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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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