The thing I like least about art fairs is the way they distort time so that life feels like it is very long and also that it could end at any moment. In other words, two contradictory thoughts echo simultaneously in my mind and both of them are accurate: I can’t believe it’s already May 2015 and it feels like a thousand centuries since May 2014. Either way, attending these kinds of cyclical events that arrive at the same time every year with the same cast of largely uninteresting stock characters and only a few details changed forces a person to think about all the things that happened in the interim, between the last event and this new one. The flash of remembrance is short and insignificant and always merely disappointing because one doesn’t actually live from art fair to art fair in reality—that’s just how life feels when one is at an art fair.
Of course, the distortion of time happens on a smaller scale, too, and that’s almost worse. Let’s just say that, from the moment I step inside an art fair, a clock ticks off in my brain, and I begin to almost physically feel the time I’ll never get back slipping away from me in a way that is both urgent and dull: how is it already 2 p.m. and how can it possibly only be 2 p.m.?
Frieze New York is especially mind-numbing for its relative isolation on Randall’s Island, a kind of self-contained nightmare that appears inescapable by the normal means of simply stepping outside and walking furiously in the other direction or taking the subway far, far away. The structure that houses Frieze—an eerie white tent that seems to self-generate light and oxygen and looks like a triage station for some future war—is a remarkable feat of engineering and also a horror show. Standing in the middle, it’s impossible to see either exit, and so the tent becomes not only a tomb from which there is no way out, but also a too-obvious stand-in for the drudgery of life itself. On Wednesday, at the opening day of the fair, as I was on the phone with a colleague trying to find him, he asked me, “Are you at the entrance closer to the mental institution or not?” This is in reference to the ironically named Manhattan Psychiatric Center, located on the adjacent Wards Island, an ugly beige cluster of buildings, the presence of which is comforting only in the sense that it’s nearby in case anyone really needs it.
My point is that art fairs are disorienting and dislocating and it took all of 30 minutes this year of being at Frieze before I forgot the following: who I am, where I was, the time of day and year, and what my life is like. Though there were brief moments that were either so awkward or so horrible that I couldn’t help but be jarred back to reality.
I saw two well-armed counter-terrorism police officers, slowly ambling through the fair, admiring some of the work and casually whispering like a couple of collectors.
Gagosian was selling work from Richard Prince’s Instagram photos of porny looking women. I hate everything about this series—particularly the laziness of it, how it never really transcends its punchline. I stood around and listened to some of the responses from the audience. Two unattractive men—one fat, short, and bald, the other young and tall—were gazing at the work, actually slackjawed.
“I like that one,” said the fat one, pointing at a photo of a woman suggestively licking a coffee cup that read, “Cat from Hell.” “That’s hot.”
The tall one pointed at a different picture: “Yeah, but I like that one. That’s hotter.”
Over by Barbara Gladstone’s TJ Wilcox installation, Leonardo DiCaprio was wearing a too-tight polo shirt and had a windbreaker tied around his waist. There were other things to describe, I suppose, but that windbreaker is burned into my memory so I’ll leave it at that.
The number of people who greeted me by smiling and waving that I in turn greeted by smiling and waving despite having no idea who they were: six. This was actually not a bad number for me. Two of these encounters turned into pretty lengthy conversations.
I saw Emily Mortimer walking out of the bathroom, and I thought of asking if she’d do an interview. But I couldn’t think of how to start this inquiry. She then flashed me a look of immense discomfort and I realized that I was now just silently staring at Emily Mortimer as she was walking out of the bathroom.
Marian Goodman had built taller walls for her booth displaying work by Guiseppe Penone, which was honestly impressive. The installation included giant wooden sculptures of naked trees and enormous canvases made of dried leaves. The whole thing looked like a genuine forest. There was Carol Vogel, the former New York Times art reporter, walking through it, looking literally lost in the woods.
A woman working the booth of the gallery Broadway 1602 became my hamster wheel for the afternoon. Hamster wheel is the term I’ll use to describe a person at a fair that you see over and over and over again but never speak to or acknowledge in any way. I’m fairly convinced this woman must have thought I was insane, just aimlessly walking back and forth down her aisle, accidentally managing to lock eyes with her every time.
Artist Aki Sasamoto had an installation called Coffee/Tea, a personality test housed in a maze of wooden enclosures, with various routes through them. At the beginning, I was faced with two doors, one that had a bag of tea leaves attached to it, and another that displayed a bag of coffee beans. I chose the coffee door. I then had to choose between a horse’s mane or a bundle of cotton, and I took the horse. My next choice was between the word “Ding” and the phrase “Ding Dong.” I went through the Ding Dong door. Next was a pair of cotton underwear and a pair of lace underwear. That one is none of your business, but I’ll tell you that, according to this personality test, I’m apparently “into candy.”
There was a recreation of the Flux-Labyrinth installed at the fair, a piece originally presented at the René Block gallery in the 1970s and designed by the Fluxus art collective. It was a kind of conceptual path, and there was a woman with an iPad standing outside the entrance to it.
“It’s a series of obstacles, both physical and mental,” she said. “There are risks, so you have to sign a waiver.”
“OK…” I said.
“There are some very claustrophobic sections,” she continued. “And once you go in, you can’t turn around. There are a few emergency exists, but—”
“You know what?” I cut in. I was already walking away as I said, “This sounds absolutely terrible. There is no way that I’m doing this.”