There are times during a life in art when you wonder whether or not you’re simply an asshole surrounded by other assholes. That’s what I was thinking while failing to find the entrance through the vaguely Lilliputian white picket fence on the edge of London’s Regent’s Park that served to separate VIPs from mere persons at the launch of this year’s Frieze Sculpture Park in early July. The thought arose not because of my failure to cross the border by simply lifting my foot over it (after all, the fence looked like something that had been borrowed from the Smurf village – more a symbolic deterrent or reassuring signifier of some happy pastoral utopia than an aggressively preventive measure), but because I was prepared to cross it at all. And, more pressingly, because I could overhear a speaker (the Victoria & Albert Museum’s director, Tristram Hunt) lecturing an audience of Ruinart-swilling artloafers about how the sculpture park represented a kind of ‘democracy’ and a form of ‘generosity’. Asshole. There was clapping going on, but it might as well have been the sound of ‘important’ art people slapping their own backs as they frolicked together in this stage-set-like summer idyll – the modern-day equivalent of one of Watteau’s fêtes galantes. But instead of the ruins of classical sculptures poking through an elegantly overgrown tree canopy, here was a pre-ruined sculpture by Bharti Kher (a bronze called The Intermediary Family, 2018, featuring a mildly Frankensteinian pairing of two divine avatars – one half of one stitched to one half of the other – of the type that might litter a Hindu temple, albeit massively enlarged for the sculpture park) plonked on a manicured lawn.
Indeed, the whole event took place in a section of the park called the English Gardens – some designer’s idea (originally John Nash’s) of elegant horticultural sophistication: the manufactured landscape of a Victorian-era English country house reduced for public consumption and littered with bins and tarmacked paths. Were the English Gardens being internationalised as they transformed into a sculpture park full of the works of international artists? I wondered. Was there some sort of ironic Brexit commentary going on here? I dodged some kids spilling ice cream all over themselves and the greenery; hopped over a plastic bag containing Marks & Spencer picnic treats. Another round of applause, and I decided there wasn’t: like most art fools I was overthinking things. There was something by Conrad Shawcross. All of it so very polite.
I could overhear a speaker lecturing an audience of Ruinart-swilling artloafers about how the sculpture park represented a kind of ‘democracy’ and a form of ‘generosity’. Asshole.
I found the entrance, grabbed the wristband that was thrust towards me and headed for the champagne, feeling that somehow I’d earned it. (Perhaps that first line could have been something about a hypocrite surrounded by other hypocrites.) So there I was, drinking from the trough in a private event to celebrate a public (at least public-facing) project on a plot of land owned by the monarchy that the public are permitted to use according to the grace and favour of the Crown (the only actual rights of access the public have are rights of way through the park). Perhaps that’s what is really English about the garden. Not its plant life, but its sense of quiet, deferential compliance: constructed, manipulated, managed, utterly artificial but apparently free. People lap this crap up.
In eighteenth-century France, under the monarchy, public sculpture worked like this: the king would drive through your town; he would be stuck or inconvenienced by the narrowness of your streets, the poverty of your road maintenance and your hometown’s shocking lack of any kind of sensible urban planning. Sometime later, his court would be in touch to voice his majesty’s displeasure and to offer his assistance in solving your problems. But effectively this would be him telling you to sort things out. He would suggest that you apply for permission to construct a royal square in your town, in order to improve the easeful circulation of through-traffic, clean things up a bit: to generally civilise the place. Naturally, it would have a sculpture of him in the centre in case you forgot to whom you should be grateful, and so that your town could remember it had been touched by royalty. You would apply. He would accept your request. Then he would tax you for the work. And his sculpture would remain to remind you of the person to whom you paid the bills. During the reign of Louis XV (who, hilariously, gave himself the sobriquet ‘le bien aimé’) it was not uncommon for angry (and presumably newly impoverished) townsfolk to stone the sculptures as they were being constructed. This would give the king the opportunity to tax you further so that the sculpture could have an armed guard.
While there’s a notion of it being ‘curated’, it’s really galleries who put the things in the sculpture park. The galleries who will be selling things at Frieze once the tent pops up elsewhere in the park. Perhaps they’ll even be selling the things in the English Gardens. But to the public today, peering like a bunch of Gargamels over the Smurf village’s fence, the galleries are improving things. And being generous to boot.
At some point I met an artist friend who was not there to celebrate the official unveiling of one of her works in the park. Indeed, it wasn’t really clear why she was there at all except to run into people like me. That this was really a networking event was confirmed by the appearance of one of the art-fair organisers skipping around excitedly and bumping into artists in order to arrange visits to their studios for another set of VIPs who would be attending the fair proper in October. What does ‘democracy’ mean here? Not ‘here’ in the English Gardens, but here in the artworld. “But I might not be here in October,” one of the artists (who also didn’t have any works in the sculpture park) replied nonchalantly. The organiser’s jaw dropped in disbelief. “You’re joking, of course!” she tittered nervously as she wandered off in search of a more compliant victim. Once she had safely disappeared into the throng the artist muttered that of course he was. Asshole.
Perhaps out of boredom, the artist friend asked me if I had a favourite work in the park. I indicated that the split personality offered up by the Bharti Kher was resonating a lot. She looked at me as if I’d just transformed into some sort of Tibetan singing bowl. “You see what they’ve done to you?” she exclaimed, her finger pointing at my chest. “They made you lower your standards!”
I muttered something and tried to find a squirrel to stare at.
“The whole sculpture park is terrible: however ‘good’ any of the parts might be, the whole is just a series of random objects dumped in someone’s garden! There’s nothing here to even be critical about!” she continued, with the kind of cool anger that made me feel like I’d just jumped feet-first into an elaborate trap. “I have my standards; I know what they are. I’m keeping them at exactly the level at which I decided to place them,” she carried on accusingly. During the early part of her life, this artist had grown up in a country that was under the governance of a particularly censorious and oppressive political regime. Consequently, when she talks about personal standards and maintaining one’s own moral and ethical position, I tend to take her seriously. Just like any self-respecting, morally upright art person would. Even if she’s talking nonsense. So she can get away with stuff (although, as she would perhaps point out, if I had any standards this wouldn’t be the case). Indeed, right now, part of me felt like she might have a point on the standards thing. Had I been simply staring at the highlight of a bad lot? Weren’t these kind of art events all about applying a touch of gilding to a bunch of dull metals? Who was I? Why was I here? At a certain point it wasn’t clear to me whether it was she or I who was now the asshole. Probably we both were. At least there’s some democracy in that.
From the September 2018 issue of ArtReview