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Frieze New York 2016

‘I start with the artists’

Frieze Projects curator, Cecilia Alemani, on commissioning process

BY Paul Teasdale in Frieze Week Magazine | 25 APR 16

Mario Bellini, Kar-A-Sutra, 1972. Courtesy: Valerio Castelli

Cecilia Alemani  I always try and find a specific mood, theme or atmosphere for the projects. This year the mood is kind of magical and is invoked through artistic interventions. The hope is this year’s projects will create an atmosphere within the fair where visitors can stumble upon things quite unexpected, and in some cases, quite surreal. For example, when you walk into Maurizio Cattelan’s booth – which is part of the yearly series of tributes to historical projects – instead of finding artworks, it will be empty except for a live donkey beneath a chandelier. It’s like an image from a fairytale. Or to give another example, British artist Anthea Hamilton will revive a project by the Italian artist Mario Bellini and his work Kar-A-Sutra which was first shown at the exhibition at MoMA in 1972 ‘Italy: the new domestic landscape’. A recreation of Bellini’s concept car will be inhabited by seven mimes, enacting different and quite unusual ways of positioning themselves within the car’s interior. A final example might be Argentinian artist Eduardo Navarro who is organizing a performance using five dancers outside of the fair itself: the dancers will wear circular mirrors attached to their waists and walk in straight lines using the reflections in their mirrors to follow the path of clouds. In general the projects all share an interest in inserting slight disruptions and creating unexpected encounters to the normal fair experience.

Paul Teasdale  Do all of the projects have a performative aspect?

CA  That sensibility is very present for some of them, but you will also see installations and more discrete interventions that you would not usually find in a fair context. For example the British artist Heather Phillipson will present a series of the same installation, both inside and outside of the fair, so you will encounter the same work in different places like a recurring motif. She is interested in the shape of the tent, which from above looks like a spinal cord. Heather has a multimedia approach to installation, involving video and sculpture, sound and a lot of props – all of which, here, are animated by dogs who are the main protagonists. As with much of her work she’s not so interested in a specific theme or topic but more in the way the viewer encounters these slightly odd scenarios and actors - plastic dogs in this case.

‘The projects all share an interest in inserting slight disruptions and creating unexpected encounters to the normal fair experience.’

PT  The US artist Alex Da Corte is also presenting a large-scale installation.

CA  He will show a large floating balloon outside of the fair, in the form of a cartoonish crying baby. The work won’t be revealed until the fair, but I can say that Alex’s balloon will be monumental in size – roughly 12 to 15 metres long – and it will hover above the fair as this icon viewable from the other side of the river and by visitors approaching by ferry.

Tribute to Flux-Labyrinth (1976/2015), Frieze Projects New York 2015. Photograph: Tim Schenck

PT  Many of this year’s artists use humour in their work, from Cattelan, to Hamilton to Phillipson, to Da Corte – to US artist David Horvitz’s intervention which we will come to later. Was this something you were mindful of in the commissioning?

CA  Actually it’s always something of surprise to see such a strong theme come together in the final proposals. My approach to the commissioning is not really content-based – I don’t have a set idea in the beginning or ask artists to make specific works. I start with the artists I am interested in and give them carte blanche, in a sense, albeit within the unique parameters of the fair. For me it’s more interesting to see how they react to the specific environment and the surrounding park.  The fascinating thing for me is that around halfway through the process, usually a theme or pattern emerges. It’s not something I look for necessarily but its always interesting to see how these things develop. Last year, for example, many of the artists were interested in labyrinths or mazes, there were some projects that were very immersive and some very physical interventions. This year there is more of a focus on performance – especially humourous and surreal approaches to performance.

Courtesy: David Horvitz

PT  David Horvitz’s project is quite secretive. Can you talk about it?

