Travel Diary 4

Art Under Canvas: Frieze Art Fair, and Frieze Masters

The internet, as we all know, is a great way to keep in touch with friends and fellow-travellers. A few beautifully written vignettes have dropped into my mailbox recently, like digital postcards from fellow nomads. From Laura in the States:

“It is evening in New York and I’m writing from my home in Chinatown (finally got a permanent place and feel a bit more settled). It’s rainy this evening and a neon sign for a Chinese dumpling restaurant is glowing outside my window: green, blue, yellow, hot pink.”

From Grant in Barcelona:

“Hola Pete, My warmest regards from The Capital of the Independent Republic of Catalunya. Or maybe from plain old Spain? I write to you, of course,

from Barcelona. Free republic or not, Barcelona is as beautiful as ever,

and I am very happy to be here.”

And from Mick in Indonesia:

“I'm on an eight hour train journey across Java. Quite wonderful. I've done this trip six times before, but almost always at night. So now I can appreciate the tropical landscape much more. Endless rice paddies, coconut and banana palms, vast rivers and towering volcanoes. Searing sunlight. Later this afternoon I'll arrive in Jakarta, and Restu's driver will take me to her sumptuous villa at Bogor.

I salvaged all my work from the now abandoned studio in Yogyakarta and put it in a safe storage facility. This includes the work I've made for you for the Tropical Hot Dog Night exhibition and website. I also had beers with Carlos the spy last night. Always entertaining.”



If the Pogues’ Rum Sodomy and the Lash is my music of choice for the start of a journey – when the plane, train, ferry sets off – then Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs is what I play on my early morning walks, when I am based in one place for any length of time, or when I have arrived in a new destination. The first track, Singapore, has a quick beat that fits perfectly with a fast, pre-dawn stride:


We sail tonight for Singapore

Don’t fall asleep while you’re ashore…


It has a menacing, Kurt Weill-meets-Bertolt Brecht feel to it, full of cut-up imagery and wonderful rhyming couplets:


The Captain is a one-eyed dwarf

He’s rolling dice along the wharf

In the land of the blind

The one-eyed man is King


It also makes me think, every morning, of all my good friends in Singapore, Adeline Kueh, Ian Woo, Hazel Lim, Bala Starr, Milenko, Venka, Chandra, Steve, and the rest of the crew from La Salle and Goldsmiths. The best time to play it is, of course, when I’m in Singapore itself. I walk up to the lighthouse, on the hill near the reservoir, every morning. The temperature is already 27 degrees at

Mick, who sent me the above email from the Java train, is always fond of telling landscape painting students “If you keep walking straight ahead, you’ll eventually go right around the planet and come back to where you started.” I think about him, as I walk to Bramhall station for the London train and the Frieze art fair, listening to Tom Waits sing the same sentiments from Rain Dogs.


“They say if you get far enough away,

You’ll be on your way back home”



After a quick change of platform at Stockport, I’m on the Manchester to London Virgin Express, for the opening of the Frieze art fair in Regent’s Park. What will it be like? Over the years of travelling, instead of sensibly paying off a mortgage, I’ve recklessly visited most of the major art fairs, from Cologne (dominant in the 1980s, less so now. Cologne then saw itself as a rival to Manhattan, and London was known for its art magazines rather than its yBas), to Basel (hard to fail there, with so many Swiss billionaires living in close proximity to the convention centre. Their starchitect-designed homes built above nuclear bunkers with bomb-proof viewing rooms for their Picassos, Trockels, and Andy Warhols), Shanghai, Los Angeles, Frankfurt, and Chicago (one of the most romantic art fairs, in a noir-ish sort of way, down in the old Navy Piers, where several of the classic James Cagney movies were shot). But I’ve never been to Frieze. This omission is partly due to the academic teaching year in Australia.  It’s never been possible to go.

It was in Australia, to be precise Hobart, Tasmania, (one of my two favourite places on the planet, along with Stromness in the Orkney Islands. But don’t get me started, I could bore you for hours), that I first started building fictional art fair booths as artworks. Why did I do this? It was partly because I missed their more-interesting–than–a-museum carapace of new money and reckless braggadocio. While the artist within me was appalled by the “money is everything” ethos of these art fairs’ very existence - the fawning, the schmoozing, the hierarchies of greed and desperation - the novelist in me, by contrast, saw them as fertile ground for plot, characterisation, and murder. Perhaps a serial killer? Twelve art fairs; twelve months; twelve murders; twelve chapters; twelve gallery installations.

I settle down with my decaf coffee. As The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn rattles through my head, I flick through the pile of newspapers I’ve bought in the small, but well-stocked, W.H. Smith’s outlet on Platform 3. Most, either in the news or arts section, are previewing Frieze.





Unlike me, these London-based art writers have probably been to every

iteration [1]and some of them have become a tad jaded.

There were, I knew, two art fairs held simultaneously in Regent’s Park, and both are children who have outgrown their parents, in the form of the magazine Frieze, which spawned them. One fair is simply called Frieze, and hosts commercial galleries from around the world, who spend kings’ ransoms to book a space about half the size of a tennis court, hotel accommodation in central London, freight costs to bring work from New York, Sydney, Dublin, Hong Kong, and Dubai. Then there are the airfares for the gallery staff, ranging from steerage to First Class, depending on the wealth of the gallery and the status of the employee. You have to sell at least one Sean Scully painting, three Sarah Lucas sculptures, or have a totally sold out stand by an “emerging” artist, to start to recoup your costs. Some of the biggest galleries, like the ubiquitous Gagosian, go through this commercial dance almost every month of the year. Last time I counted, he had sixteen galleries around the world[2] (five in New York alone). For the smaller galleries, those existing on struggle-street and who have often travelled the greatest distance, there’s the added cost of psychiatric counselling when they do get back home and have lost so much money the gallery is on the point of bankruptcy. 

 The other art fair is called Frieze Masters, and is a mix of historical and modern (as opposed to contemporary). There you will see a late Picasso hanging across from a wonderful 16th century wood-carving of a tearful Madonna, with human hair for eyelashes, and tiny glass tears glued to her cheeks. Astonishingly beautiful, poignant, and five hundred years ahead of its time. Or you are as likely to see the other Madonna, the rock star, buying an edition-of-one Cindy Sherman photograph from her early black and white period, or a Julian Schnabel broken plate-and-smear painting, big as the side of a Bunnings shed.

Frieze Masters has its own eponymously-named magazine, and I wish it was published once a month rather than once a year. Edited by the wonderful Jennifer Higgie, a graduate of Melbourne’s VCA, who has an intelligently global view of the artworld having lived on both sides of the planet rather than dropped in, or passed through. Why do I like it so much? Partly for the reason I am such a fan of David Walsh’s MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in Tasmania. It mixes the ancient and the modern, and if you throw its sister publication Frieze into the mix, you have the contemporary as well. The great Artscribe magazine used to be a bit like that, under some of its many editors. A well-researched and academically footnoted article on Tiepolo might sit between an interview with Annette Messager, and a centre-page-spread of “artist pages” created for the magazine by Marlene Dumas.  


Frieze Masters is a twenty-minute walk away, across to the other side of Regent’s Park, past Frieze Sculpture, still running since I viewed it three months ago (5 July – 8 October) and curated for Frieze by Clare Lilley, Director of Programmes at the renowned Yorkshire Sculpture Park.[3] Memories of families picnicking in the sunshine, surrounded by sculptures flown in from around the world, and some from closer to home: Bernar Venet, Urs Fischer, Ugo Rondinone, Tony Cragg, Takuro Kuwata, Reza Aramesh, Rasheed Araeen, Michael Craig-Martin, Jaume Plensa, KAWS, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Eduardo Paolozzi, Anthony Caro, Miquel Barceló, Gary Hume, Alicja Kwade, Mimmo Paladino, and Emily Young.

