Frieze New York: how this year's art fair got political
The annual New York City-based incarnation of the much-anticipated art fair is heading to the streets with a powerful set of protest-themed pieces
By Nadja Sayej
Wedged between South Bronx and Harlem, Randall’s Island in New York City has an unlikely past – part of it was previously called “Negro Point”.
It first got its name, officially, in 1984 after being referred to as such since the late 1800s and was renamed in 2001 when it was brought to the attention of the city’s parks commissioner, Henry J Stern.
Thanks to Stern, it is now called Scylla Point, in reference to the mythological sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis (nearby is Charybdis Playground in Astoria Park).
But that’s not enough, which is why the annual Frieze art fair – which opens today on Randall’s Island – invited New York artist Adam Pendleton to hang a flag at Scylla Point that reads “Black Lives Matter”.
“I called up Adam and said, ‘I can’t be who I am and not acknowledge this history,’” said Adrienne Edwards, a curator at this year’s fair. “I asked him to consider placing the flag at ‘Negro Point’ as a gesture to see how the flag holds that space.”
It’s an attempt to bring politically charged projects to the same old booth-and-blue-chip annual event, as Edwards is curating Frieze New York’s first annual Live section, which is devoted to the poetics of protest.
Edwards, who works as the performance curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, included Pendelton’s project and others for a project she has titled Assembly.
“I believe art is not made in the world but of the world,” said Edwards.
It’s an antidote to the usual booth-driven, fluorescent-lit art fair, where roughly 195 galleries from 30 countries are inside five white tents.
“There’s a rich history here of artists speaking to the social and political issues of their time,” she said. “In my lifetime, I have never seen anything like what’s happening right now politically; the broader world has changed and the consciousness has been raised.”
Also on view are large-scale American flags by New York artist Hank Willis Thomas, who has hand-embroidered over 15,000 stars, representing the number of people who lost their lives to gun violence in the country from 2016 to 2017.
“Since February, 2,000 people have been shot and killed in America,” said Thomas. “Often, we have memorials and monuments to people who are fallen heroes, but we don’t know who the victims of gun violence were.”
He cites the wars both outside and inside the country. “The fact we had more people killed last year than American soldiers in both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – which are wars that have been going on for 20 years – is pretty astounding,” he said. “The country will memorialize fallen soldiers, but what about all these other people who died at home for unexplained reasons? This piece is a memorial for fallen stars.”
Also on view is Los Angeles artist Lara Schnitger’s piece Suffragette City, which has the same title as the David Bowie song. This performance art protest for women’s rights will have the artist leading a march with makeshift placards. Rather than words scrawled over the placards, they’re emblazoned with images of women and there will even be a cameo of a handcrafted “goddess” posted up on a wooden plank.
This year, the winner of the annual Frieze artist award went to Canadian artist Kapwani Kiwanga, who has created a public artwork called Shady, a wall-like sculpture made from farmer’s fabric to protect crops, though it looks like a Mexican border wall prototype.
“This particular shade cloth at once evokes this idea of a barrier, as well as a porosity that invites people to think about possible transgression,” Kiwanga told the Art Newspaper.
Together, the political projects raise the importance of bringing the rather insular world of the art fair on to the streets. Which also raises the question of does the art world need to start thinking of art fairs beyond the booth? Perhaps.
As New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz pointed out, art galleries pay between $15,000 to $125,000 for a booth at Frieze art fair – just for the weekend. But in a time when protest art and public projects garner more intrigue, are art fairs even necessary any more?
Starting at the same time, yet separate to the art fair is a set of virtual reality and video works by New York artist Tommy Hartung, whose RUR project, inspired by the science fiction play by Czech writer Karel Čapek, also look at Facebook’s forthcoming dating service through a creepy lens.
“Facebook began as a misogynist ranking system for frat boys on campus to sexually harass and stalk woman online,” said Hartung. “The internet, in general, has enabled male predators on an unprecedented scale, creating a virtual locker room and normalizing stalker behavior.”
Questions around global warming and nuclear disaster are also abound, like in a flower installation by Japanese artist Atsunobu Katagiri that looks at an endangered flower called the Monochoria korsakowii, which returned after Fukushima stirred up the soil during the tsunami.
Over at the Anat Ebgi gallery booth from Los Angeles, the Arab-American artist Jordan Nassar shows a series of embroidered works honoring the strength of Palestinian women – who the artist met in Israel – while carrying on the details of their handcraft tradition with a sympathetic touch to understand his family’s own past.
New York artist Matthew Brannon also looks back to the past – specifically, the Vietnam war to help understand the present. For his Concerning Vietnamproject at the Casey Kaplan Gallery booth, the artist interviewed war veterans, visited midwestern artillery museums and sifted through piles of declassified documents to better understand the subject, which is a seemingly endless labyrinth captured in a series of graphic, vintage-hued wall works.
While Edwards only curated the Live section and the Frieze Artist Award, her vision seems to cast a timely resonance over the entire show, in general.
“I hope that together, these projects will serve as a platform to help us imagine what is possible today through the poetics of protest,” said Edwardsof the Liveprogram.
“By breaking down boundaries between galleries and the street, the artist and their audience and making new propositions that open up conversations about the role of art in today’s society.”
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