This October, when I went to visit my wife in London, where she taught English for the 2018 fall semester, she told me she had bought tickets to Frieze London. She was very excited about it. I asked her what Frieze London is, and she explained it’s a huge, very high-end international contemporary art fair held in Regent’s Park every year. Dozens of galleries display work from the hottest artists in the world. Price tags range from the “affordable” pieces in the tens of thousands to works selling for hundreds of thousands and even millions. I like art, so this sounded like a cool way to spend an afternoon.
Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for how huge the show was—or how much money converges on Regent’s Park every year. The whole affair takes place under a massive tent structure beneath which art enthusiasts wander from gallery to gallery. It was a Sunday, and the turnout was enormous. The art dealers, I noticed, tended to dress all in black and sit or stand very quietly. I assumed this was an attempt to visually negate themselves so that attendees would see only the brilliance of the artwork for sale. They are obviously very important people, these dealers, so I refrained from asking how much something cost or why this artist sculpted a portrait out of petrified buffalo shit.
There may have been some actual artists there as well, though it was impossible to distinguish them from the people trying to look like artists. One couple had coordinated their elaborate outfits (I don’t know if I’m allowed to call them costumes) so painstakingly that one seemed to complete the other. Their style was a cross between Louis XIV and London goth, with ruffled shirts, platform Doc Martens, and trench coats—all in glittering white and silver. I couldn’t take my eyes off of their mohawks and face paint. They moved through the crowd with the self-consciousness of performance art. Come to think of it, they might have been performance art.
The Art of People Watching
There was one louche-looking man with multi-colored paint carefully spattered on his pants and shoes as if he’d just dashed out of the studio. Holding his hand was an extraordinarily tall, elegantly dressed woman whose taste in clothing suggested nobody in this duo was a starving artist. Two young women were walking around dressed in hot-
pink security guard uniforms. Seeing the quizzical look on my face, Barbara explained that they were performance art, which prompted me to reevaluate the goth couple. Looking down at my jeans and $28 sneakers from Target, I wondered if anyone might mistake me for cleverly subversive anti-performance-art performance art. I saw a guy in an emerald-green sarong; several bronze-skinned supermodel-types; aloof older men who I decided were international financiers; and millennial women who couldn’t seem to decide whether they wanted to appear rich or bohemian, so they wore stuff like Louis Vuitton high-top sneakers or dreadlocks with a Stella McCartney dress.
It was all pretty amazing. After a while, I had to sit down with a pint of beer at the Frieze restaurant to take a break. My wife ordered a cup of tea. As I sat there taking it all in, Barbara, with her Frieze London guidebook in hand, asked me what my favorite work of art had been. The Antony Gormley bronze sculpture? The Njideka Crosby painting? I stared back at her in mute confusion.
Oh, right, it occurred to me. Art.