The variety of work on show at this year's Frieze art fair in London was evidence that the scene is in rude health
Thousands enjoy Frieze Art Fair
For four days, London's Frieze Art Fair returned triumphantly to the UK's capital with a curated programme of talks, artists' commissions and film projects. In only its eighth year Frieze, which finished on Sunday, brought 173 of the world's leading contemporary art galleries, drawn from 29 countries, to more than 60,000 visitors.
Among the international set of curators, artists, collectors, gallerists and critics that descended on Regent's Park for one of the UK's annual cultural highlights was a strong Middle Eastern presence and, with it, a wider recognition of the region's art scene.
Dubai's The Third Line gallery was alive with conversation, as well as all-important sales. Having debuted with a solo-artist show at Frieze last year, and put on another solo artist show at Art Basel Miami Beach in December, the gallery chose to showcase the work of multiple artists at this year's fair including Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Rana Begum, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. Distancing itself from Frame, an innovative section of Frieze where young galleries put on a single-artist show, The Third Line's collection demonstrated maturity and was indicative of a gallery that has found its feet on the global stage.
"This year, we decided to do something a bit different", says the gallery director Laila Binbrek. "We have more of a variety and are showing the different types of work we represent. We wanted to give people a broader understanding of the type of contemporary work that is being done in the region."
"People are definitely recognising our name", she continues. "Awareness here is good and the standard of art conversation is high. Coming to the fair makes us, and our artists, better."
Off-site, at one of the many exhibitions and satellite events that spring up during Frieze Week, the Lebanese artist Walid Raad launched Miraculous Beginnings, the largest survey of his work to date. Held at East London's Whitechapel Gallery, one of the most significant contemporary art galleries in the world, the show is a precursor to Raad's commission at the 10th Sharjah Biennial.
As part of the exhibition, the Whitechapel hosted a panel discussion with the Sharjah Art Foundation director Jack Persekian and the Sharjah Biennial 10 curator Suzanne Cotter, considering questions of art production and initiatives that have directly contributed to the artistic successes in the region.
The programme of events reflects an arts scene that is growing in confidence and developing its own artistic lexicon. Words such as "emerging" and "developing" have been, at least partially, relegated. With a noticeable growth in Middle Eastern buyers at Frieze, and a tangible demand for Middle Eastern work from a wider international audience, gallerists from the region enjoyed a new-found buoyancy.
Over at Beirut's Galerie Sfeir-Semler Frieze stand, the director Andrée Sfeir-Semler opted for thought-provoking pieces over the larger-scale, bolder works that characterised many other booths. The Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji provided a Frieze highlight with Mobile Home, a body of work produced between 2008 and the present day. Taking photographs of war-torn houses in Gaza, the artist resets and displays them as if seen in the window of an estate agent. At first glimpse, the viewer recognises them as just that - a series of advertisements for properties lined up against a wall. On closer inspection, however, we see that the houses are completely destroyed. The artist's text, making reference to sea views and countryside panorama, is a startling reminder of what has been lost, while the number of bedrooms in each property testifies to the number of dead.
The work painfully, but subtly, calls into question the nature of normality and legacy; its power visible at Frieze with crowds gathering to take it in. "We have been busy", confirms Sfeir-Semler. "And there have absolutely been more Middle Eastern collectors here. It has been very much noticed. Major collectors are buying the work."
But for all the progress, there was little impatience. Middle Eastern galleries remain a distinct minority at Frieze and, in number at least, are usurped by other territories including South America and the Far East. "It's a start", says Sfeir-Semler. "There were no serious international galleries in the Middle East for years. The whole arts scene is a new scene. It has to proceed and progress before getting more space at art fairs."
Other Frieze highlights included the Cartier Award recipient Simon Fujiwara, a British-Japanese artist, who presented Frozen. Fujiwara imagines an ancient lost city that has been discovered beneath the site of the fair and takes the viewer with him on a fictional journey to the past. Dotted across the floor of the temporary structure, audiences stumble upon artefacts and archaeological digs that seem more museum fodder than contemporary art fair exhibit. Each item, however, is constructed from painted and distressed polystyrene, cleverly assembled by a company that does, in fact, work with museums: at once impossibly real and genuinely fake.
At the Museum of Everything in nearby Primrose Hill, the artist Sir Peter Blake joined forces with the founder James Brett to curate a show filled with art curios, taxidermy and memorabilia. Built around a fascination with works produced outside of the gallery system, by the untrained or uninitiated, the exhibition provided a refreshing and necessary insight into previously unseen art works.
Elsewhere, The Thomas Dane Gallery showed the Turkish filmmaker and artist Kutlug Ataman's Column (2008), an installation of 42 stacked television monitors, each with the face of a Turkish villager on the screen. Ataman often plays with personal narrative and his work frequently includes those on the margins of society.
In Column his subjects are drawn from eastern Turkey, where he grew up. Having seen Trajan's Column, built by the Romans to commemorate the eponymous emperor's victory in the Dacian Wars, Ataman began considering the implications of conquest. The television sets, stacked in the form of a column, show faces etched in oppression. These villagers are silent - a rarity in Ataman's work - communicating with just their gaze. It's uncomfortable, but magnetic, viewing.
The Maureen Paley Gallery demonstrated that sometimes the simplest of works can be the most powerful. Amid the sales and chatter of the art-fair floor, Wolfgang Tillmans's Your Dogs quietly rebels against its surroundings. Tillmans shows two sleeping dogs, stretched out on a pavement, refusing to be caught up in the mania of daily life.
"Frieze has been quite wonderful for us", says the gallery director Maureen Paley. "There has been a real energy. We have had people come from all over the world to see our artists, and collectors from the Middle East have certainly added to that mix. What is exciting here is that the commitment to art has not ebbed."
"Frieze has its own particular quality", she continues. "This is a baby fair that is growing and has already grown remarkably, well beyond its years."