Art in Regent's Park

Frieze London opens for its tenth edition

The Frieze Art Fair returns from New York to London this Thursday, bringing together 175 of the world’s most innovative contemporary art galleries in a bespoke temporary structure erected in Regent’s Park. Exhibitors will come from 35 countries including Argentina, China, Columbia, Hungary, India, Korea and South Africa. Furthermore, this year the Fair includes two exciting (if a little overdue) new sections: Focus and Frieze Masters.

Focus is only open to galleries established after 2001, each of whom are invited to curate up to three artists’ works at the Fair, while Frieze Masters, which will run in parallel with the main festival and require a separate ticket, will present “a contemporary perspective on historical art”. That is to say, for the first time, Frieze will sell old as well as new art.

Over 90 galleries from territories including Spain, Lebanon, Turkey and Brazil will exhibit works “ranging from the ancient era and old masters through to art of the 20th century”, a decision praised by the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones. “Lo and behold,” he writes, “the art world has discovered that time is not flat. We do not occupy an eternal present. There were artists before we were born, and there will be artists after we die … New art is not an orphan: it is the child of history. Frieze Masters will make it easier for everyone to see that.”

Frieze curator Sarah McCrory has commissioned five site-specific pieces for this year’s Fair. One, a structure which explores the “use-value” of art by providing a forum for artists who produce food, chaotic dining events, performances and talks has been created by Lake District-based Grizedale Arts and the Yangjiang Group collection. Another will see a section of Regent’s Park smouldering as a field of incense burns to suggest contemplation and reflection (Joanna Rajkowska), and a recreated crime drama scene by Asli Çavuşoğlu will interrogate the parallels between murder mystery production and the destructive decisions taken when making art.

The Fair will also boast films, talks and a Sculpture Park curated by Clare Lilley, Director of Programme at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, alongside gourmet food, workshops and a Family Space. Although the primary function of the Fair is to sell the works exhibited, most visitors will attend as spectators rather than prospective buyers. In fact, Frieze stopped publishing sales figures in 2006, for this and other reasons. Tickets are limited “to ensure the best experience for all visitors”, but for those not lucky enough to get a ticket, the Sculpture Park is open free to the public.

Frieze London will be in Regent’s Park from 11-14 October.

"The Maids" by Paula Rego, a Frieze Master. Image: Frieze.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle