Just as Frieze Art Fair opened last Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May gave her keynote speech—and dared to dance again—at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. She announced that freedom of movement would be terminated “once and for all” by limiting access to “highly skilled workers” (in short, migrants earning over 30,000 British pounds per year). Countless art professionals earn much less (including entry-level curatorial staff at Tate, and yours truly), as well as doubtless many of the myriad gallery and museum folks involved in the city-wide jamboree of Frieze week. How do we imagine London’s contemporary art ecology post-Brexit, a scene that has grown exponentially since Tate Modern’s opening in 2000 and the first Frieze Art Fair in 2003? The question of how the 2019 edition of the fair is going to be affected was the elephant in the tent. Most people I asked shrugged: negotiations are still ongoing, consequences are yet to be seen. “It’ll be fiiiiine,” a London museum director told me. “Maybe we’ll visit a smaller fair, like the first editions—remember those days?” opined a British gallerist friend working in New York. Although one could put this upbeat denial down to the cliché of dark British humor and the spirit of “muddling through,” I nevertheless left worried that something more troubling lay behind it.
If Frieze might have triggered the relocation of many contemporary art galleries from the East to the West of the city, two recent institutional openings are enforcing a southern axis. The new Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art in New Cross, housed in a listed Victorian bathhouse refurbished by 2015 Turner Prize winners Assemble, kicked off with a sparkling survey show of Mika Rottenberg’s absurdist film installations offering grotesque parodies of current labor conditions. The second home of the South London Gallery at Peckham Road Fire Station, elegantly renovated by 6a architects, opened with “Knock Knock,” a group show about the uses of humor—from political satire to visual puns—in contemporary art. The addition of these spaces will surely benefit Gasworks, a short bus ride away in nearby Vauxhall, whose truly international program of residencies and exhibitions over the last two decades has been a vital antidote to the dangers of isolationism in the British art scene.
At Tate Britain, this year’s Turner Prize exhibition is exceptional, both in the strong screen-based works by the four nominees and as an overall show that holds together without the usual room-after-room presentation. Yet the four-plus hours necessary to watch all of the films in their entirety might pose a challenge to short-attention-span visitors and fast-paced VIP agendas alike: Glasgow-based Charlotte Prodger’s BRIDGIT (2018), a reflective single-screen video entirely shot on a smartphone, an intimate portrait of the artist’s place in the world; Luke Willis Thompson’s celluloid films, two of which feature victims of police and state brutality, such as autoportrait (2018), which portrays Diamond Reynolds, the women who broadcasted the shooting of her boyfriend Philando Castile by a Minnesota police officer via Facebook Live; Forensic Architecture’s multilayered investigation contested human rights violations in Israel and Palestine; and the two feature-length films by British-born writer and filmmaker Naeem Mohaiemen, who was raised in Dhaka and lives in New York, focused on a stranded passenger (Tripoli Cancelled, 2017) and the origins of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (Two Meetings and a Funeral, 2017).
Some of these themes were reflected in the visitor’s comment wall at Tate Britain, alongside complaints about the exhibition’s “too political” content. Yet amid a media landscape that is absorbed and saturated by the Brexit shambles, Frieze week felt like a bubble in a troubling and complex cultural moment. It was not only the Conservative Party conference that was generating fractious headlines last week, but also the troubling success of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s first round of presidential elections, the disquieting confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh’s seat in the US Supreme Court, and, back home in Barcelona, the one-year anniversary of the police violence during the independence referendum. Is Brexit too much and too close for the art community to prepare and adapt to its potential consequences, including reduced freedom of movement for professionals and artworks, lack of access to EU funding, and a weakened pound, not to mention the general mood of continued doubt and uncertainty?
Over at Frieze Art Fair, media-savvy Scandinavian duo Elmgreen & Dragset (who also have a survey show, “This Is How We Bite Our Tongue,” at the Whitechapel Gallery) tried to inject a dose of Brexit humor at London gallery Victoria Miro’s stand with their rather silly Anger Management (2018), a punch bag bearing the European Union flag. Curatorially speaking, the Focus and Social Work sections were the most interesting parts of the program (the latter highlighted key female artists and Brescia’s Apalazzo Gallery’s presentation of Sonia Boyce works was acquired by Tate). The underwhelming Live section was often relegated to the corners of the fair. In Focus, the ever-excellent Proyectos Ultravioleta, from Guatemala City, stood out with Johanna Unzueta’s exquisite presentation of large double-sided drawings pressed between glass and mounted on wooden blocks. At the stand of Modica’s Laveronica, Uriel Orlow showed a fragment of his multipart long-term project Teatrum Botanicum (2014–ongoing), which explores the active agency of plants in colonial history. Glasgow-and-Rome’s Frutta gallery presented compelling graphic works by Lauren Keeley, reminiscent of the practice of Lucy McKenzie who was showing Atelier E.B, her fashion-label collaboration with Beca Lipscombe, in a refreshing exhibition over at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery.
