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October 16, 2009

Frieze Week: Thursday

By Spear's

Why the Trafigura Prize is trying to pour oil on troubled waters (ho-ho) and Alex Dellal tells me what his Embassy project has to do with nationalism (very little, apparently)

Go to the Fair? Now why would I do that? After a few frenzied hours at the Fair on Wednesday, the call of actual work cannot be ignored. The call of several good post-work parties, however – that’s a different call altogether.

First was the most newsworthy of all things happening this week: the Trafigura Prize in association with the Cynthia Corbett Gallery at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. The show is called Young Masters and features artists who take inspiration, techniques or subjects from the old masters.

There are the Renaissance pictures updated with modern young men by Hector de Gregorio, who paints and varnishes over posed photographs; Alice Evans‘ Easel, a lightbox which recreates a Vermeer-like aura; and Constance Slaughter‘s Invasion, a modern Bayeux Tapestry where soldiers are surrounded by assaulting pencils.

There are lots of excellent pictures, and I would encourage you to go, but it is one of the sponsors which is proving particularly interesting at the moment. In case you haven’t been following (tho’ if you’re on Twitter, you will have been), Trafigura, an oil shipping company, obtained a super-injunction to prevent the Guardian reporting a Parliamentary question about a report into a company Trafigura hired dumping (allegedly) toxic waste on the African coast. With me so far?

After several thousand people had Tweeted about where said question could be found online, the injunction was effectively broken and Trafigura’s solicitors (the eminently loveable Carter-Ruck, no enemies of freedom they) withdrew the injunction. Victory for the untraceables of the internet.

Well, as part of their PR effort to pour oil over troubled waters (sorry), Trafigura has sponsored this prize, and when I caught up with Cynthia Corbett last night, she confirmed that Trafigura had come on board “two months ago”, a relatively short time in the two years she had been planning this show (which you really should go see). I would never suggest Cynthia had done anything wrong or improper: no, it is Trafigura who are trying to paint over (oil paint, I’m guessing) their bad PR.

If we’ve learned one thing this week, it is that art audiences aren’t especially stupid, Trafigura.

UPDATE: Statement from Cynthia Corbett gallery about Trafigura sponsorship:

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’19 October 2009, London – Gallerist Cynthia Corbett today announced that her Art Prize will no longer be sponsored by Trafigura, and will instead be renamed the Young Masters Art Prize.

‘Cynthia explains “Since the prize was conceived 2 years ago we approached various art foundations and corporate organizations to sponsor an art prize.  We feel that the recent events involving Trafigura are detracting from the main purpose of the prize, which is to celebrate emerging and newly established artists.”

‘The Young Masters Art Prize will be awarded to one of sixteen international artists who have been chosen to exhibit work at the Young Masters exhibition, which opened at The Old Truman Brewery last Thursday night with over 1200 visitors.

‘The winner of the Young Masters Art Prize will be announced on Tuesday 3 November, and the prize will be continued each year, with funding for the prize money sourced for alternative sponsors. This year the prize will be non-monetary. 

‘The Young Masters Art Prize will be judged by an independent panel of high profile artists, journalists and historians.’

And now a happier topic. The Embassy is an installation of work by the 20 Hoxton Square gallery at the former Sierra Leonean embassy (and afterwards alleged swingers’ venue) at 33 Portland Place. It had its opening last night and after hotfooting it from the Trafigura Prize on Brick Lane, I managed to grab fifteen minutes amid the complete frenzy. The congestion on the staircase was so hip, so chic, that you could have thrown a paper plane and hit a Vogue model.

The idea behind the Embassy, according to Alex Dellal, whom I spoke to yesterday afternoon, was formed after hearing how modern embassies (such as some of those being built in Dubai) are using some of their premises to promote national artists. Alex wanted “to do the exact opposite by inviting artists from all over to recreate the national identity of an anonymous country”. Instead of having an embassy defined by artists’ nationality, the artists would definte the embassy’s nationality.

So the Embassy has everything from a flag to an anthem. Alex says that plenty of research went into the anthem: ‘From America to Europe to South-East Asia, there’s this very repetitive feeling you get from national anthems: they sound fairly similar, all in four-four beat. They often sound like a backing track reminiscent of a James Bond theme.’

The recession has made it more difficult to sell works, Alex, the brother of noted denizen of the gossip columns Alice, concedes, but he says that ‘people are now more open to seeing new things. [They don’t want to see] a lot of these huge artists who get huge sales, they want to see things beyond that. People are going to more art fairs, they’ve got a better understanding than ever before.’

It is that sort of sophistication which makes a conceptual project like the Embassy more approachable. It is (just in my view) not a wholly successful project: while there are some very interesting pieces, too many seem to be a simplistic reaction to America. I am not passing judgment on America one way or the other, but I think a post-national embassy could cease fighting the battles of 2001-8.

For example, Wolfe von Lenkiewicz‘s melange of art history features Jesus’ head on an American eagle while the Lincoln memorial sits on top and a plane crashes into it. I believe Rufus Wainwright best encapsulated this approach in his song Going to a Town, which was also a lot more timely. At least Alastair Mackie‘s Mud Hut, a model of the Capitol Building made from mud, straw and horse manure, was made as sectarian violence in Iraq was rising.

Still, I particularly liked Michael Lisle-Taylor‘s Crossing the Line and Black Knight Square Away, two miliarry uniforms turned into straight jackets, which are direct but quite moving.

And after all that, I turned down my chance to go to the Omega party with Cindy Crawford because I spent the rest of the evening (and early morning) at the Paramount Club with some good friends over from New York. Cindy Crawford is one thing, but friends – that’s what Frieze Week is about.

Tonight, the Kandinsky Prize and the Art Review Power 100.

Read Monday’s diary here
Read Tuesday’s diary
Read Wednesday’s diary

Pictures from top: Héctor de Gregorio – Absinthes, Alice Evans – Easel, Constance Slaughter – Invasion, Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, Michael Lisle-Taylor – Crossing the Line

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