Frieze London 2019: The Full Farce of the Fair

As world politics and climate concerns make the current view of things thoroughly apocalyptic, [author]Holly Black[/author] seeks out the artists at Frieze using dark humour and farce to both distract us and reinforce our woes.

Jeremy Deller’s “souvenir poster” for The Art Newspaper © Jeremy Deller

It’s hard not to feel apocalyptic at this year’s Frieze London. From the outset, flags emblazoned with Extinction Rebellion’s logo have peppered the entrance, while activists attempted to persuade glamorous VIPs to—at the very least—forgo the shuttle services and instead walk between the fairs (not easy when you’re in six-inch Louboutins and protecting a gigantic blow-dry from the elements). The group, which is protesting on the grounds of the art world’s huge carbon footprint, will take to the stage this weekend as part of the official talks programme, and is sure to be met with appeasing nods and tepid promises—if nothing else. Ruinart has already blazed a trail, with a press release proclaiming that the champagne house “makes Frieze eco-friendly” by commissioning “a series of artworks from artist David Aiu Servan-Schreiber that will encourage the recycling of champagne corks.” I’ll let you come to your own conclusions on that one.

“Fiona Banner presents Fart Carpet, a work that does exactly what it says on the tin”

Given the current state of global affairs, it is unsurprising that a sense of world-weariness has permeated a setup that is usually populated by bombastic aesthetic displays (such as Carsten Höller’s playground a few years back, and the gigantic, upended tree installed by Tatiana Trouvé in 2018). It is all decidedly lower key this year. Is this a turn towards subtler tastes? Or are galleries shying away from massively expensive installs that might not pay off in almost-Brexit land?

Fiona Banner, Fart Carpet, 2019 at Frith Street Gallery

With the precarious state of our nation just one of the concerns hanging over the international market, Jeremy Deller has distilled some national spirit with his pull-out poster, for The Art Newspaper’s daily fair edition. “Welcome to the shitshow!” he declares, over an image of the Union Jack. It’s a pronouncement that exposes the farcical nature of our current predicament, and a genuine expression of exasperation.

This sense of farce can be found scattered throughout the rest of Frieze. For example, at Frith Street Gallery Fiona Banner presents Fart Carpet, a work that does exactly what it says on the tin. An etymological diagram points to the origins of the word, painted on a fairly standard rug. It’s a really silly piece of work, from an artist who is better known for deconstructing language and communication in conflict and war. Does anyone dare to say the title with a straight face?

Patrick Goddard at Seventeen

Elsewhere, Seventeen has installed a precarious display of sculptural dead birds, as if an entire flock has just fallen to the ground due to some unknown horror. Apparently, the artist Patrick Goddard seeks to imbue his work with “self-defeating black comedy”, and there is something intrinsically hilarious about seeing crowds of people carefully pick through the ominous avian corpses that lay scattered throughout the booth.

“It is unsurprising that a sense of world-weariness has permeated a setup that is usually populated by bombastic aesthetic displays”

Steve Bishop at Carlos/Ishikawa

Another unsettling piece comes from Steve Bishop at Carlos/Ishikawa. His uncanny version of a half-eaten cake decorated with “Happy New Year” should seem fundamentally joyous, but it reeks of depressing office get-togethers, forced fun and broken resolutions. It is presented in a box, with a makeshift bin below, almost tempting a curious onlooker to try and take a bite.

Over at Maureen Paley, Max Hooper Schneider offers a tongue-in-cheek cultural terrarium, filled with tropical plants, enormous worms and neon text spelling out “frescos” from within a glass box. It’s a bizarre piece that points to his interest in a post-human world, but also pokes fun at one of the most revered forms of high-art making.

Urara Tsuchiya at Union Pacific
Urara Tsuchiya at Union Pacific

A mischievous spirit is also found at Union Pacific, where Urara Tsuchiya has recreated a bedroom complete with discarded lingerie and suitcases crafted from ceramics, and a poster declaring “why men love bitches”. It’s a madcap affair, which also features an array of orgiastic sculptures and surreal video works. Tsuchiya almost dares you to take everything deadly seriously as you examine her frilly knickers, and it’s a relief to be given permission to relish in her madness and forget about the ominous world outside—just for a moment.