Gregk Foley recaps this year’s Frieze London art fair for us, and highlights the best pieces that were on display.

As the summer comes to an abrupt end in the UK, there’s not a lot to look forward to except torrential rain and biting cold — and the layered fits that come with it, obviously. The return of the Frieze London art fair every October, however, provides a nice means of settling in before winter really hits.

This year the fair was held a week earlier than usual, taking place from October 6-9, and was, as ever, big, broad and somewhat overwhelming. Playing host to over 100 art galleries from as far afield as Hong Kong, Vienna, São Paolo and Mexico City, Frieze continues to be one of the best places to encounter new and upcoming artists that might not otherwise cross your path, provided you can handle the crowds, commotion and camera flashes.

This year I happened to have a pair of ear plugs on me, something I was increasingly thankful for as the day goes on. Of course, art fairs are a wonderful opportunity to encounter the unexpected, but they’re also a far cry from the carefully-crafted environments of art galleries themselves, for better or worse.

Social Justice Issues Took Center Stage

Prominent political and social issues continued to feature prominently in a number of artworks this year, particularly feminism. As social media, online activism and ever-evolving discussions continue to expose the political dimensions to life, so the art world seems right now to be grappling with the political dimensions of creativity in a very overt way. Of course, there has always been art with political elements, but certain pieces this year really brought Beyoncé’s big-letter “FEMINIST” approach to the table. These are no longer sub-textual elements of the piece; they are the piece.

Portia Munson "Pink Project: Table"

One prime example of this was PPOW Gallery’s presentation of “Pink Project: Table” by Portia Munson, the latest in a series Munson has been creating since the early ’90s. The piece comprises a large table draped in pink cloth that hosts a massive display of plastic objects, all in varying shades of pink. From playsets and dolls, to hairbands and brushes, to vibrators and sex toys, the table clearly sets its sights on archaic gendered notions of womanhood, presenting feminine life from birth to old age through a single, clichéd color.

Likewise, Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s “I Am A Feminist” took an equally-overt tact in confronting social issues in 2016. The large neon-light piece places the piece’s bold declaration over an image of a monster truck, all rendered, of course, in pink.

Immediate readings suggest a breaking down of boundaries and gender norms, but there is perhaps deeper meaning when one considers the medium of neon as a symbol of 20th century consumer culture, or the nature of monster truck rallies as big, flashy and over-the-top. As well as a championing the feminist cause, perhaps Bartana’s piece is also a celebration of the movement’s entry into the mainstream consciousness, or even a critique?

Yael Bartana "I Am A Feminist"

Political commentary didn’t stop at feminism, either. Almine Rech gallery’s selection of pieces by German artist Gregor Hildebrandt, whose work makes heavy use of audio artifacts such as cassette tapes, compact discs and vinyl. “Bilderwall,” constructed from dozens of compression-molded laser disks, seemed particularly poignant at a time when political divisions are flaring up across the globe.

Whilst its title translates literally to “picture wall,” it’s difficult not to hear the homonymic “build a wall” when its name is spoken aloud. Constructed from a medium that is typically a means of sharing and transmission, Hildebrandt’s piece could be interpreted on a reflection on the stifling effect that divisions have on community and communication.

Explorations of Form and Function

Elsewhere, explorations of form and function posed more subtle reflections on the state of things — any time our traditional understandings of an object or concept are disrupted, space is created for reflection on broader issues. In his sculpture “Airplane (Over 4000),” Massimo Bartolini takes the unfolded template of a paper airplane and carves it into the top of a large plinth of Bardiglio Imperiale Marble.

Do Ho Suh "Fallen Star: Model 1 (Scale 1/24)"

Immediate dichotomies of a feather-light paper plane and a massive lump of rock are followed by another contrast — that between the marble’s natural form, an organic spectrum of grays formed over millions of years, and the calculated geometric pattern etched into its top, symbolic of an object that offers brief and fleeting distraction, now rendered immortal in stone.

It’s worth noting also that the piece was first displayed at the Frith Street Gallery’s exhibition space in London’s Golden Square, under which over 4000 bodies from the Great Plague are reportedly buried. The result is a more complex reflection on the nature of “building” on top of past suffering and experiences.

