Contemporary or Conservative? The 2017 Frieze New York Art Fair

Contemporary or Conservative? The 2017 Frieze New York Art Fair

On a drizzling and cool morning in May I ferried north four nautical miles up the East River to the "Frieze Art New York Fair" on the waterfront at Randall's Island Park. The press release for the event states that “Frieze New York brings together more than 200 leading galleries from 31 countries...It shows today’s most significant international artists from emerging talents to seminal and rediscovered 20th-century masters." I went there because, in this world of ever-accelerating technology, I was curious about what truly "contemporary" fine art is and to see which artists are making 21st-century art through digital fabrication, 3-D printing, augmented and virtual reality, embedded devices and smart materials. I was surprised by what I found.

On the ferry were the usual art aficionados—the disheveled “I am an artist” types, students, curators and NPR sustaining members. There were also a few genuine collectors: graying, low-key, high-net-worth individuals with their hipster-clothed offspring accompanied by European model-type dates. The same art crowd one sees at any art fair around the world over the last several decades. They came to see, be seen and, in rare cases, buy artwork designed to sell.

To me, the curious thing about this crowd is that successful artists tend to look like university professors on sabbatical compared with these art scene characters. And these art scene encounters were the structural underpinnings of the Frieze Art Fair experience—from the 40-minute trip up the river, disembarking onto the island’s wooden dock, then a 1,200-foot graveled walk in a procession of fairgoers, to a serpentine through the 300,000-square-foot tent. The tent looked like a giant white caterpillar whose upper lip is formed by long white fabric runners stretching from the roof to the ground, marking the entrance to the fair. It was inviting but felt more like entering a time warp than a tent.

As an artist myself, I needed to get a better sense of the art market. As a digital media consultant, I wanted to see where the touch points are between contemporary fine art and technology. I also went as a journalist. (If you want to see people become activated, tell them you’re a journalist.) Upon seeing my press badge, a freshly minted assistant at the Victoria Miro Gallery booth promptly froze, squeaking, “All press inquiries must go through our PR agency." Fortunately, it was a singular instance. Victoria Miro did have some of the best pieces in the show, especially Do-ho Suh’s sculptural renderings of household appliances in hand-sewn white polyester fabric stretched over stainless steel armatures and placed in white light boxes. They were like translucent natures mortes—beautiful and mesmerizing—yet familiar. Do-ho Suh uses contemporary objects as subjects, yet these pieces could have been made any time since 1913 when Harry Brearley invented stainless steel or 1846 when Elias Howe invented the first American sewing machine.

Frieze New York’s tagline is “Pushing the Boundaries of Contemporary Art." I found this odd as the fair exists in a speed interval between contemporary art, media and technology. What boundaries are they talking about? Is it conceptual or a new take on well-traveled artistic exploration or is it new styles and forms of media like network art, digital video mapping, augmented reality performances or others? Most of the artwork at the fair appeared to be prepared for the purpose of looking good on a wall. After all, this is a fair meant to sell. The work was appropriately radical in some cases, downright ridiculous in others, and in several cases extraordinary. The good stuff always stands out, like James Currin’s remarkable oil paintings in the Gagosian booth (a technology re-invented in Europe around 1410 by Jan van Eyck).

And then there were surprises—hints of digital fabrication and shocks at the age of the artists who employ them. In the London-based Alan Cristea Gallery booth, a 76-year-old Irish conceptual artist named Michael Craig-Martin (one of Damien Hirst's mentors) showed elegant white-on-black “drawings” of mundane household objects etched into laminated Formica via laser-etching techniques developed for signage. Another notable piece was by a Belgian artist who uses Arduinos primarily as a video playback unit to feed four floor-mounted monitors in a rich conceptual piece. Aside from these two artists, there were not many other instances of 21st-century fabrication methods or materials.

Another surprise—and one that I missed, perhaps because Frieze is huge—was the interactive art. Stella-Sawicka, the artistic director at Frieze Art Fair, said, "Interactive art at Frieze takes many forms, and can be seen throughout the fair, particularly in the curated gallery sections and non-profit programs...Exploring all types of approaches to interactive art, the Frieze Projects program is really the place where the aim is to involve visitors in new and unexpected ways.” Most of the pieces mentioned are performance art.

Every form of convention is under assault in today's world. Contemporary art is no different; it just moves at a slower pace, which I find strange considering it is assumed to be avant-garde and is called "contemporary." Most of the techniques used to make the pieces in the Frieze New York Art Fair would not be out of place in the 19th century.

Art and technology have always been uneasy cousins. No less true now than in 1839 when painter and showman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre first showed his Daguerreotypes, which arguably permanently changed the way we as a society see. It also marked the beginning of the modern era of "artist as hero," who no longer only served God and King. “Photography gave rise to a new relationship to reality and its representation, which then boomeranged on its elder sister,” wrote Dominique de Font-Réaulx in his book of that era titled "Painting and Photography."

Are we now at another precipice, on the other side of which the ascendancy of new forms of expression will be engendered by digital fabrication, hybrid forms of art and advanced materials? Will the dominance of handmade art be usurped? As technology moves forward at an ever-increasing rate, we are on the cusp of being able to create intense new vocabularies with advanced materials, digital fabrication and 3-D printing.  How it will look, though, is anyone’s guess.


Images courtesy of Freize Art Fair




Creative Destruction Series: Introduction

Creative Destruction Series Part 01: Palpitations on the Slopes of Technology

Creative Destruction Series Part 02: Designing for Plurals, the Evolving Audience

Creative Destruction Series Part 03: Relocating Humanity

Creative Destruction Series Part 04: A Curious Stepchild of Inbound Marketing

Creative Destruction Series Part 05: Automated Design

Creative Destruction Series Part 06: Embracing Serendipity in the Digital Age

Creative Destruction Series Part 07: Three Versions of "US"

Creative Destruction Series Part 08: 12 Strategic Predictions for 2017

Creative Destruction Series Part 09: The Mythology of Online Searches

Creative Destruction Series Part 10: The Need for Data Literacy

Creative Destruction Series Part 11: SXSW At First Glance

About Eli Kuslanskyand Unified Field


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