Interview: Frieze London's Deputy Director Jo Stella-Sawicka Discusses This Year's Art Fair and Beyond

On the eve of Frieze London's 2014 edition, we speak with the deputy director of the fair about what to look forward to this year and beyond.

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Complex Original

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This feature is part of our week-long coverage of Frieze London art fair 2014, which runs from October 15-18 at Regent's Park and contains art from over 160 of the world's​ most exciting contemporary art galleries. 

As Frieze London revs up for its 2014 edition, there has been a lot of talk about the recent announcements regarding staffing changes at the top, as well as about the new Artist Award and Live section dedicated to performance art. With hosting three international fairs annually and a seemingly ever expanding remit, Frieze is undeniably becoming a brand—so much that this even forms the basis for one tongue-in-cheek performance work this year.

Jo Stella-Sawicka, deputy director of Frieze London since 2011, is unashamed, however. "Of course Frieze is a brand," she exclaims proudly. The former director of London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery and one time art curator for British fashion chain Monsoon, Jo found some time on the eve of the fair’s launch to talk about all we have to look forward to, both this coming week and beyond. 

You’re coming up on four years working with Frieze now. What have you seen change during your time with the fair?

Well, we’ve launched Frieze New York, which was obviously a major expansion for the company, and Frieze Masters, as well. At the same time, we've gone from producing one event a year to three. As a result, our activity is much more global. Also, we’re working with galleries that have to do with ancient art, medieval art, and modern art, as well as contemporary art, so we’re working across the entire spectrum of 7,000 years of art-making.

With Frieze Projects, Frieze Film, Frieze Talks, Frieze Video, Frieze Sounds, Frieze Sculpture Park and the new section, Live, dedicated to performance art, Frieze London is much more all-encompassing than just visual arts to hang on a gallery wall. How would you define its scope and ambitions? Where is Frieze London looking to go in the coming years?

All of those activities were always part of the fair. Frieze Projects is our non-profit arm. It has always existed in London and was very much a part of our vision when we set up in New York. It’s an opportunity for us to commission artists alongside the commercial side of the fair. Basically, the Frieze Projects curator will work with artists in different ways, so sometimes there might be a film program or a sound program. This year, the French choreographer Jérôme Bel is bringing his disabled theater group to London, which was a highlight of last year’s Documenta. All that curatorial activity has always been very much a part of our vision.

What is new this year is the Live section, where we are providing space for galleries to bring experimental work to the fair, which is based on or includes performance. It’s about supporting performance practices, performances, and performance-based work. Often these are positions that can be very hard for galleries to represent at art fairs, because they are not so explicitly commercial. Increasingly, however, because Frieze is such a curatorial environment, we see galleries wanting to participate, showing the most ambitious work they can. In this climate, it’s much harder for the younger and mid-career galleries to do that. They don’t have the same resources as the more established galleries. This section is 100% subsidized, so it was incredibly competitive, and we were able to select several really strong projects, including new commissions by young artists, as well as two major re-stagings of historical works.

I think anybody who visits the fair this year will see in our new design by architects Universal Design Studio that we’ve taken an entirely different approach to the fair. We’ve really looked to improve its environmental aspects, so that it’s really the best place to look at and experience art, as well as a really comfortable environment for our exhibitors and our public. Because we’re a pop-up event, Universal Design Studio have also looked at how we can introduce materials that suggest more durability. So there’s a lot more attention to detail with the finish of certain areas: our restaurants feel like real restaurants, and our VIP room feels like a real destination. There’s a wholesale change of direction in the look and feel of the fair this year, and we hope it’s going to make a really big impact on the public who visit. Really the focus these days is on quality and making sure Frieze is bringing and showing the public the most interesting and experimental artworks and positions that are taking place worldwide.

In the Focus section, which is our section for the young and emerging galleries, we have what I think is one of the strongest groups of young galleries active globally, with participants from Berlin, L.A., Shanghai, Mumbai—an amazing global reach. The projects that the galleries have brought are, in some cases, museum quality. There’s a project by Dan Gunn Gallery from Berlin, for example, recreating a really important Michael Smith work from the 1980s called Government Approved Home Fallout Shelter Snackbar. He’s a seminal artist who has recently received a lot of attention, and this is a major piece that belongs in a museum. Leo Xu Projects from Shanghai is showing a major piece by Michael Lin, which is a temporary home for migrant workers, and the actual architectural project is completed by the migrant workers, contributing to it as an artwork. Again, it’s not only a big, substantial work, it’s also a major work that you would equally see presented in a museum. Then there are some other younger galleries who are taking a more experimental approach, but also, in Focus, you can find important works by historical artists, so it really encompasses a wide range of different things. I think it’s probably one of the most exciting areas of the fair.

