I popped into the Frieze Art Fair to see how the other half lives

A smiling man next to a Damien Hirst at Frieze Art Fair

The author, well tempted to send this Damien Hirst to the kingdom of NFT. All photos: Constantin Gardey

For a week in autumn, two drafty tents in Regent’s Park become a mecca for international mega-payers art crowd. welcome to frieze fair, the catalog of the best ways to spend the three million pounds you found at the bottom of your sofa or your oil well, sponsored by Deutsche Bank. Where else can you buy a “London poverty mapfor a few thousand pounds in a cost of living crisis? But what’s going on behind the miles of white tarpaulins and the rows of chauffeured BMWs? Can a mere mortal like me make my way?

How to enter Frieze Art Fair for free

I firmly believe that there are only a handful of unlucky people who actually buy tickets to these things. Sure, Frieze claims you can buy them online – incredibly, they tend to sell out – but the prices are high no matter what separate part of the fair you want to visit. At Frieze London, galleries exhibit their contemporary artists working after 2000. At Frieze Masters, they adapt their museum pieces and establish domain names like Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol. The highest Frieze 91 pass for both shows costs £990.

So how do affluent aesthetes get into London’s premier art sale? They are rewarded; either by Frieze or by galleries that woo them. This high-luxury gang is the same suede brigade going wild for Wednesday’s premiere (we see you, Rishi Sunak). A favorite side quest when you come across these rare beasts in the wild is to casually mention a fictional VIP “pre-preview” on Monday night. You can be sure they weren’t invited (hint: an aggressive phone call to their PA) since Monday’s “pre-preview” doesn’t exist.

A man outside Frieze Art Fair.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t invited to the preview, or even the non-existent preview, so when I arrived at Regent’s Park, I went to do a reconnaissance of the perimeter fences. Alas, the combination of a few hundred million pounds worth of artwork and the threat of protesters wielding tomato soup meant security was tight. There was only one option left: nominate galleries looking for a sponsor.

It’s never wise to be too English about this stuff. Most galleries are content to help out a self-taught art student or a culturally hungry misanthrope; it’s good for their brand. Fortunately, I am perfectly willing and able to bow down like this for the good of the LARP. Flattery never hurts either. To my shame, I increased my chances by approaching five galleries. Twenty minutes after my first flattering salvo of emails, I had some good news.

A gallery exhibiting both in London and at the Masters generously confirmed that they may well have booked a ticket. I admit, it seriously undermined my faith that art dealers have no soul (and if you’re reading this, you know who you are, and I’m extremely grateful for that). After a short unworthy victory dance, I strolled over to the VIP Desk with studied carelessness and was adorned with QR codes, a frieze and offers for my taxi between the two fairs.

A man at the VIP counter at the Frieze Art Fair

My first clumsy attempt to charm the ticketing staff.

Frieze Masters is a ten minute walkway through the park, but in the spirit of the blag, I confirmed that their bespoke transport arrangements would indeed be satisfactory. “And would sir like to bring a guest with him?” Why yes of course! A few speed dials later, I finally entered Frieze London, albeit somewhat dazed by my rapid rise from pauper to art world VIP.

How to blag Frieze London

Unlike its louder and more posh sibling, Frieze London mainly exhibits works by living artists. But just because the price is lower doesn’t mean there’s less fun to be had. In fact, since some of the art could conceivably be afforded by a young person, Frieze London offers greater opportunities to tease predatory gallerists. If expertly run, it’s the fastest way to score free booze and after-parties. To help the character quickly transition from a penniless art student to a newly minted yuppie, I brought in some props.

First: a lanyard. Gallery owners, staff and the most important people wear black lanyards at Frieze. It’s wise to stash the end of your contraband rope in your inside pocket to best mystify who you are and if you can afford anything.

Second, a notebook. Never mind its contents: I brought my diary from 2019. If you bring one, use it in conjunction with probing questions about the price of obscure items. In Frieze Masters, ask for the providence of artifacts that have clearly been looted from destabilized Gulf states – bonus points if the object required the desecration of a grave to recover. It’s funny that curators can recite the whole story of this Tang dynasty sarcophagus, except for how it entered the private collector market

A man holding a notebook at Frieze Art Fair

The notebook, a crucial weapon in the arsenal of any art blagger.

Finally, I brought a stack of business cards and lists from other galleries and scribbled international phone numbers in the margins for extra panache. If nothing else, they make great cockroaches and bookmarks (and were later dropped into my Frieze loot bag with chocolate looted from the a MATCHES pop-up facility).

The Thomas Dane Gallery received the 2022 Frieze Stand award, with a fun installation by Anthea Hamilton featuring a squishy carpet and giant pumpkins. But the fair generally felt less daring than in previous years. Bland is soliciting a lot, but not a huge amount which has sparked joy.

Two men looking at art at Frieze London.

Major galleries still use Frieze London to flex household names, and it continues to look like a wasted opportunity. I am sure that Tracy Emin doesn’t need visibility or your money, but there is a city of young artists who definitely do. I could almost feel the listlessness of the gallery owners, most of whom were hunched over bottles of craft beer or Gail’s flat whites like hungover babysitters. London is usually a fresh break from the mercenary mood and porous face of the Masters, but if that’s not fresh, there’s no telling what it stands for. So I hopped on the chauffeured shuttle service for the other half of the fair and braced myself for the impact.

A man looking at a Francis Bacon painting at Frieze Masters

To think how much Frieze would have upset Francis Bacon.

Heard at Frieze Masters

That’s what you’d get if Kafka ran a decadent, nightmarish supermarket: trucks full of Miró, enough Alexander Calder mobiles to entertain a nursery, and the complete skeleton of a 154-million-year-old Camptosaurus. The density of value is overwhelming and slightly repulsive. But many are very special, and it’s worth remembering that some of these masterpieces will never be seen again outside of a Bond villain’s subterranean lair (or more likely a free port of art in Geneva).

The cynicism returns when you’re subjected to Lucio Fontana’s sixth pint-sized slash within as many minutes of entering. I counted every time I saw Bridget Riley and at the end I was told that the page in my notebook looked like a Cy Twombly. Despite forecast of an art market supported by Biden dollars, it didn’t seem like a huge amount was selling. Maybe Europe’s billionaires are saving their ducks for Paris+ by Art Basel, but it’s equally plausible that everyone is a little strapped for cash right now. I guess Olympic length infinity pools don’t heat up in a crisis of energy poverty.

Art luvvies are also reliably entertaining gossip. “I swear to God, I saw that awful Robert Rauschenberg get flogged by three different galleries with no success”, I hear by chance, as well as many dark speculations about what could have caused the Gagosian gallery to withdraw from their Masters stand (but nothing I can, unfortunately, repeat).

A man writes in his notebook at Frieze Art Fair

On weekends, the Frieze Village spins on paracetamol, caffeine, and jittery energy. This cocktail is not conducive to a pleasant drinking environment, so I resisted the urge to clear the flutes from the Ruinart apartment and be invited to a newly opened art pub in Mayfair, The Audley. It’s the Wirths’ latest project (half of the Hauser & Wirth mega-gallery) and features a ceiling installation by Phyllida Barlow that at least offsets the criminal price of £6.75 for a Guinness.

On the dregs of my pint, I couldn’t help but think that this tenth anniversary edition of Frieze felt skinny, mean and just a little joyless. Masters was overwhelming, but not quite the greedy wet dream I was hoping for. Then again, I didn’t pay to be there, so I have little right to complain. Anyway, I’ll see you there next year. Watch out for the boy with the black lanyard being carried by security.

@aflemingbrown

Dora W. Clawson