CA  For David, one of the most interesting aspects of the fair is the huge number of people who visit – around 40,000 last year. He decided he didn’t want to fabricate a physical work, as that’s what you find in the different booths that make up the fair itself. Instead he wanted to do something invisible, some kind of generous gesture for the majority of visitors who come to view artworks rather than to buy them. His project is fairly clandestine. A pickpocket will be in the fair but his or her role will be reversed: he/she will drop a miniature sculpture into the bags or pockets of visitors. If you’re one of the lucky ones, after your visit, you’ll reach into your pocket and discover you’ve walked out with a work by David Horvitz. He’s planning on giving away about 200 of these sculptures per day. As nobody knows what the pickpocket looks like, if the pickpocket is good, he or she won’t get caught and will remain anonymous. I guess that’s how we’ll judge the success of the project. It’s interesting to see how the work has developed since the proposal has got out. It’s like a rumour that people are spreading.

Maurizio Cattelan, Enter at Your Own Risk—Do Not Touch, Do Not Feed, No Smoking, No Photographs, No Dogs, Thank you (1994), donkey and crystal chandelier, installation view, Daniel Newburg Gallery, New York, May 28-29, 1994 (work removed one day after opening). Courtesy: Maurizio Cattelan's Archive; photograph: Lina Bertucci

PT  Going back to Cattelan. This will be his first newly commissioned project since his Guggenheim retrospective in 2011, where he famously announced he was ‘retiring’ from the art world.

CA  I don’t think Maurizio would view this project as a new work per se, it’s a recreation of his first ever show in New York, at Daniel Newburg gallery in 1994, (the work was titled: Enter at Your Own Risk—Do Not Touch, Do Not Feed, No Smoking, No Photographs, No Dogs, Thank you). But hopefully this marks the beginning of Maurizio’s return to the art scene.

PT  The fair seems an ideal setting for him, somewhere where he can poke fun and disrupt the usual business of the art world.

CA  Maurizio has collaborated with Frieze before as part of the Wrong Gallery, who curator Polly Staple invited to Frieze London for a number of years when she was commissioning the projects in the early 2000s, so he’s familiar with the environment. But yes I think for him he’s interested in the sort of fictional aspect of the fair, it’s only here for a few days and then it’s gone. It’s an interesting platform to present work.

PT  How has the production side been? Some of the works seem very ambitious in their scale and choice of ‘materials’. Have there been more challenges this year than normal?

‘We actually went through a number of donkeys’ CVs. It was a pretty funny process.’

CA  I always find myself speaking for Chris [Taylor], our production manager, when asked about this. He has the unenviable job of finding some pretty strange things: hiring a pickpocket, finding a donkey, fabricating a giant balloon or casting a group of mimes. I hope – well actually I’m sure – he sees the funny side to it! Trying to find a donkey for Cattelan’s project, we discovered that there are a number of farms in upstate New York that hire out donkeys for various events: productions at the the Radio City Music Hall or the Met Opera for example. So we actually went through a number of donkeys’ CVs. It was a pretty funny process. We had the dilemma of trying to get a donkey similar to the one Cattelan used in his original exhibition at Daniel Newburg, but there isn’t so much documentation of that show available. It was quite hard to match our donkey to the original.  Similarly, for Anthea Hamilton’s performance using mimes, Anthea’s instructions were that she didn’t want them to be ‘too mime-y’ so we had to be quite specific in casting and training them.

PT  Where do you find a professional pickpocket?

CA  Funnily there are professional pickpockets out there that advertise – a lot of them have websites! We were pretty nervous about inviting a professional pickpocket to an art fair, for obvious reasons, but we did some research online and began calling around. Chris held interviews and candidates had to put something in someone’s pocket without them noticing. It’s been a pretty interesting process I have to admit.

Cecilia Alemani is the Donald R. Mullen, Jr. Director & Chief Curator of High Line Art and curator of Frieze Projects and Frieze Sounds at Frieze New York. Frieze New York 2016 runs May 5-8. Tickets, from $10, are available here.

Paul Teasdale is editor of frieze.com. He is based in London.