How good would works from Australia and New Zealand look here? Bronwyn Oliver, Michael Parekowhai, Glen Clarke, Patricia Piccinini…


As I “interrogated” today’s press coverage of Frieze, from the window seat of my train, I thought back a few weeks to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, still the largest, and most fun, of its kind in the world. Most of it takes place in the large green paddock that is Charlotte Square, at the New Town end of George Street, a paperback’s throw from The Oxford Bar, where John Rebus, and his creator Ian Rankin, are known to sink a pint or three.  In the late 1980s, I used to live five minutes from there, in Rose Street Lane (in a flat with Callum Innes, his soon to be wife Heidi, and Kevin Henderson), and vaguely remember spending an evening in The Ox with Alan Johnstone and Donald Judd. The latter was on one of his frequent trips to Scotland (he was passionate about all things Scottish: whisky, tartan {the grid}, and bagpipes) to give a lecture at the Fruitmarket Gallery on “Art and Money”, both of which he knew more than most about. Come closing time, we were “locked in” and continued our banter until about three in the morning. It was one damn whisky after another. I can’t remember – and couldn’t the next day – what we talked about, vague ghost-like memories of his art foundation in Marfa Texas, where he is now buried, in a simple grave with a torn piece of tartan marking the earth mound.  But I knew it was one of those great art world conversations, forever “locked in” to my unconscious.

So as my Virgin train raced through Stoke on Trent, currently hosting the British Ceramics Biennial, and southwards to Crewe, I had an aerial picture in my head of the dozen or so separate marquees that made up the Charlotte Square book festival site. Would Frieze be like that, I wondered? But how could you secure upwards of a billion pounds worth of artworks, and exhibit them to museum quality standards, safe from the sort of hurricane that blew through London exactly thirty years ago?


A quick toilet break before reading The Guardian’s double review of the Frieze extravaganza. I shimmy down the aisle and try to find my balance in the tiny cubicle, like a drunken trawlerman. As the water in the bowl rolled and splashed in time with the train’s erratic movement, a perky female voice – coming from a concealed speaker – instructed me, in a sing-song voice, to “Please do not flush: Nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish down this toilet.” The same was, I saw, repeated on the underside of the toilet lid. Good to see Virgin flush with that sense of humour that its be(k)nighted founder espouses. I hope the same lightness of touch is retained when Jeremy Corbyn re-nationalises the railways, abolishes student fees, and provides every worker with a dacha on the former Queen’s former estates, that currently make up a large percentage of these islands.


The Guardian, I soon see as I settle back down, has given Jonathan Jones the job of reviewing last night’s VIP opening of Frieze contemporary, while Adrian Searle has been apportioned Frieze Masters. Jones kicks off by looking at those who are supposedly looking at the art:

“Look around, at all these stupendously well-clad and manicured VIPs, and you start spotting collectors: that guy chomping on an unlit cigar as he eyes a painting [I would spot him too, later that afternoon]; that slim well-heeled young couple who look as if they own a large chunk of the internet. What has brought such a gathering of wealth to Regent’s Park? Well, Frieze London is the fair that defines the new. It offers the most complete picture of the art of our time. What a dismal prospect,” he changes down a gear or two, “for if this is the new, the new is starting to look old and jaded.” And this is where he gets stuck into analyzing what I would call a “Realist Superfiction”, as opposed to the “Poetic” variety.