The number of art fairs taking place around Frieze has grown exponentially over the past few years, leading to many people losing their faith in the purpose of the art fair and seeing it purely as commercial hype. Shanzhai Biennial’s performance piece specifically re-conceives Frieze London as a lifestyle brand…

Yes, and that’s really interesting. The Shanzhai movement in China is basically a kind of counter-cultural, counterfeit movement—the idea that you can buy knock-off goods that are brands themselves. Nike trainers are called Mica trainers, and they have their own cult following. So Shanzhai are using our branding and logo to create a range of merchandise, and they’re also going to be using Frieze as a platform for selling things other than art, including real estate. It will be up to the public whether they can figure out if this is an authentic Frieze environment, an artist’s détournement, or a rethinking of what we could possibly be doing as a brand. We’ve also located the Shanzhai Biennial on the entrance corridor, so it really falls into that slippage between where it lies as an experience: is it real, is it artificial?

Do you conceive of Frieze as a brand?

Of course Frieze is a brand! Frieze is a global brand. We’re working across many different territories. We’ve got an office in Berlin, we’ve got an office in New York, we’re a publisher, we have three magazines, publish e-books, publish catalogues—it’s a brand.

To go back to another of the Live pieces, you’ve got the Japanese siblings, United Brothers, producing a soup made from vegetables grown in the region of Fukushima, the scene of the 2011 nuclear disaster. The piece, called Does This Soup Taste Ambivalent?, will be available for visitors to sample.

Yes, that’s where they grew up, and that’s where their mother lives. Their mother is here for Frieze, and they’re cooking noodle soup to give to the public. The region was devastated by the nuclear disaster, but people still live there and grow and eat vegetables, which are authorized by the Japan Farmer’s Union. Obviously it will be up to the they feel about participating in this generous act of sharing.

Frieze co-founder Matthew Slotover recently admitted his uncertainly as to whether or not he’d be up for trying the soup. Will you?

Yes, for sure. They don’t look radioactive to me, and I like the look of it. I think if they’re coming all the way from Japan to do this for us, then I think it’s only right that we also take part and sit down and enjoy some food with them.

This year sees the introduction of the Frieze Artist Award, established to enable an emerging artist to present a site-specific work at Frieze London. Does Frieze seek to represent a balance between emerging and established artists? 

The award has had different names over the past few years, depending on sponsors, and this year it’s called the Frieze Artist Award, and Mélanie Matranga is the winner. The wonderful thing about Mélanie was that when the jurors selected hers from the many hundreds of applications, it was a unanimous decision, and they didn’t know about her. She wasn’t a represented artist, so it was truly a jury discovery, and they felt really compelled by her vision. I think it is really important that the fair can provide a platform for young artists, because young artists provide the lifeblood of the fair, and it’s where the regeneration of the fair comes from, with younger artists graduating through different sections each year, growing from an emerging to an established artist. My feeling is that people come to Frieze for discovery. They know that they’re going to see an awful lot and learn a lot.

What do you think of the public response to Frieze Masters over the past couple of years?

I think there’s been a very good, positive response to Frieze Masters. It’s a unique concept in that you can experience historical art through a contemporary lens, and I think it’s also unique, in that, for a secondary market fair, there’s a huge amount of curatorial engagement. That’s partly because we program a very interesting body of artists’ talks, with contemporary artists talking about historical artists who’ve had an influence on their own practice, which I think everybody’s always interested to hear about. There’s also the Spotlight section, which brings together a group of undiscovered 20th century artists who have either been overlooked or overshadowed in the past and are being reconsidered now. I think those two aspects really make it a very interesting fair for connoisseurs, but also for the public alike.

It has recently been announced that Victoria Siddall, who has been director of Frieze Masters for the past three years, is now to take over from founders Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp as director of Frieze London and Frieze New York. Slotover and Sharp are to attend to "new projects." Can you tell us anything about what these new projects might entail?

No. They’ve got a long list, and they want to go away and research them and figure them out. It's too soon to talk about them, I’m afraid.

Additionally, you have been named as artistic director to oversee Europe, the Middle East, Russia, and Africa. What will this new role mean for you?

I think it’s an extension of what I do already, because my job really is very closely involved with the curatorial program of the fair, working with all our curatorial advisors. I think my remit just expands to incorporate historical galleries in certain territories, and I’ll be working with Victoria to support the development of the fair as it evolves.

Finally, Sophia Al Maria’s Frieze project questions what an art fair is really saying to its visitors. What do you think—or hope—that Frieze London is really trying to say to its visitors?

Frieze says to come with an open mind and really experience some of the world’s best art. The level of energy and ambition that galleries put into making very special and significant projects for Frieze is unparalleled anywhere in the world. It’s an amazing resource. So come with an open mind and open eyes.

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