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The Ten List: The Unexpected at an Art Fair

Since the recent proliferation of the Art Fair (Art Basel Miami Beach opened its doors in 2002, and Frieze set up shop in 2003), we know more and more what to expect at such an event: aisle after aisle of collector-friendly work, entire stands selling out before the fair even opens, international VIPs, champagne. But expectations for the seventh edition of London’s Frieze Art Fair were turned upside down after the 2008 installment – a conservative, weakly-supported fair that fell just a month after Lehman Brothers went under, and as the world (the extra-planetary art world included) began to realize it was sliding into a major economic crisis. Many galleries decided not to return to the fair this year, and rumors were rampant that their absences meant lesser quality exhibitors had finally breached the fair’s gates. All things considered, there was a lot more room for the unexpected.

1. In an unprecedented act to preserve a presumably vulnerable collectors’ pool, The City of London enlisted a team of Health and Safety crossing guards to control the intersection just outside the fair’s entrance in Regent’s Park. Wielding red plastic caution tape, the guards barricaded crowds on the sidewalk until the pedestrian sign blinked to a very safe shade of green.

2. Just inside the Frieze tent, many were surprised to find a violinist performing a solo among the thronging crowds. Playing Fernando Ortega‘s Transcription (2004) in Lisson Gallery‘s stand on the opening evening of the fair, the musician was focused, almost serene, even as pop star Lily Allen teetered past in Chanel.

3. The unanticipated color purple was everywhere at Frieze this year: the fair’s official logo was made up in a dusty shade of eggplant, emblazoned on thousands of those ubiquitous art world tote bags. I spotted several dealers in purple suits or purple cardigans (depending on their target audience); even British artist Grayson Perry sported a dash of violet on his cotton bloomers. And the classic London department store Liberty added loot to the VIP spread this year, filling its iconic purple gift bags with goodies including a purple and orange silk scarf.

4. Wall text is definitely not something you expect to see at an art fair. If there’s writing on the wall, it’s usually a string of numbers punctuated by a dollar sign. Or, à la Gagosian, stands are completely devoid of wall text – no indication of artists’ names or the prices of their displayed works (if you have to ask…). But debutante Frieze exhibitor Frank Elbaz chose to adorn his stand with museum-quality wall texts to accompany his solo presentation of Wallace Berman‘s work. The French gallerist joked that he used English wall texts because he isn’t too comfortable speaking the language himself; enquiring curators were instructed to read the vinyl lettering. 

5. Video is an uncommon medium at art fairs for two reasons: collectors (apart from the formidable connoisseurs of the moving image, Isabelle and Jean-Conrad Lemaître) tend to gravitate towards painting, drawing and sculpture, and a well-installed video work is a hard thing to achieve inside a tent. But inside Frame – a new section of the fair dedicated to galleries no more than six years old making solo presentations – Laura Bartlett (London) featured an entrancing new film, Cities of Gold and Mirrors (2009) by French art star Cyprien Gaillard, and schleicher + lange (Paris) pulled off an elegant double screen projection of Laurent Montaron‘s poetic Balbvtio (2009).

6. String Theory made an unexpected art fair appearance in Cartier Award winner Jordan Wolfson‘s project, Your Napoleon (2009). At stand P2 a short blurb on the work was taped to the wall and two interns manned a desk where the public could sign up for free walking tours through the fair and surrounding park with a bona fide String Theorist.

7. After last year, it was surprising to see so many sold dots at all, let alone on the first day of the fair. Perhaps referencing cash, or a newly found concern for environment (the carbon footprint of the art world must be among the biggest of them all), at least one gallery, Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin, proudly displayed green sold dots on labels for works by Gert and Uwe Tobias

8. Babies represented the changing face of the art fair’s audience, and like a Family Day at Tate Modern, strollers caused traffic jams among the stands. Art-enabling parents also sported Baby Bjorns and hipster baby slings, proving the old adage that an economic downturn can bring on a veritable baby boom.

9. At an art fair, it is typically champagne that flows; tucked into the corners of gallery stands, iced bottles are ready to pop when the right collector comes by. Whisky, on the other hand, has never struck me as a particularly chic, or really a very social drink – it’s what you drink when you’re alone, or going out of business. But on the opening night of this year’s Frieze fair, sponsor Maker’s Mark was responsible for filling the vast white tent with the smell of fermented barley and wheat, and increasingly rosy-cheeked art world revellers discovered a beverage that packed a real bang for their buck.

10. At Club Nutz, occupying stand G22 right next to the whisky bar, Milwaukee-based curators Scott Reeder, Tyson Reeder and Elysia Borowy-Reeder presented a program that included a camouflage party, a life-drawing class and perhaps one of the most unexpected appearances at an art fair: comedy. A recreation of their Wisconsin comedy venue, Club Nutz hosted a series of acts during the four-day fair. Inside their darkened space, I happily discovered a bucket full of mini trick-or-treat size Payday candy bars. "Are these free?" "Of course, help yourself." Oh the sweet taste of irony – Britain’s favorite brand of humor.

Art Basel Miami Beach opens December 3rd – stay tuned…

Lillian Davies is a writer based in Paris, a regular contributor to Artforum and editor in chief of Uovo magazine.

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