Useful Idiots

The Frieze Art Fair and China Power Station 1.

Review in Broadsheet 2006

When restaurant reviewers start talking about how much money is being made in the contemporary art scene, it's a sign that the idea has shifted centre stage in the understanding of the media. At one time to see a food reviewer as a coal-mine canary would perhaps have been ridiculous but now that eating – or a certain idea of eating – is so central to cultural self-image, we should pay attention. Terry Durack used to write for the Fairfax press The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. A few years back he and his partner Jill Dupleix relocated holus-bolus to the UK; she as the cookery writer for Rupert Murdoch's The Times newspaper and he as the restaurant reviewer for the Independent: a broadsheet in competition with The Times but with a lower circulation and aiming for a less vicious demographic, having the middle of the vaguely progressive middle classes as its ideal readership, rather than middle-England nouveau riche. In a recent Sunday edition he wrote: ' The days when artists had to suffer for their art are fading fast. Spurred on by events such as last week's Frieze Art Fair, the British Art Market generates £500 million a year (this is about one and a quarter billion Australian dollars per annum) – enough to rent a garret and buy a bottle of absinthe for every starving artist in the country. Besides, artists eat really well. Lucian Freud haunts Locanda Locatelli, Marc Quinn likes the River Cafe and Damien Hirst is now onto his second restaurant, 11 The Quay in Devon.' He goes on to review a canteen that has opened in a new studio complex for artists. 'At the Rochelle School in London's East End built in 1899 as a school for children from Bethnal Green's Boundary Estate and recently transformed into studios, exhibition and performance spaces by James Moore's A Foundation, the tables are well and truly turned.'

This paragraph reveals so much of the contours of the cultural landscape. We can map the vast shadow that money now throws in the contemporary art world. How it has become entangled with property development and social shifts, where charitable schools for the poor are transformed into studio complexes with wonderful canteens. The Frieze Art Fair in a short period of time has become absolutely central in this new understanding of art and its practice. People are impressed and appalled, glassy eyed at the amount of money that it generates – last year's fair did £33 million pounds worth of business, just in the four days it was open. This is just the money taken then and doesn't include the deals started there but concluded later. It's sponsored by Deutsche Bank and has prizes for emerging artists funded by Cartier. The Tate has a purchase fund designated solely to buy work worth £150,000 from exhibiting galleries. The socialites and 'stars' that it attracts are individually named and listed to prove that the event has real heft in the world of celebrity. It has media sponsors in the press, who report comings and goings without any hint of the snide philistinism that marks Australian mainstream commentary on the visual arts. If anything it is too breathless in its reporting of the fair in its own terms. Louisa Buck in the Guardian – a nominally left leaning newspaper – wrote: 'Contemporary art has never enjoyed such a high profile in the UK. Anyone who wants to think of themselves as remotely on the cultural radar now needs to be as informed about the art world as they are about books, films or music. Nor is it a matter of simply knowing about art; more and more people want to own a piece of it. Along with the good-looking sofa and the elegant side lamp, there needs to be something interesting on the walls – and a framed poster of Van Gogh's Sunflowers doesn't cut it.'(Guardian Oct 12 2006) Or as the Financial Times rather more bluntly put it in a supplement published to tell bankers, property speculators and such how to spend the capital they have worked so hard to accrue, 'How to Spend It': 'It was once the yacht, the sports car or the racehorse that marked one out as smart, cool and successful. Now it's an art collection... For four days (ringed in red in the savviest diaries) a glittering crowd of art world insiders, celebrities and the seriously rich will descend on Regent's Park for the Frieze Art Fair." (Financial Times, October 2004: quoted on the Frieze website) This year there was a new wave of the smart, the cool and the successful as reported on the frontpage of The Art Newspaper under the headline 'The October Revolution.' 'Significant Russian collectors flock to Frieze for the first time... Russian collectors have become a major force in the art market of late - but most have concentrated on 19th-century paintings, Fabergé, and the occasional blockbuster, of which the most famous is the $95.2m Picasso Dora Maar au Chat sold in May in New York, probably to a novice Russian buyer... A new class of collectors has appeared, while contemporary galleries are springing up fast in Moscow. This year it is believed at least thirty Russian collectors have attended Frieze, and oligarch Boris Berezovsky was spotted at the Frieze private view.' (Art Newspaper 14 Oct 2006). In 1996 Forbes Magazine described Berezovsky as the "Godfather of the Kremlin', a mafia boss who had his business rivals murdered. He now lives in exile in the UK having made his fortune defrauding the Russian government during the Yeltsin privatisations. He is viewed by many in Russia as the most unlawful and unethical of the oligarchs and as especially implicated in the country's economic collapse.

