Why Frieze is hot

    Since we live in a democracy, you are notionally free to choose where you go between Thursday and next Sunday. If, however, you live your life in the manner of most modern citizens, guided by the frantic proddings of the zeitgeist, pushed this way and that by the rhythms of cool, then you actually have little say in the matter. If you don’t want to be the only square in your village, you need to go to Frieze. Everybody else will be there.

    On paper, it’s just an art fair. But then, on paper, Michelangelo’s David is just a lump of stone. On paper, the Taj Mahal is a building, and Helen Mirren is an actress. When it comes to describing exceptional cultural phenomena, the English language is occasionally out of its depth. And “art fair” is a particularly unfortunate example. It’s the way word two seems to undermine word one that annoys. I’m not saying Frieze isn’t, technically, an art fair. My point is that this glum definition doesn’t begin to capture the drama and buzz of the event in the tent.

    For four days in October, the Frieze Art Fair transforms London into a mecca, and collecting into a hajj. People fly in from Miami and New York, from LA and Chi-cago, from Berlin and Zurich, and now, I see, from Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo. Hotels are packed, restaurants booked. You can’t get a limo for love nor money. But the most remarkable thing about Frieze is that it has achieved all this from a standing start. Five years ago, it didn’t even exist.

    If you’ve been to the Ideal Home Show or the Motor Show, you will recognise the basic setup. People who want to sell you something rent a venue, jolly it up and fill it with their wares. You are then invited to join them, and are flogged as much of the stuff as your weaknesses will allow. It’s what happens at all trade fairs. But Frieze’s first organisational masterstroke was to locate these familiar exchanges in a venue that was excitingly unfamiliar. Where the typical trade fair takes place in the sucked and spat-out misery of Olympia or tatty old Ally Pally, Frieze happens in a specially designed tented pueblo, a kind of temporary Brasilia made of tarpaulins, situated for some fantastical reason in the unlikely horticultural expanses of Regent’s Park. Marching up to this huge and noisy big top makes you feel like an excited kid being taken to the circus by his nan. And the people selling stuff inside are a different crowd from the ones you are probably used to. Art dealers follow a specific sartorial rule book. The men dress like Mormon missionaries, in dark suits and crisp white shirts, while the women wear only Prada.

    The second defining decision made at the outset by the organisers was to deal exclusively in contemporary art. Not modern art, contemporary art. No Picassos, no Henry Moores; no repetition from any of the old-timers. The rule-makers are hardliners on this subject. Only new art from around the world is allowed in. If you’re up with Frieze, therefore, you’re as up as you can be with art. There is nothing fresher than this.

    It was all planned and enforced by two absurdly young and adventurous cultural entrepreneurs. One of them, Amanda Sharp, lives in New York, and I know nothing about her. The other one, Matthew Slotover, I’ve encountered a few times, and I can happily confirm that he looks more like my paperboy than the creator of the definitive 21st-century art event so far. As with many contemporary millionaires and internet revolutionaries, he seems far too callow and casual to have achieved what he has.

    The name “Frieze”, he confesses happily, was discovered by chance in a thesaurus. He was looking for synonyms for “art”, and there was “frieze”, meaning a horizontal band of carved reliefs. By a curious coincidence, it’s a homophone of the pioneering exhibition mounted in a London warehouse by Damien Hirst in 1988. Freeze was the event that triggered the whole Brit Art thing – and the entire dramatic turnaround in British art taste that was to culminate in the opening of Tate Modern can be traced back, I suggest, to the original Freeze show. So, it was a good name to stumble across.

    Before Frieze the art fair came along, Slotover and Sharp ran Frieze the magazine, and that, too, was an impossibly hip blend of obscure thoughts and elegant ads. They started thinking about an art fair in 1998. But it wasn’t until the day Tate Modern opened, in 2000, that they knew they had to go ahead with it. “The whole of the international art world was here,” Slotover says.”They had never come before. But we looked around and thought, they will come to London.”

    Bravely and perspicaciously Slotover and Sharp remortgaged their houses and began planning the Frieze Art Fair in the exact detail that characterises their approach to this day. And from the moment it untied its tent flaps in October 2003, it was clear that the zeitgeist was behind it. The figures speak for themselves. In 2005, 47,000 visitors were lured into the great marquee, and spent £33m on art. The next year, the figures were up by 35%. They’ll be up again this year, and next year, and the next. But by how much, we will never know, because, last year, Frieze stopped releasing the details. I suspect they were embarrassed by them.

    I spotted Jude, Gwyneth, Elton and Nigella at last year’s Frieze. Jude and Gwyneth were definitely buying, as, I presume, was Elton; and if Nigella wasn’t, then her husband, Charles, whom I also saw, must have been. I think I noticed Claudia hurrying past, too, and Kate would have been there, because Kate goes to everything. Tracey was around, of course, and although I didn’t see Damien, I couldn’t miss Jake and Dinos, because they were plonked right in the middle of the thing, churning out ludicrous portraits of anyone prepared to fork out £4,000 for the pleasure. I wanted to have mine done – who wouldn’t? – but the queue was too long.

    Those were just the recognisable faces in the crowd, the A-, B- and C-listers whose presence so handily signals a cultural success. Then there were all those anonymous visitors who, judging by the cut of their thongs and the swing of their bling, constituted a large percentage of the nation’s groovers: the young, the fresh, the giggly. If Al-Qaeda decided to take out the Frieze tent, they would undoubtedly take out most of Britain’s happening types.

    But the hipness of Frieze is certainly not why I, a longtime abhorrer of art fairs, approve of this event and, indeed, delight in it. I like Frieze because it gives so much away. I don’t mean the leaflets and baseball caps you come out with. That happens at all trade fairs. Frieze deals in a different kind of freebie. One of the best things the fair does is to commission work by artists who are not directly involved with a particular gallery. This year, the venerable American trouble-maker Richard Prince will be showing a full-size recreation of a macho 1970 car called a Dodge Challenger. The original Challenger was a mass-produced piece of flash that guys liked. But Prince has reversed its usual manufacturing process by building his model entirely by hand, from scratch. What’s being challenged, therefore, is the nature and value of an original – a key art-world question. And seeing it being asked at Frieze is like going to a motor show and finding a poster covered in road-safety warnings. All the Frieze commissions this year seem to be biting the hand that feeds them by asking awkward questions of the event itself. Elin Hansdottir has set up a lighting system that ensures your shadow is split up into its constituent parts as you enter, as if you don’t really exist.

    All these performances share a questioning mood. And that applies to Frieze in general. On the surface, it’s an art fair, but beneath that it’s an art-world conspiracy to subvert the system. In my favourite conceptual manoeuvre, Gianni Motti has asked one of the policemen patrolling Frieze to take a regular public break from security to practise yoga. That I really want to see. And it’s why a hardened art-fair hater like me will be at the head of the queue on Thursday, making sure I get in before you.