Opinion

Frieze London

London

23 October 2012

White, white and more white. That is the overwhelming sensation on approaching the structure housing the inaugural Frieze Masters in London’s Regent’s Park. Selldorf Architects’ blank white tent dazzles in the autumn sunshine.

Frieze Masters is a new fair dedicated to showing art from the ancient to the modern (up to the year 2000), and New York-based practice Selldorf Architects has designed the temporary 12,500 sq/m structure that aims to, in the studio’s words, “literally and figuratively show art in a new light”.

On climbing the stairs to the large deck in front of the structure’s entrance, the whiteness continues with a diaphanous canopy covering half of the terrace, attached to a long row of windows and glass doors. It feels open and airy, particularly if you can ignore the bank of black-clad security guards and bag-checkers.

Having passed these gatekeepers, one thought comes to mind. Fifty Shades of Grey. Excuse the ubiquitous reference, but there’s no better way of describing the endless varieties of this colour that greet the eye on entering the temporary building. Each of the 101 galleries taking part in the fair has its own pristine rectangular grey structure, with pale grey frames, walls in various shades of light, medium or dark grey, pale grey carpets (or sometimes dark grey laminate flooring), and a ceiling made of sheer, gauze-like material in either light or dark grey.

Pleasantly wide avenues divide the rows of gallery booths, punctuated by understated block-like benches (in pale grey). The artworks feel vibrant, foregrounded and given room to breathe. In certain areas there are sleek black park benches and spindly silver birch trees in square grey pots. These are the architects’ attempts to bring aspects of the park inside, but they feel forced and a little too minimal. Another attempt at blurring the boundaries simply adds to the air of exclusion: a small, glass-barriered terrace adjoining one of the fair’s cafés encroaches into the park, while creating the feeling that you’re a specimen on display in a fish tank.

Past the nearby London Zoo and across the park is Frieze London, the contemporary art fair now in its tenth year. Here the exterior approach is markedly different and you are greeted by an entrance façade that is resolutely black, masking what is essentially the same white tent, only considerably larger (23,000 sq/m, housing 175 galleries). This is the second time that London-based studio Carmody Groarke has designed the fair, and the timber additions of last year again merge with and escape the tent to form café areas, VIP spaces and a matching ticket office at the entrance. The perspex, raw timber and large exposed-bulb fairy lights of the cafés wrap themselves around trees, encroaching on the park in a much more symbiotic way than Frieze Masters. Inside the fair more of the asymmetric timber and perspex areas add well-needed variety to the endless grid of near-identical gallery booths.

The interior feel of Frieze London is much harsher and more imposing on the senses than Frieze Masters. Whereas Selldorf Architects has given the roof of the tent a semi-translucent interior skin that dampens the fluorescent tube lighting behind it, at Frieze London large bare spotlights hang starkly from the single-layer ceiling, creating an overpowering glare overhead. At Frieze Masters all of the galleries have their own lighting rigs to control multiple spotlights within each booth, creating a wide variety of theatrical effects, whereas here the majority of lighting is uniformly bright and unrelenting. Almost all of the galleries are white-walled cubes without ceilings, but the cacophony of contemporary art screaming to be looked at creates all the drama here.