At Gagosian’s booth at Frieze New York, you can find an array of abstractions by Albert Oehlen, whose works have sold for sums in the low millions at auction. At most fair booths, this would be the main attraction, but here, it was something entirely different that was luring people in the event’s early hours: a functional vending machine plopped down in the center of Gagosian’s space that drew a short line just after 11 a.m.
On offer is a bunch of bottles containing Kafftee, otherwise known as Cofftea, a coffee-tea hybrid that is available for the taking. Each has on it a label that appears to be a drawing by Oehlen depicting a hand with a watch whose arms are spinning out of control. The drink’s producer, Aqua Monaco, ominously promises on its website that Cofftea “will never let you sleep again.” ARTnews can neither confirm nor deny that statement as of press time for this article, but the day is still young. The drink certainly does taste strongly of caffeine.
Cofftea is, in some sense, an artwork, and it has appeared at museums such as the Serpentine Galleries in London, the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, and the Aishti Foundation in Beirut. (The Cofftea at Frieze is available for free, and it cannot be bought as an artwork, a Gagosian representative said.) That may seem unusual until you consider that there’s at least one forerunner for this piece. Oehlen’s stunt recalls the Soylent drinks that artist Sean Raspet brought to Frieze New York in 2016.
To obtain your very own Cofftea, you’ll need a token being given out by Gagosian representatives at the booth. (The tokens are emblazoned with Oehlen’s initials and the gallery’s name—a nice touch.) You then insert the token into the vending machine, which bears the phrase “THEY ARE COMING TO TAKE ME AWAY” on its side, and out comes a bottle once you punch in a number corresponding to each row.
Asked about the flavor of the Cofftea, one person handing out free tote bags at the booth described it as “a little bit weird.” So, how does Cofftea taste?
Not great, exactly. On the first sip, it has an odd bitterness. On the second, it tastes a bit sweeter, though even stranger, more herbal. On the third, you come to realize that coffee and tea don’t belong together. I didn’t make it past the sixth mouthful.
What this all means is all a bit ambiguous. Oehlen, however, told the New York Times this week that the Cofftea bottles, which do themselves not constitute a piece, are connected by an interest in “commercialism”—see the advertisements for chocolate and other products that figure in the abstractions nearby as proof.
Whatever the case may be, it can certainly be said that Cofftea is one of the only things available at the fair for free. A word to the wise seeking these drinks: come to the fair armed with a bottle opener.