“Hauser and Wirth have wittily contrived to show all their artists – from Louise Bourgeois to Phyllida Barlow – in a fake museum complete with fading old typed labels and a gift shop that sells postcards and souvenirs. This museum has been put together with the classics professor Mary Beard. There are just two problems. One is that Damien Hirst has already done the same thing, on a more outrageous scale, at this year’s Venice Biennale. The second is that cramming these modern artists into a deliberately archaic museum saps their individuality. It’s not just boring, it’s meaningless…The same can be said of the ‘curated’ exhibition, spread across several galleries, which purports to explore the history of feminist art. It’s called Sex Work and has a lot of full-on anatomical images by the likes of Marilyn Minter and Penny Slinger. Where is the new in this look back at 40-year old radical art?” Two hours later - having booked into my cheap and cheerful hotel The Kings Cross Inn (Forty quid a night. Six quid breakfast in the dark basement. Don’t get a room beside the lift) immediately opposite the station  - I would stand in the same spot Jones was describing and wonder if we were both looking at the same exhibits? Jan Dalley, The Financial Times doughty arts editor, had already given a more engaged reading of this exhibition within an exhibition. “Apart from the question of whether there’s much of a market for this art,” she writes in a 14-page “Collecting” supplement, mostly centered on Frieze and other pan-London art events, “Sex Work is powerfully in tune with a wider trend of rediscovering older women artists [as opposed to the yBas of the 90s]. In the past few years OWAs have been making a vigorous comeback: an extreme example is Carmen Herrera, who last year opened Lisson’s New York gallery with her first solo show in many decades – at the amazing age of 101. Others, such as Bridget Riley (86, recently picked up by mega-gallery David Zwirner), Gillian Ayres (87, currently conquering China) or Geta Bratescu (91, representing her native Romania at this year’s Venice Biennale) display the U-shaped career typical of so many women in the creative arts: a high of early success, followed by long years in the middle-aged dip, re-emerging (longevity permitting) for a brilliant late run.” After focusing on the huge variety of the work, cut loose from gender and age, she concludes that this, “only shows us what we already know. Women are capable of anything.”


Adrian Searle obviously had a far more satisfying time at Frieze Masters, than did Jonathan Jones at Frieze , as you can tell from his lead paragraph.

“I can’t use the word masterpiece except in a spooky Darth Vader voice. Nevertheless, there are always great things at Frieze Masters, an offshoot that is a great deal more navigable than the main show’s overcrowded aisles and stands. Every few feet there is something to arrest you, by both the living and the dead. Something ravishing, something ribald, something risible, something old, something even older. You want religion? Take your pick, from crucifixions to ancient Egyptians, from worm-eaten bird-gods to a Cycladic idol that would have made Brancusi jealous. We’ve got Brancusi, too, as well as oodles of Basquiat and lots of Louise Bourgeois.”

I spent the remains of my first day going round the contemporary Frieze “tent”. Frieze masters would come on the morrow. And I quickly answered my question of whether the event would be held in a series of marquees like the Edinburgh Book Festival. Not at all. Think of a vast aircraft hangar, or an Amazon warehouse, solid and immovable against the strongest winds. Now double it, and that is the first Frieze venue. Frieze Masters, by contrast, is more like a single vast hangar, the lighting dimmer, less like a shouty supermarket. But they are both equipped with restaurants, cafes, bars, press offices, and performance spaces. The uni-sex toilets (2017 is the year we all waved goodbye to gender, as quickly as we pulled down statues to our colonial pasts) were six-star hotel standard, I imagine like the VIP areas of Glastonbury or Burning Man Festival. Fitting, certainly, for hedge fund billionaires and wealthy BBC talk show hosts. But what of the artists, in their fringe-dwelling studios, just-about-surviving, and nourishing themselves on creativity. Most don’t need to worry about their art student debt as they’ll never reach the bottom rung of paying it off.

Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, who came to fame with his The Battle of Orgreave (2001), a recreation of the 1984 miner’s strike, probably spoke for many young artists emerging into the light of the art world’s uber-commercial fairs, when he told Sarah Thornton, author of the page-turner of a book Seven Days in the Art World, at the Basil Art Fair,

 “It’s been a funny day, just floating about. It’s chaotic, bewildering. The amount of art in the world is a bit depressing. The worst of it looks like art, but it’s not. It is stuff cynically made for a certain type of collector. I’m not a very financially motivated person. My art is almost unsellable.” I bet its not. Go-go Gagosian, who started his career selling posters on Hollywood Boulevard, could find a way of selling thin air to artworld fat cats. He probably has already.


As I wander round Frieze, I pick up brochures, maps, and lecture programs to send to Charles and Leah Justin, founders of the wonderful Justin Art House Museum in Prahran, Melbourne, where my Fake News and Superfictions lecture tour began at the end of May. (I’ve also got a separate bag of goodies to send to artist friends Louise Weaver and Peter Ellis in Melbourne.)

Charles Justin is Chair of the recently reorganised Melbourne Art Fair, risen Lazarus-like from its near-death experience in 2016, and now to be ensconced in a pop-up venue next door to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art next year.

"Everyone came to the realisation,” Charles told Fairfax newspapers recently, “all the stakeholders from government through to the artists, that they missed it ... that the art fair was an important ingredient of our cultural landscape and they wanted it back."

Frieze had its personal highlights, from seeing new work by Callum Innes at Firth Street gallery, to meeting up with my old dealer friend Hubert Winter from Vienna in the SEX WORK section, showing the important work of the late Birgit Jurgenson. But the most dynamic part – called Focus (and colour-coded blue; each of the many sections was found easily on the map by colour references) - was the large area of invited “emerging” galleries from around the world at the far end of the vast marquee: Galerie Jaqueline Martins, from Sao Paulo; Frutta from Rome; Deborah Shamoni from Munich; Koppe Astner from Glasgow; 47 Canal from New York; Revolver Galerie from Lima; The Sunday Painter from London; blank from Cape Town; Truth and Consequences from Geneva; Rob Tufnell from Cologne; Various Small Fires from Los Angeles; Sultana from Paris…and many more.

It was in the midst of all this that I bumped into Amanda Rowell from Sydney, owner and director of The Commercial gallery. It turns out she too is on the board of the Melbourne Art Fair and was also collecting information for Charles Justin. One of her artists, Agathe Goth-Snape, had just completed a daily performance on the spot where we were standing. Called Every Artist Remembered, it was billed as “a series of informal and unrehearsed conversations between Gothe-Snape and invited artists who each sit for a one-on-one two-hour session in front of a live audience.”


The second day I made it across the park to Frieze Masters, and spent six hours with my friend Annie, exploring the wonders of the Kasbah. It really was an astonishing range of artworks. I enjoy looking at art with sculptors, always working out how things have been made, how they fit together, not worrying if the object is three thousand years old, or is three days out of the welders or the glass factory.

I spotted a tangerine-coloured neon tube, hanging at a forty-five degree angle in David Zwirner’s booth. In the back of my mind – from my pre-fair reading on the train - I remembered that one of the galleries would be selling the very first neon piece made by Dan Flavin. I sidled across to the sales person on the desk and asked if this was it. It was. “How much would I pay for that?” I asked, not pretending for a moment that I would be able to afford it.

“It’s 6.5 million,” was the brief response, snapped with crocodile teeth. I didn’t even bother to ask whether dollars or pounds. And as I swung away, I glimpsed in the far, far distance a tiny, framed painting of what looked like Uluru, glowing ochre against a green sky. I hadn’t seen as much Australian art as I’d hoped over the past few days, and went across for a closer look. Who was it by? Storrier? Makin? Olsen? But the closer I got, the more it changed. Up close, it revealed itself as an early Mondrian, a haystack at sunset with a Close Encounters of the Third Kind greenish glow behind it. Painted long before he discovered the addictive pleasures of the grid.


[1] Iteration: currently a favourite art world term that I wouldn’t be seen dead using in print. It’s up there with “interrogate”, rather than interview, or inquire. Why interrogate? Sounds a bit brutal. Art theory meets fascist torture techniques.

[2] While in London I visited the most recent of his galleries, in Grosvenor Hill. It was a total refurbishment of the former Savills building, the Mayfair real estate company, with even more global tentacles than Gagosian. Across several galleries I pondered the new works of Brice Marden (still undecided. I wasn’t immediately excited as I had been when I first saw his calligraphic “stick paintings”)

[3] I’ve been fortunate enough to see so much great art in London over the past few months, and hardly written about any of it yet, that I think it calls for a separate Diary entry of its own.


Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne



Peter Hill

C 2017

Next installment: December 1, 2017