The Cultural Paralysis of Frieze, Art Basel and Other Art Fairs

The article was originally published on Hong Kong art media CoBo Social on 23 October 2020. This analysis was also discussed during interviews on the ArtTactic podcast and Shangri-la Art podcast.

Earlier this month, the Frieze Viewing Room for Frieze London and Frieze Masters launched alongside in-person programming and physical versions of their online art exhibits set up by gallerists in their brick-and-mortar spaces. In spite of reportedly brisk sales even via its online platform, the overall visitor experience for the Frieze Viewing Room did not seem to provide anything new or different from the various viewing rooms and digital displays of art we have been trawling since the art world was brought to a grinding halt due to COVID-19.

This sense of stasis comes across even with the changes made since Frieze’s first online-only edition five months ago, such as being able to apply filters and search terms, chat directly with gallerists while visiting online booths, and save and ‘like’ works for reference.

Nonetheless, art fairs have been making concerted effort to integrate the experience of art into the digital realm since the pandemic began. In September, Art Basel launched “OVR:2020,” showcasing works made this year, presented by 100 galleries from all over the world.  The art fair will also be launching “OVR:20c,” end of October, focusing on 20th century works, also featuring 100 galleries. Both online showcases promise a “tightly curated exhibitions showing up to six works simultaneously,” not very dissimilar from Art Basel’s previous online viewing rooms.

Art Basel also seems to be attempting to rebuild its physical presence with a “pivot to smaller, more local events amid the various states of global shutdown.” In September, the company announced the launch of “Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel,” in partnership with annual art fair Fine Art Asia which was pushed from October to November, set to take place at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center. Art Basel’s special section at the fair will showcase local and international galleries with spaces in Hong Kong and were also past participants.

Also, this month, Indonesia’s biggest art fair, Art Jakarta, unveiled a virtual version in all its three-dimensional glory, showcasing 38 art galleries and 16 artist collectives, with user interface that allowed movement through the online space akin to a physical fair. At first glance, this approach seemed far more futuristic in comparison with most online fair content this year. However, aside from the occasional bout of motion sickness due to physical movement in virtual space, it seemed as if there was something far more elemental amiss in the overall experience.

Granted, everyone, from art fair organisers and collectors to artists and gallerists, is well aware the digital experience cannot replace the physicality of viewing art. However, the overwhelming sense of inertia we are currently experiencing has actually been happening for a while now, even before the pandemic and its ensuing social and travel restrictions rendered most of us isolated and immobile. Remember when we came up with the word “fairtigue” from just attending physical art fairs? COVID-19 has only served to make this state of stasis harder to ignore, stripping away the distractions of travel and socialising to unveil the truth about how little we have actually evolved and transformed over the past couple of decades.

Even new technologies and overhyped hybridised digital and physical adventures cannot conceal this standstill we are living in any longer. While the age of information technology brought us the “unchecked” rise of “new industrial giants” such as Facebook, Google and more, a quick glance at the giants of the art world, such as the mega corporations and boards behind art fairs, art galleries, auction houses and museums, do not indicate any equally comparable and concrete innovation.

One of the most telling signs of this ongoing “cultural paralysis” is the art fair industrial complex. Think about the way Frieze as an art fair, which was launched in 2003 in London, brands itself as edgy and unique compared to the other internationally renowned art fairs—it does not look very different from a typical contemporary art fair save for its infamous constructed tents, opting out of the usual physical infrastructure of conference halls or hotel ballrooms. Even the features that are promoted as different for its digital edition, such as hybridisation are not breaking any new ground.

So how did we get to this point of stagnation?

The answers are manifold, but two aspects are worth pointing out. First, the lack of inclusion, awareness and nuanced knowledge of people and places beyond established art circles and recognized art centres. These are the individuals and communities quite possibly creating the kind of art and discourse that could foster entirely new ways of thinking, living and working in the art world.

Second, the big money supporting the art world and its origins. You might think this has little relevance to our current state of cultural stasis. However, it is historically precedent that those with the most power and wealth work the hardest to ensure society at large remains convinced that nothing can possibly change, save for superficial tweaks and technological infrastructure, and that the way things are is the only way forward.

While we have gotten better at investigating and calling out nefarious financial ties when it comes to public institutions and museums, we are a lot more circumspect with art fairs, even when the evidence is glaring. One of the most eye-catching visuals on Frieze Viewing Room was the presence of their global lead partner Deutsche Bank with a red background beneath the title “Taking a Stand: Art and Society, Works from the Deutsche Bank Collection” next to a photograph of the open palm of a person of colour.

Reported widely over the past decade by established financial and mainstream media, Deutsche has “paid fines for everything from evading sanctions against Iran and Myanmar to rigging foreign exchange markets to doing business with [serial sexual predator] Jeffrey Epstein.”

In September, leaked documents from the US Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), investigated by BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), detailed the bank’s involvement in a US$10 billion mirror trading scheme, where “some of the world’s worst criminals used the network to move dark money around the globe, with the help of shell companies and corrupt financiers and [small business owners] were left to pick up the pieces.”

The bank also come under scrutiny for reportedly lending US President Trump hundreds of millions of dollars despite his documented history of not repaying loans,  calling into question the institution’s risk management practices which matter a great deal for a global systematically important bank (G-SIBs), with connections to numerous countries, organisations and industries including the arts.

In spite of all these red flags and publicly available information, art fairs such as Frieze do not shy away from such financial connections. This is the norm in the art world. However, if there was ever a time to break away from the status quo, while digging deep for real and sustainable breakthrough in terms of how we create, present and sell art, it is now. The art world, and the art fair industrial complex, cannot keep holding onto the tried and tested in this age of upheaval and crises. This will only quicken its increasing stasis and irrelevance.

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