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For our second international art trip, we travel to London during Frieze Art Fair. We saw a lot of art! Almost too much. (Definitely too much.)

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1) Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth, ft. David Shrifley:
2) National Portrait Gallery, London:
3) Royal Academy of Arts:
4) Courtauld Gallery:
5) Whitechapel Gallery:
6) Hauser & Wirth London:
7) Serpentine Galleries:
8) Tate Modern:
9) Frieze London:

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London is a big city, a crowded and lively global metropolis. It holds an embarrassment of cultural riches, and we had only a few days to take advantage of them. Our timing aligned with what a handful of art and media people call Frieze Week in early October, when the Frieze London Art Fair pitches its tents in Regent's Park. All of the galleries and art venues put forward some of their best shows of the year, and fancy art collectors descend. We were there too.

We began our art trip in Trefalgar Square, whose fourth plinth was intended to hold a statue of William IV, but instead stood empty due to lack of funds for over 150 years. In 1999, the plinth became a site for temporary art commissions, and has since featured an inverted replica of itself in resin, an architectural model for a hotel, a platform for members of the public to say and do anything they wish, a replica of Horatio Nelson's ship in a bottle with sails made of African batik fabric, a boy on a rocking horse, a big, blue rooster, and the skeleton of a horse around whose front leg is tied a live ticker of the London Stock Exchange.

And its now host to a very large thumbs up forged in bronze by David Shrigley, and it's titled "Really Good," which doesn't sound right unless you have a Brit say it. 

[British woman speaking] Really Good.

Our mistrust of this symbol of positivity creeps in almost immediately. The unnaturally elongated thumb makes us notice not only how phallic the sculpture is, but also how phallic Nelson's Column is, and how grandiose architectural expressions of confidence in general can be. So here we have this monumental expression of confidence in London's locus of protest, and just post-Brexit. Despite uncertainty and unrest at home and abroad, we're still really good, everybody, right? 

We then took a short walk to the National Portrait Gallery, which is filled with a great many paintings of kings, and queens, and generals, and wealthy people throughout British history. Walking through the galleries, I kept thinking about the stories not told through these pictures - contemporaneous events not reflected in these highly staged portraits - even, or perhaps, especially in the more recent portraits, which made me think about how and why portrait painting kept being  a thing after the invention of photography. And then, as if the curators could hear my thoughts, I came across an array of truly stunning photographic portraits highlighting black presence in Britain before 1948. The humanity and intimacy of these pictures was in stark contrast to those in the previous galleries, telling more compelling, nuanced stories, and showing off a rich collection, only a fraction of which can be on display at any time. They also had a temporary exhibition of photographs by American photographer, William Eggleston, a pioneer and master of color photography. These photographs were printed using a dye transfer process that yields brilliantly saturated colors and brings Eggleston's subjects from the '60s and '70s to startling life. It's not just the people in the pictures; it's the frame, the time, the place, and the light that make me feel like I was there, taking complete strangers and causing them to feel familiar, sympathetic, and dimensional. 

We moved on to the Royal Academy of Art, which is hosting a big, bold, celebratory exhibition about abstract expressionism. It has all the heavy hitters: Still, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Newman, Kline, Rhinehardt, a woman artist, Smith. To be fair, there are more women in the show than the magnificent Joan Mitchell, and there are efforts throughout the show to complicate the usual story about this time in the mid-20th century, when a number of artists (mostly in America, mostly white men) starting making big, expressive paintings. Of course, they weren't all big, and they weren't all expressive, and they weren't all made by serious macho dudes in New York; but, in general, it reinforces the usual heroic narrative about this time in art. And I couldn't help but think about how it's as much about the stories we choose to tell as how we tell them. Okay, it is impressive. You will like it. But what if all the effort of bringing these works together in one place had been devoted to another subject? A new subject? One that hadn't yet been told? 

We made a final stop at the Courtauld Gallery to check out a few paintings that might look familiar, like Van Gogh's "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear", Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere", and incredible works by Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin, and then I just short-circuited because of masterpiece overload and we escaped back to East London for beers and fries and delicious food at (?~4:23) and reveled in the sundry joys of not looking at art.  

The next day, we spent the morning with the truly delightful Peter (?~4:31) who charmed us with his studio full of unusual collections and sent us off with numerous album recommendations, our own mix CDs, and an assignment that you're going to very much enjoy.  Then it was on to Whitechapel Gallery, where along with saluting the Guerilla Girls' exterior banner, we took our time delving into the interior display of their recent research into diversity in European art organizations.  

We also had the extreme pleasure of seeing Whitechapel's exhibition of six large scale video installations by South African artist William Kentridge.  Each is an exquisitely thoughtful arrangement of materials and moving images and light and sound.  Animating Kentridge's distinctive charcoal drawings and synthesizing the creative talents of a number of collaborators.  The works delve into a deep pool of subjects, particular and universal, from Apartheid and histories of colonialism, to his own artistic process, and to the nature of time.

We made our way west to Hauser & Wirth, a commercial gallery running two shows at the time, one of which is a multi-room installation by Mike Kelley, which recreates the seven star cavern, a landmark in LA's Chinatown, which he positioned adjacent to an inaccessible enclosure that is part security fence, part traditional Chinese gate. 