On the other side of town in the vast wrecked Battersea Power Station building - used by Pink Floyd on the front cover of Animals - China Power Station Part 1 was opened to the public just before Frieze. This vast exhibition of contemporary Chinese art was put together by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Juila Payton Jones and Gunnar B. Kvarab of the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, along with the 'Red Mansion Foundation,' which funds numerous initiatives that promote Chinese contemporary work. The exhibition is part of the Serpentine Gallery’s ongoing collaboration with the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo for which Obrist is also a buyer and adviser on their collection. Part II will be developed for Oslo in 2007 and Part III for Beijing in 2008. its website states that 'the project will propose a new model for showcasing developments in Chinese art and architecture' and will be updated annually from 2006 to 2008.

A modernist icon, the Power Station in which the exhibition is housed was built by Gilbert Scott – also responsible for the red London telephone box – to provide electricity to the (now departed) industries of London. It was closed down in 1983. Since then it has become increasingly derelict and the subject of various redevelopment plans, none of which came to fruition (the increase in land-values being enough to show a return to developers). It has been placed on English Heritage's 'buildings at risk list.' This is the last opportunity for people to see the iconic building before it is finally redeveloped by Parkview, a Hong Kong-based property development company. As an unimpressed journalist wrote: 'Yes, it's Battersea Power Station, which is again the focus of "exciting new plans". This time its owner, Parkview – run by the feisty Hwang family of Hong Kong – has set up a jaw-droppingly improbable alliance with the trendy Serpentine Gallery. Its aim? To turn Giles Gilbert Scott's incredible hulk (the largest brick edifice in Europe when it was built in 1933) into what is described as “an arts destination to rival Tate Modern and the Royal Opera House." This ludicrous tosh in no way detracts, we are told, from Victor Hwang’s other plan for the gutted power station, which is to turn it into 750 homes, two hotels, offices, a 2,000-seat hall, plus posh nosheries and leisure facilities.' (Richard Morrison The Times Oct 7 2006): The first thing viewers see in their guided tour around China Power Station is a shiny corporate computer-generated video showing the public aspects of the wonderful complex that Parkview is transforming the shell around you into. This is projected to require a £1.2 billion investment and draw 10,000 visitors a day. Many commentators had already expressed a queasiness about the relationship between the curators, the gallery, the property development and the entire project on different levels: 'Of course art, commerce and architecture all operate within interconnected economic structures, but this presentation somehow establishes a sinister relationship. It makes one ponder the upsurge in interest in Chinese art and think of Western art markets drooling over the pool of commodities becoming available in Asia and suddenly art seems to take on the identity of "goods".' (Sally O' Reilly Time Out. Oct 17 2006) In the more limited references of the art world the project "further raises questions about Obrist's relationship with the Astrup Fearnley Museum (following 'Uncertain States of America') and the curators apparent earlier role as adviser to the Norwegian magnate on his collection, which has lately been beefed up with young Chinese art) as he settles into his curatorial position at the "Serpentine" (Martin Herbert China Power Station. Art Monthly (UK) Nov 06 No 301). The Serpentine's new role as softener for international capital and property-development became more embarrassing, as it became clear that, even as site(-)guides were describing the transformations that were to mavellously unfold to the visitors they took around the show, Parkview was seeking to renege on the shiny future they had promised. 'The idea is to do as little as possible, protect the old building and get the housing on site,' a source close to Parkview said.(Sunday Times Oct 8 2006). Parkview have asked Wandsworth Borough Council for permission instead to turn the site into private offices and even flats for private occupation. Providing that is, they can resolve a matter of conflict of interest. The Royal Town Planning Institute has promised to investigate “conflict of interest” claims against Parkview’s planning consultant, Ian Thompson who until January 2004 was Wandsworth’s borough planner and oversaw the approval of Parkview's planning applications. Two months later he left Wandsworth to work for Parkview on a part-time basis, for a reported salary of about £75,000 a year.

One of London's most respected contemporary art dealers was talking about Hans Ulrich Obrist and this exhibition of Chinese art, and he said: 'He's a useful idiot for cheap global labour.' I hadn't heard the phrase for ages – it's said to come from Lenin to describe journalists and travellers who returned from the revolution to plead its cause, but it only gained currency in the sixties, when it was used by the American right-wing to condemn liberals and radicals as apologists for the Soviet Union. Frieze and China Power Station indicate the ways that this idiocy manifets itself. Its not only to do with the way that art has become entangled with the politics of trade, these shows in their different ways demonstrate how the contemporary art world is becoming stunned with money and made increasingly senseless under its impact. It is revelling in it, enjoying it, needing to raise it, desperately seeking its sponsorship, selling itself for it, investing it and rolling in it, happy to be useful idiots for Global Capital and its many operations.