Disegno Opinion Piece: Frieze London

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 up to a large deck in front of the entrance, the blinding 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 and inviting, if you can ignore the dense bank of black-clad security guards and bag-checkers.

Having made my way through these stern gatekeepers, only one thought comes to mind. Fifty Shades of Grey. Excuse the excruciatingly ubiquitous reference, but there’s really 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 (on the whole) 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, you guessed it, grey.

So, against this monochrome uniformity, how does the art fare? Overall, pretty well. Pleasantly wide avenues divide the rows of gallery booths, punctuated by understated block-like benches (in pale grey, obviously), which seem to pop up just when you need them. The artworks feel vibrant, foregrounded, given room to breathe. There is an air of understated sophistication, undoubtedly heightened by the hushed tones of the extremely wealthy international art collectors perusing the wares. 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 a little 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 posh fish tank. Look at me, sitting here with the super rich, sipping my over-priced sauvignon blanc while you pick up your dog’s poo in that horrible, too-thin plastic bag, jog sweatily past or try to corral those snotty school boys into the adjoining zoo.

Past the zoo and across the park is Frieze London, the contemporary art fair now in its tenth year, and the exterior approach is markedly different. Here 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 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.

This article was published on 23 October 2012 at http://disegnodaily.com/opinion/frieze-london