Having recently encountered another of his pieces at the Berlin Biennale, it was nice to see Josh Kline’s exploration of human experience in the digital world again with “Facial Incarceration Software,” a trio of 3D-printed arms holding Sony digital camcorders. Though their three forms are identical, distinct colourations reveal a schism between the real and unreal.

Massimo Bartolini "Airplane (Over 4000)"

On the bottom, a human arm holds the camera, whilst the top is rendered in black with Sony branded details on the arm, making the body one with the machine it is using.

The middle sculpture, covered in digital white noise, is neither human nor object; it is the data that it records. In an age where the camera has formed a vital component of our daily lives — whether for personal, professional or political reasons — Kline’s sculpture poses interesting questions about how we define humanity when our digital endeavors are often so integral to our identity.

Do Ho Suh’s “Fallen Star: Model 1 (Scale 1/24)” is a scaled model of the artist’s permanent installation at the University of California San Diego, in which a typical 20th century American picket-fence house is disruptively perched on the edge of a contemporary office block. Much like its real-life counterpart atop the University’s Jacobs School of Engineering building, the piece confronts the stark contrast between traditional, perhaps nostalgic notions of American identity and modern corporate culture.

Distorted Glass Deer and Butterfly Harps

Kohei Nawa “Pixcell-Deer#24”

None of this is to say that all of the artwork present was overtly-theoretical. Matt Sheridan Smith’s work, presented by Dublin’s Mother’s Tankstation Limited gallery, is concerned with phenomena surrounding memory and loss thereof.

His acrylic transfer pieces conjured notions of internet culture through their patterned motifs, “shared” in repetition, whilst the blurry, pixelated “Figure (hole)” is clearly laden with ideas of amnesia and uncertainty, whilst the pixelation could be suggestive of a shared idea that becomes slowly distorted each time it is passed along.

Cuban Glenda Leon is another artist who caught my attention that this year’s fair. Many of her sculptural works involve transforming familiar objects into the unfamiliar, and her sculpture “Metamorfosis (I)” is a simple but effective expression of this. By joining two harps together by their collars, Leon transforms the instrument — with its associative qualities of romance and fluidity — into the figure of a butterfly.

Glenda Leon "Metamorfosis"

I was also taken in by the work of Nel Aerts, a Belgian artist whose cartoonish acrylic paintings felt reminiscent of old educational cartoons from the 1970s.

Using a subdued background color palette with flashes of color and striking contrasts, there was something interesting about the combination of doodle-esque imagery and geometric precision. Sometimes something just catches your eye for looking nice, and this was one of those cases.

And finally, a special mention has to go to Japanese artist Kohei Nawa, whose sculpture “Pixcell-Deer#24” was turning heads all throughout the day. A sculpture of a deer is covered with a layer of glass spheres of varying sizes, simultaneously creating a detailed image of the interior layer up close, but a distorted image at distance.

Visually stunning, with an intriguing interplay of clarity and distortion — and, well, very Instagrammable — it was difficult to walk past it and not feel suckered in.

Josh Kline "Facial Incarceration Software"

What to Make of It All?

Art fairs are an oft-contentious subject, with some artists arguing that they kill art. Certainly, the fact of the matter is that art fairs are primarily here to sell art. Frieze is no exception to this rule, but its prime location in London, globally-renowned name and inclusive atmosphere does make it one of the most interesting places to get lost for an afternoon. Though the entry price is higher than your usual gallery trip, the sheer volume of art available once you go in somehow balances it out.

One of the admirable qualities of the fair has been demonstrated by the prominence of political and “socially-conscious” pieces at this year’s fair — Frieze London is for more than just the intelligentsia of the art world and the galleries, to their credit, make an effort to present pieces that will capture the attentions of more than just the curators and collectors.

As I said, for silent solo viewers like myself, the crowds and noise can sometimes be a little challenging, but I’ve since learned that earplugs work for more than just nightclubs.

There’s still time to catch some of our 10 best art exhibitions to check out this month.

  • Words: Gregk Foley
  • Lead image: Kohei Nawa, "Pixcell-Deer#24"
Words by Contributor
What To Read Next