a refill as quickly as I can.
Strong Negronis are being served at the next party, back at 180 The Strand, which I later learn is in honour of an enormous new Daniel Arsham sculpture. I manage to miss the work entirely on the night, spending the evening people watching instead as men in blazers and bright white trainers circulate the room with blow dried women in knee-high boots.
It’s almost 4pm and I realise I’m expected in an hour’s time at an early dinner at The Standard hotel before the Elephant party. On my cycle to the station I split my skintight dress with a hideous ripping sound. Frantic outfit change back at home later and I’m now very late. When I finally arrive at the hotel there is a chaotic, charged atmosphere.
Artist Ayana V Jackson, one of the speakers, is delayed in Paris and won’t arrive until two hours into the party. The other speaker, Ngaire Blankenberg, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, splits some fries with me. We pick listlessly at them while sipping apricot cocktails, and fantasise about the best hotels we have ever stayed in. And the worst.
“The hours fly past and, like a morose child, I catch myself feeling sad that it will all soon be over”
A few hours later and everything looks perfect. A giant mirrorball reflects dappled lights over a 1970s-style carpeted floor and a spectacular view out over London. There’s even a roof terrace. Guests start to arrive, and I am hyped for an event we have been planning for weeks, and then it all moves very quickly.
The hours fly past and, like a morose child, I catch myself feeling sad that it will all soon be over. Alex Rita of musical duo Touching Bass plays loose, free jazz as midnight approaches, and I dance in platform shoes on a high.
It’s the preview day of the fair and I am still feeling hyperactive. The last two days have reminded me of what I’ve been missing for the last year, and I want more. My glamorous memories from last night are somewhat tainted at home by picking spots of mould off my last few slices of bread, then pouring baked beans over them.
The Frieze tent looms beyond the fence at Regent’s Park. I am impatient to get inside, but when I finally do at about 2pm I feel suddenly lost. It’s all so familiar and yet I have no idea what I am supposed to do.
I pick up some free chocolate, wave at a curator who is guarding sacred rocks with fruit placed upon them by Edgar Calel, and gawp rudely at the shouty outfits around me. A woman in shredded denim jeans and furry Gucci loafers walks past, and I try to take a snap of her get-up, before scrambling to hide my phone screen as she realises what is happening.
I walk swiftly away and run into a gallery director. My confusion must be evident as he takes pity on me and carefully reminds me of the last time we saw each other pre-pandemic to help me recall who he is.
I find the rest of the Elephant team but everyone is having a meltdown fuelled by dehydration and nerves. We buy tiny bottles of water from Gail’s for £3.50 each and huddle in the outdoor seating area, waving at people and debating splurging on pints at Frieze prices.
“It’s all so familiar and yet I have no idea what I am supposed to do”
Back inside, I discover the work of South African photographer Sabelo Mlangeni at Blank Projects, and take in eerie green paintings by Brook Hsu at Edouard Malingue. Hannah Levy at Mother’s Tankstation showcases perspex heels on shiny steel claws, and Jala Wahid uses glossy red lips and nails to create a sculptural installation at Sophie Tappeiner that pushes and pulls on my grasp of bodily modes of belonging.
As the fair closes I run into a group of art writers. We wander to the pub promising that we’ll just have one, not least because one of us needs to catch the end of an auction nearby for a report to be filed in the morning. One drink turns into many. Needless to say, we don’t get to the auction.
I wake up with my first hangover of the week, furious that it was prompted not by an all-night art party but by a couple of pints down the pub. I have set my alarm early with a view to getting out by 8:30am to visit the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair but don’t make it out to the fair until midday.
I stalk across the sun-filled courtyard at Somerset House with a limp Pret sandwich, my fervour for socialising destroyed by the arrival of a throbbing headache. I stomp through booths deliberately avoiding the gaze of gallery directors, a hormonal teenager on a school trip.
I enjoy the work of Deborah Segun, geometric figures in bright pastel shades of blue, purple and pink. And I even break my silence to learn more about emerging Cairo-based photographer Najla Said, who has shot a series focused on young women atop motorbikes in her home city.
Outside I devour a sausage roll on The Strand, hoping it will improve my mood. It does. I’m headed back to White Cube, this time in Mason’s Yard, for an exhibition by Theaster Gates. Someone pours a Negroni and says, “Just a lot of shouting, isn’t it?” Outside, after-work men in suits jostle with the younger art crowd dressed sleekly in black.
I leave the party and head with Elephant editor Emily Steer to the nearby Stella McCartney store for a celebration of their collaboration with young artist and designer Ed Curtis. A very serious-looking DJ in white make-up plays incongruously upbeat party tunes to the packed room, and a man with a camera films us as we eat tiny spicy Mexican canapés and dance. We hear that upstairs you can get your nails done.
“I stomp through booths deliberately avoiding the gaze of gallery directors, a hormonal teenager on a school trip”
Afterwards I’m still hungry, and head back to The Standard for a party to celebrate a friend’s magazine, Boy.Brother.Friend. En route I stop at a tiny Taiwanese restaurant, Old Tree Daiwan Bee, in Chinatown for soup noodles. I am the only patron, sat in the window looking out at the dark street, smudging my lipstick as I lean over the rising steam of the bowl. The couple who run the place, who have known me for years, nod and smile, and I wonder how I look to them, alone, tipsy and tired.
At The Standard the party is eerily reminiscent of Elephant’s party a few nights before, as the mirrorball casts its soft light across the room. I introduce myself to a few people but their eyes are glazed, constantly looking over my shoulder for something beyond. I don’t mind, letting the week wash over me as I sway listlessly to the music. Things warm up, the dancing gets looser.
Much later I stare out at the view of London, thinking of the trains pulling away from Kings Cross below and where they might be going.
Louise Benson is Elephant’s deputy editor
Frieze Diaries, London 2021
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