How to succeed at Frieze

Five ways to make your mark at the art extravaganza.

With so many different galleries from all over the world vying for visitors (particularly those of the well-heeled variety), going around Frieze can be somewhat numbing - and that's putting it mildly. What are the winning strategies that make a few galleries stand out from the crowd? Here are five ways to lure in artlovers, collectors and idlers:

1. Position is key

It is no exaggeration to say that where a gallery is situated inside the vast Frieze tent can make or break it. The more prominent galleries, more often than not from New York or London, line one of the principal arteries of the fair, close to the main entrance through which everyone is channelled in. Smaller, lesser-known galleries often languish somewhere on the periphery, in cubicles half the size of those allotted to their more illustrious counterparts. Being placed next to the toilets at last year's fair, I was told by the attendant of an Italian gallery, did his sales more harm than the economic downturn.

2. The element of shock

Given the ambient sensory overload, some galleries resort to shock tactics. Perrotin gallery mounts a full-blown assault on the senses by choosing Daniel Firman's multi-coloured neon Butterfly, inspired by the Apple login-in sign, as its centrepiece. An abrupt change of scale, forcing you to peer at a work from close up or else to distance yourself from it, can equally be arresting. On a different note, pornography is more prominent than ever at this year's fair. Desperate measures for desperate times?

3. The recognition factor

Galleries from far and wide pull out all their big names for the occasion. What struck me was the number of British artists or artists recently featured in major London exhibitions on show. Michael Werner and David Zwirner, two New York-based galleries facing each other from across the aisle, had between them enough works by artists made familiar through solo exhibitions at Tate Modern and Tate Britain, the Whitechapel Gallery and the White Cube, to fill out a choice contemporary art museum. But even smaller galleries are eager to flaunt their work relations with the usual suspects of the British arts scene.

4. Humour pays off

Contemporary art isn't famous for its sense of humour. This may be why two Frieze Talks - "What's So Funny?" and "Susan Hiller in conversation with John Welchman" - choose to tackle this issue head-on. A more subtle alternative to shock, humour can be just as arresting. Witness gallery Jack Hanley's adroit use of astonishingly lifelike, cast-resin effigies of gherkins erected on pedestals in Austrian artist Erwin Wurm's Self-Portrait as a Pickle.

5. Less is more

This principle goes a long way to explaining the success of "Frame", a section of the fair dedicated to solo artist presentations by galleries that have been around for less than 6 years. Some of the displays that worked best at Frieze as a whole were the ones which focused on a single artist or fully worked out one dominant concept. Soothing grey tones in the richly patterned paintings by Japanese artist Nana Funo, represented by Tomio Koyama Gallery based in Tokyo and Kyoto, were a positive reprieve after some of the fair's excesses.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era