They also had a show up of works by renowned Brazilian artist Lygia Pape including two of her remarkable "Tteia" installations.  Pape diverged from the harsh geometries of Brazil's concrete art movement in the 1950s and evolved her own approach to abstraction that is simultaneously geometric and expressive.  This installation, originally constructed in 1976, is made of metallic thread, strung across the room to create volumes that transform as you move throughout the space.  Here with her work, I was able to appreciate the softness, the subtlety, and the delicate beauty that is possible in abstraction.  How these lines slip in and out of legibility, as if by magic.  It was transportive, immersive, and meditative, and I did not want to leave.

But eventually, we had to, and we found our way to the Serpentine Galleries to see their outdoor pavilions during the final weeks of their run.  The series was conceived in 2000 as a way to introduce you to contemporary architecture, by commissioning some of the world's greatest architects who had not yet completed a permanent building in the UK to make a temporary structure on the gallery's lawn, taking a maximum of six months from invitation to completion.  This year's pavilion is designed by Bjarke Ingels group and is a play on one of the most basic elements of architecture, the brick wall.  Ingels' wall, however, has been unzipped and expanded into space, forming a cavity beneath it that houses a cafe and hosts activities.  The program is a clever way to address and move beyond the strictures of a more traditional exhibition space, but the Serpentine has those as well.

We took in their Marc Camille Chaimowicz exhibition which probes the territory between art and design, public and private space, and the tenuous divisions between the everyday object, decoration, and so-called fine art.  We also checked out the exhibition of works by Helen Marten in the Sackler Galleries, a truly confounding amalgam of materials and textures and images that caused me to walk round and round the space trying and failing to pin them down.  That's not to say I didn't enjoy them.  I did, but it's precisely because I couldn't quite determine what I was seeing and what I might conclude from them.

On our last day in London, we made our pilgrimage to Tate Modern, to film with the legendary Guerilla Girls and also to check out the newly-opened Switch House building, which houses a number of impressive, new, and light-filled spaces that give the museum even more room to show off their enormous and magnificent collection.  What you're seeing here is a display of works from the 1960s forward that respond in various ways to the architecture of the space.  I love many things about this institution, but near the top of my list is how they elegantly and non-braggingly bring together works by a wide variety of artists from all over the world, with near-equitable representation of works by men and women, making meaningful efforts to tell wider and less expected stories about art today and in the past.  They allow us as visitors to consider these works side by side, room by room, and give us ample space and encouragement to make connections across time and geography.  

We also got to see the just-opened installation in the Turbine Hall by Philippe Parreno.  Titled "Anywhen", it was conceived as giant automaton that changes throughout the day and throughout the exhibition's six month duration.  Here, you might experience a sequence of flashing lights, moving panels, video and sound environments, as well as floating inflatable fishies, all of whose movements are triggered by software informed by microorganisms, which react to and activate parts of the commission through a bioreactor at the far end of the hall.  How much of this is evident to the large crowd that gathers here?  We'll never know, but what we do know and what is palpable regardless is the sensation that the building is behaving unpredictably, that we must pause or even lay down to observe its workings, to try to determine what is the art and what is the building, and to stay attuned to an environment where anything, small or large, might happen.  

We then spilled out into a glorious fall afternoon and headed toward Regent's Park for the week's main event.  This tent and another tent not too far from here is Frieze Art Fair.  Now, this is not the democratic kind of art fair where anyone can sign up for a booth and display their handmade wares to kindly passers by.  This is a highly competitive enterprise that galleries from around the world apply to and pay considerable sums to be part of.  They do this because many wealthy collectors and influencers in the field come here and galleries can make a significant portion of their annual income in a few days.  I like to think of this kind of fair as more of a sociological experience than an art experience, per se, and it's often as fascinating to people-watch and eavesdrop as it is to take in the art, and there is a ton of art.

A lot of it is good, but it's truly challenging to appreciate in such a space.  You get distracted by everything, the people, the camera operators, the way the wind whips at the tent around you, and yet you still stumble upon works and environments that surprise and intrigue, like Celia Hempton's occupation of Southard Reid's booth, which she painted in its entirety and presented within her series called "Chat Random" where she connects with men online and paints her interactions. 

I and many others were drawn to Hauser & Wirth's striking space, which was curated with a collection of works from the 1940s and 50s, many from estates presented as a fictional artist's bohemian studio.  I enjoyed a curated section of the fair, where galleries revisited exhibitions from the 90s, highlighting moments and works that had an impact then and now.  I also found refuge within the project room that presented the artistic activities that take place at Operndorf Afrika in Burkina Faso.  I welcomed this access to a dynamic world of art and artists seemingly far away and yet functionally the same as that which surrounded us here at the Faire. 

It costs 52 pounds to visit all of Frieze London, not a small sum, but what it lacks in calm, it makes up for in efficiency, allowing you a chance to see the works of more than 160 of the world's "leading galleries", all in the span of a few hours.  It also gives you a window into a world that is largely inaccessible, but which fuels the art world or the web of gallerists, collectors, curators, museum board members and directors, oh, and artists who decide which works belong in our museums and public collections.  

We saw an exhausting amount of art in London.  No, really, too much, but what London gives us is the opportunity to see art in a huge span of contexts.  You can see it in public spaces and private spaces, in historical spaces and brand new spaces, in intimate and highly social spaces.  You can see it in noncommercial spaces and super commercial spaces, and you can see an enormous variety of art, arranged in such ways that confirm prevailing narratives and those that subvert them, and this is the glory of art in London.  It's all here and you have the good fortune to decide which way you like it or whether you like it at all.


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