“How to handle the extra kilos, the tangle of sling straps and tote bags, the breastfeeding and the inevitable nappy explosions?” Many parents will be taking their offspring to Frieze this weekend. But is it an enriching or draining experience to bring your child around an art event with you? Charlotte Jansen takes her nine-month-old for a test drive.

Laura Ford, Dancing Clog Girls I-III, 2015. New Art Centre, Frieze Sculpture 2018
Laura Ford, Dancing Clog Girls I-III, 2015. New Art Centre, Frieze Sculpture 2018

“You’ve just got to accept that, if you’ve got kids, you’re never going to be at the top of your game,” I overheard a PR once say. I thought about this again as I tried to save the carpet at Frieze from the regurgitated chunks of carrot falling from my baby’s mouth. This time last year, I was waddling around Frieze in a pair of black maternity jeans with a half-baked bump, desperate to keep up, determined to do as much as possible before impending end of life as I knew it. This year, I didn’t feel that different, only I had a nine-month-old baby strapped to my front. How to handle the extra kilos, the tangle of sling straps and tote bags, the breastfeeding and the inevitable nappy explosions at an art fair?

“No matter our social standing in this art world, all become comrades in motherhood”

Since this column seems to suggest it has a practical direction, my first advice on how to do Frieze with a baby is: don’t do Frieze with a baby. Leave the baby with a trusted partner/relative/childminder and go on your own. You will probably enjoy it more, and they, frankly, won’t know the difference. The thing is, I’m writing this with hindsight, so I didn’t do this this week. I decided it would be fun and an enriching cultural experience (yes, I’m that person) for my freshly squeezed child to jostle around Frieze Week with me, while I tried to sip cups of coffee and dropped croissant crumbs on her head.

Installation view Space Shifters at the Hayward Gallery

The week actually started off quite well. I took baby to meet Hannah Perry at her new Somerset House exhibition, Gush. The image-bending sub-woofing sound installation was captivating for baby, and she fell in love with Perry herself, waving madly at her with a beetroot rice cake. Perry was very gracious, as baby turned my half-empty coffee cup upside down on my white jeans. (Another bit of advice. White jeans. Just… don’t.) From there, off we went across the Thames to Space Shifters at the Hayward Gallery, where works like Richard Wilson’s 1987 installation 20:50 are on show. 20:50 is an eerie room of mirrors and engine oil which stinks but is as close to tripping as I can get these days. We opted not to take baby in, as attendants told us another baby’s toe had been dipped in the oil earlier that week, a kind of accidental art baptism. (Other baby was fine.) Yayoi Kusama’s glittering balls were hilarious for baby, but the best thing by far were the chain link curtains, installed on both floors, a new commission Daniel Steegmann Mangrané. She roared with laughter, until we were politely told off—best not to let little hands tug on the artworks.

“Frieze Week is, after all, survival of the fittest, and fitter people can carry more shit than I”

“This is going ok,” I thought to myself, optimistically. On a roll, the next day baby came along to David Zwirner gallery’s opening of Kerry James Marshall, with the artist himself in attendance. Mid-talk to a rapturous audience of the suited and booted in the room, baby’s sudden burst of raspberries solicited more than a few stern and disapproving looks. Lesson learned, we shuffled off hurriedly.

You can tell an arts journalist by their love of a free tote. I have at least 3000 knocking around in the back of my wardrobe, and don’t really see the point in using any other kind of bag. This year, however, already at my limit with baby to carry, and a small quantity of very essential items, I had to refuse all free totes, press packs, postcards and magazines. Frieze Week is, after all, survival of the fittest, and fitter people can carry more shit than I.

Aside from tote bag abstinence, the first day at the fairs (1-54 first, then Frieze) brought other challenges. Suddenly, as a breastfeeding woman, you notice just how many chairs don’t have backs. You really start to panic when you realize there’s no quiet corner where you can get your tits out. Thank goodness for artists like Larry Achiampong whose gallery, Copperfield, has installed a comfortable Gumtree-bought sofa in front of his video works. Somerset House also scores points for their baby changing facilities (smelly, but fine) and the leatherette sofas in their lobby, where I peacefully spent an hour with babe asleep in arms.

Larry Achiampong presented by Copperfield Gallery at 1-54. Photo: copyright Katrina Sorrentino Brittan y Buongiorno

Frieze is less well equipped, and far more crowded, though there I also saw a good number of women lugging babies around in slings as I was—one mother and I even saluted each other silently across the crowded room. No matter our social standing in this art world, all become comrades in motherhood. Thus I found myself squishing in cozily between two strangers hooked up to the charging station, the slight alcove giving a light reprieve from the burn of the lights. No one seemed bothered. I, however, was starting to flag, trying to look at the art while wiping a swill of sick from the lining of my trench coat. It was definitely time for the wine bar, where the opera singer kept baby quiet, while I necked some Chardonnay with colleagues. The art of distraction. Kind colleagues are key to this whole operation: ones that stop you tripping over your own trailing paraphernalia, allow your baby to attempt a backflip on them while you finish your wine and generally don’t make you feel like a dick for even attempting to bring a baby around an art fair.

David Shrigley at Frieze Art Fair

After so much stimulus, both baby and I were feeling weary. My back was aching, my tattered tote bag knocking against my legs, eyes bleary. Out into the air, and Frieze Sculpture Park on an unseasonably mild afternoon is a happy place to wander and wonder together. Doing Frieze Week with a baby certainly isn’t glamorous, and it’s physically hard work. I might no longer be at the top of my game, as that PR pointed out, but in the end, I rather enjoyed Frieze.

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