Elsewhere in town, I was unexpectedly seduced by Lucy Dodd’s “Miss Mars” at Sprüth Magers, which comprises a series of stitched canvases produced with organic matter, such as squid ink, liquid smoke, and baby poop. At Southard Reid, Cayetano Ferrer’s solo exhibition “Demaster” featured Greco-Roman motifs in Entropy Rug (2018), a section of carpet from the Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas, which was presented alongside Head Fragment Anti-Column (2018), two 3D–printed columns of small silicon busts scanned from ancient sculptures. “Grand Calme,” Martine Syms’s show at Sadie Coles HQ, featured an interactive animation on a freestanding floor-to-ceiling screen, alongside walls and pavement covered with text and a photographic dance floor. Both the exhibition space and the accompanying gallery text captured personal reflections of Syms’s online exchanges: “Who’s going to grab my booty”; “- – I hate how someone can just insert themselves into your life. <send> <delay seconds=5> Suddenly you’re thinking about them and wondering what they’re doing, wanting to chat, share things. <set q=2>).”
In contrast to Syms’s exploration of digital identity, Tania Bruguera’s 2018 Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern—the work’s title, an ever-increasing number representing the sum of last year’s migrants and recorded migrant deaths so far this year, 10,143,345 at time of writing. The Cuban artist’s call for communal action was formalized through heat-sensitive black paint covering part of the Turbine Hall’s floor. If a large group of people were to lay down, the portrait of a Syrian refugee would apparently be revealed. Yet, during my visit, the surface seemed more like a playground, at best recording body parts à la Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries” (1958–62). In a small side gallery, Bruguera intended to create “forced empathy” through an organic compound in the air that supposedly provoked tears (my hand was also stamped with the work’s numerical title). The menthol vapor only helped clear my nose. Bruguera’s fragmented presentation could have been more effective if limited to her most powerful gesture: changing the name of Tate’s Boiler House to honor local activist Natalie Bell. Facing the wing named after the Ukraine-born magnate Len Blavatnik following his donation of 50 million pounds, Bell’s name will be incorporated into the signage of the building—yet only for a year. Bell’s contribution to the Tate Neighbours activist group has been humble and humanitarian, and Bruguera recognizes an individual whose social capital is neither financially translatable nor captured by the rhetoric of “highly skilled workers.”
At the Government Art Collection/Outset Annual Award event, held on the night before Frieze’s opening in the grand Locarno Suite of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hammad Nasar (executive director of the Stuart Hall Foundation), shared the fresh news of his appointment as co-curator of the British Art Show 9, alongside Irene Aristizábal (Head of Exhibitions at Nottingham Contemporary), set to open in Manchester in 2020. “What does British mean after the Brexit vote?” Nasar wondered. My first thoughts were how poignant and critical a timeframe the next two years will be to address the very notion of “British”—and indeed “art” and “show.” Frieze week is, after all, just a week. What the true impact of Brexit will be on art-world mobility and dialogue, between fair tents and political “big tents”—from the bubble of London to the British Isles, “the continent,” and beyond—will take decades and prolonged pain to resolve.
- 1View of Julia Scher, Guards, Hidden Camera, at Frieze Art Fair, London, 2018. Mixed media and guards. Dimensions variable. Photo by Linda Nylind. Image courtesy of the artist; Esther Schipper gallery, London; and Linda Nylind/Frieze.
- 2View of Union Pacific's presentation at Frieze Focus, London, 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.
- 3Elmgreen & Dragset, Anger Management, 2018. Punching bag, leather thread, stainless steel. 189.2 x 100 x 83 cm. © Elmgreen & Dragset. Image courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. Photo by Victoria Miro gallery.
- 4Still from Uriel Orlow, The Fairest Heritage, 2016. Single channel video. 4:18 minutes. Imag courtesy the artist and Laveronica arte contemporanea, Modica.
- 5View of Maurizio Cattelan's Others (2011) at South London Gallery, London, 2018. Mixed media installation. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and South London Gallery Photo by Andy Stagg.
- 6Cayetano Ferrer, Entropy Rug, 2018. Caesars Palace casino carpet, machine tufted patches. 332 x 354.4 x 2 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Southard Reid.
- 7Still from Charlotte Prodger, BRIDGIT, 2016. Single channel video with sound. 32:00 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist; Koppe Astner, Glasgow; and Hollybush Gardens, London.
- 8Luke Willis Thompson, autoportrait, 2017. 35mm Kodak Eastman Double-X BW. 8:50 minutes @24fps. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery and produced in partnership with Create. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Andy Keate.
- 9Installation view of Martine Syms's "Grand Calme" at Sadie Coles HQ, London, 2018. Copyright Martine Syms. Image courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo by Robert Glowacki.
- 10View of Tania Bruguera, 10,142,926, 2018. Mixed media installation. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and Tate. © Tate photography / Andrew Dunkley.
- 11View of Tania Bruguera, 10,142,926, 2018. Mixed media installation. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and Tate. Photo by Andy Keate. © Tate photography / Andrew Dunkley.
- 12Solo presentation of Johanna Unzueta by Proyectos Ultravioleta for Frieze Focus, London, 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.
- 13Detail from Johanna Unzueta, Not twins, June, November 2017 NY, 2017. Dry pastel pencil, needle holes on indigo hand-dyed watercolor paper. 132 x 78 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala City.