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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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge