“I see some of you have wine!” a chirpy welcome from Alex Zigrang at the commencement of the BeAdvisors Frieze VIP tour. Clearly she meant me, and of course I had wine; the whole point is to replicate the ‘real’ fair experience, no? A preview of the show, meeting directors, and hopefully meeting something new.
My last physical art fair was Zona Maco back in February. I came away with new friends, recharged acquaintances and new partnerships. Since then we’ve had to make do with a stream of gradually evolving screen-based fairs, and try to fend off the sense of repetition and email fatigue they generate. As Anna Brady just put it on the Art Newspaper webinar, “You won’t remember your first online viewing room on your deathbed.” So at the start of an online viewing room experience, it’s nice to have some visibility, some interaction.
Notable during Chert Lüdde’s opening presentation was that the number of works on offer outstripped what would have fit on their usual Frieze booth, and that the works were surprisingly non-commercial. It seemed galleries took a hold of the possibilities online; with fewer overheads, they can be more risky and weird. Good. Frieze has felt like a merry-go-round of the same old stuff for the last few years.
We’re meeting the directors, which is something it’s not always easy to do on a booth or in a gallery situation. They’re talking directly to the ‘crowd’, and I rapidly checked off the art-speak bingo: ‘made-up word that ends in ‘eity’, ‘hyperconnectivity’ (twice in the same sentence), and even ‘‘Offsite Residency’, which presumably means ‘the artist’s normal working conditions’.
It’s nice to feel close to directors, as close as my screen allows, and the art world’s increased confidence with technology is evident. The pandemic has largely dispensed with formality and highlighted new possibilities in communication; we spend much more time meeting in each other’s houses. I’ve invited museum directors into my dining room, spoken with a Hong Kong artist in their bathroom. So this laborious art-speak is absurd when I’m sat on my sofa with my puppy. Galleries like Herald Street break with this, by taking us, glitchily, around the gallery space; Company gallery, who only showed two artists, had a delivery and lightness of touch that betrayed a great confidence in their quality.
US galleries upheld expectations of a strong showing for non-white artists, with Chapter NY’s brilliant still and video presentation of Tourmaline, a black trans sex worker; its lesson on America’s grubby colonial history was swiftly followed by another answer to the times from Ghebaly, presenting Cassi Namoda from Mozambique. Here I was really impressed by the image resolution and viewing quality; you could feel the texture of the paint, the images sang.
Much effort was made to convey the physicality of sculpture, with video, detail shots; there are limitations to this, clearly: A sculpture is a spatial anomaly; it requires you to run your brain over its surface. The visual OVR experience has developed enormously since Art Basel Hong Kong, and the addition of video is an effective progression.
I urgently felt the need to discuss. Mid-way through, my friend and I decamped to the garden with the laptop, to chat semantics; it’s an art opening after all, and an hour and a half is a long time to sit staring. But I realized that my feeling of separation could be seen as old-world viewpoint; the onus is on all of us to seize the opportunities offered us by technology. Want further discussion? Organise a post-tour chat with other collectors. Frustrated by gobbledygook art-speak? Hit up the director for a follow-up conversation. Missing your Frieze snack breaks? You have a kitchen.
The OVR journey has been interesting and the big fairs are particularly open and adaptive; as the situation lengthens and a return to the previous travelling circus seems unlikely, galleries are working hard to overcome this physical lack, the personal disconnection, through technology. We can do the same.