Frieze Art Fair: the art world joins the digital revolution

Oct 18, 2013
Jane Lewis

As fans and investors gather for the Frieze Art Fair, the internet is changing how we make, buy and value art

IN THE ten years since the Frieze Art Fair first pitched its tent in Regent’s Park it has grown into arguably the most important contemporary art fair in the world – the place, according to one New York art adviser, “where the search for the next superstar gathers momentum”. 

Two years ago, for example, works by the London-based painter Oscar Murillo were changing hands at Frieze for a couple of thousand. Now his 574# (oil paint, oil stick, graphite and studio-dirt) is priced at around $150,000 and he’s being bigged up as the next Basquiat.  

You can see a similar theme in broader art trends. Frieze has always been home to out-there installations that challenge the boundaries of what constitutes art. But one of the main innovations this year is a fair devoted to contemporary African works – illustrating the way in which the art world tends to mirror broader investment trends.

Another 2013 highlight is the Masters fair, where older paintings have been repackaged and re-curated as hip and new. The star exhibit this year is a previously undiscovered 16th-century Brueghel, The Census at Bethlehem, marketed as a bargain to big-wadded bottom-fishers (even if it is by Brueghel the younger who’s considered less accomplished than his father). As dealer Johnny Van Haeften argues: “This is a great masterpiece and it is £6m – what does that buy you in contemporary art?”

Part of the joy of attending the artfest is simply being there. As one critic observes, there’s something rather sensory about coming in from a London downpour to contemplate a “dirty black puddle” by Marlie Mul (yours from E4,000). And, if all else fails to seduce, you can always fall back on ogling oligarchs in the aisles.

But one of themes of Frieze this year has been a new obsession for the more ephemeral and virtual – typified by digital art-forms using video and pixelated images.  

Digital technology has been deployed in the creative arts ever since computers first hit the desktop. Andy Warhol was an early pioneer: using a Commodore Amiga to pimp up an image of Debbie Harry in 1985. But only now is it really beginning to take off. Earlier this month Phillips, which, as the FT notes, “once counted Napoleon and Marie Antoinette among its patrons,” staged the first major auction of digital art in New York, raising $90,000.

That’s a drop in the ocean compared with the multi-millions raised by sales of tangible contemporary art, but prices of works that straddle both genres have rocketed. An untitled inkjet-printer painting by Wade Guyton fetched $1.1m at Christie’s in February. Moreover, a new breed of entirely online artists – many of whom have cultivated followings on Tumblr or YouTube – are now making their mark in the mainstream.

The Phillips auction included work by Joe Hamilton, who created a collage called Hyper Geography through a series of Tumblr posts; and artists like Rafaël Rozendaal and Petra Cortright, who are redefining how works are sold and valued. Rozendaal’s ownership contracts, for instance, stipulate that the buyer must keep the work visible to the public and renew the domain registration annually. The formula used by Cortright to price her webcam videos, meanwhile, is the number of times they have been viewed online. Thus her RGB, D-LAY video (which shows coloured images of the artist pulling her hair above her head) went on sale for $1,409.75 at Phillips, having pulled in 5,639 views.

If the net is changing the way art is being made and priced, the same is true of how it is being sold. Online galleries such as Artnet and Artsy have been around for a while. But the movement arguably reached its apogee in August when Amazon jumped into the market, offering works by more than 4,500 artists from 150 galleries, with a spectacularly sweeping price range stretching from $10 to $4.85m (for Norman Rockwell’s Willie Gillis: Package from Home).

Many are sceptical about whether the move will work – particularly at the high end. Collectors, it is argued, want to experience works first-hand, and online sales are beset with worries about fakes. Some also take the view that even appearing on a downmarket site like Amazon could have a devaluing effect.

Still, the value and volume of sales is increasing, with business beginning to motor at the lower-end. Not only are some young collectors more comfortable buying things online (there’s less pressure in choosing what to buy than in a physical gallery, and you can search by colour, price, size and subject), but the medium is drawing new punters in. As one gallery director remarks: why shell out for a Monet print that everyone has, when you could buy an original piece for the same price? What’s more, the internet has made researching unknown artists – with a view to assessing their future prospects and market value – much easier.

In a Reith Lecture delivered this week, Grayson Perry pondered the age-old question of what makes for quality in art. “How do we tell if something is good? And who tells us that it’s good?”  An artist’s rise used to be determined by the reaction of peers, serious critics, collectors and dealers.  To those, these days, we might also add: clicks. 

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