Looking for leos
How many Leonardo DiCaprio dopplegängers will you see at Frieze New York, the annual art fair on Randall’s Island? There are, after all, “The Revenant,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and “Catch Me If You Can” versions of the famed actor, environmentalist, model wrangler, and art collector, all appearing as part of a staged performance piece by the artist Dora Budor in which a hired actor walks around in-character, switching costumes at set intervals. These duplicates are populating enough Instagram feeds to fill a village of Leo impersonators.
But after nearly four hours at the art showcase, I don’t manage to spot any. There are reports of a “Revenant” Leo sighting soon after I arrive, but the action happens while I was taking a phone call outside, watching the crowds disembark from the shuttle ferry and migrate towards me clutching their complimentary litre-and-a-half-sized bottles of Life Water. Inside the airy nave of the cathedral-like tent, the entire space is a pure macchiato crème color. Clusters of air vents exhale cool air to disperse any aggravating allergens and everyone is on their phone for some social media enterprise. Who’s to blame them for wanting to capture this, with tickets going for more than double that of New York’s most expensive museums?
Consuming art today means reflecting, digesting, and unspooling an opinion often born in the gut and shot from the hip. We aren’t really saying much to each other in spaces like these. We’re inferring, mimicking behaviors. We can walk the stalls in elliptical loops seeing one and then another group of beautiful strangers, taking pictures of a portrait of Obama or, a hundred feet away, of Cookie Monster. I can’t find Leo but I do see people of influence who look suspiciously like one another pass by every few minutes, each in their own bubble, each performing the act of art interaction. In an already rarefied space with several barriers to entry, this is, perhaps, just how we act in a group setting. “We have this private language, and body language, that we use to talk to friends and loved ones,” the poet Ocean Vuong writes. Here at Frieze, particular fragments of overheard conversation ring out and impress like tweets you still think about from time to time. On either side of me, as though in conversation, an art dealer explains, “I just wanna blaze it,” and a teen wearing headphones responds, “he fucking nailed it, bro."
Contemporary art is vulnerable to the excesses of a liberated gallery industry, which shuttles its wares around marketplaces online and across the globe like so many of Maupassant’s necklaces. The ostensible purpose of Frieze, which hosts a London occurrence each fall and is cousin to the Art Basel fairs in Miami, Hong Kong, and its namesake Swiss city, is to serve as a roving one-stop shop for world-class art. Most works sell during previews (to buyers including the actual Leo Dicaprio, no less), where they’re snatched up during the well-heeled’s version of Supermarket Sweep.
With that in mind, what’s striking is how wide this world at least superficially opens its arms to the rest of us, the normies. Collecting art is for the rich, sure, but gallery and art fair goers broadly comprise the people we euphemistically name the creative class. Maybe the signifiers of the cultured and moneyed are so muddied as to be no longer mutually exclusive, but on Saturday, what appeared to be a cross-section of young people from the greater metropolitan area abounded at Frieze, posing for pictures, throwing tantrums, playing with fidget spinners.
There are nearly a thousand works here and exposure to them is worth the price of admission. And New Yorkers’ penchant for thrift paired with luxury, like riding the subway in designer sneakers, compels the crowds to overwhelm the offerings of free wifi, coffee, and outlets to replenish their phones. Of course, most of the galleries represented are free to visit at their permanent locations elsewhere in this city or others. But this is a family gathering of sorts where P.P.O.W., Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, and Skarstedt, can set up shop and peacock what they’ve been up to in their Chelsea, Harlem, and Carnegie Hill abodes with one another.
Near the restroom, there’s an ATM receipt for a transaction of $203.75. I momentarily wonder whether this perhaps is the aftermath of a withdrawal to make an all-cash offer for the massive painting adjacent, a huge portrait of a Dachshund, in front of which an elderly couple pose for a selfie. But they don’t look to be buyers; the picture would do. Coming back inside following a reprieve with my own personal pizza – the art world’s interpretation of fair food, perhaps – I went back to hogging the wifi. A playoff hockey game was on; a distraction from the distractions. I watched as the home team blew an early lead and my phone battery spastically dwindled. Looking up, between defensive zone breakdowns, birds flew above the tent at angles, their shadows arcing across the parabola tenting.
From the southern exit of Frieze, just beyond the crowds huddled around the tables of art books for sale, you can see the Hell Gate Bridge that carries both Acela trains and hundred-car-long caterpillars of shipping crates. It’s easy to forget that Randall's Island is also home to two psychiatric hospitals, a wastewater treatment plant, sports fields, a driving range, and even a horse trotting course. It’s not uncommon to see folks fishing off the crumbling sea walls.
Today’s internet culture cherishes a certain way of being – a stance slightly apart from the world and its siren call of responsibilities and social life. The ferry ride home from Frieze recalled whatever this feeling is supposed to be, but the view wasn’t exactly memeable. It was the way the sunset looks on a day of perpetual rain, or thunderstorms, or, as it was then, a gradually advancing dark mufti of clouds – basically, just foreboding. What was left of the sun seemed to light only the East River, like a fire raging just past where we can’t quite see.