The headlines on the London ten o'clock news on September 15th were like a work of art in themselves. Footage of former Lehman employees with their belongings packed into expensive wine boxes were juxtaposed with shots of the Sotheby's saleroom where Damien Hirst's collection of pickled sharks, calves and butterflies was being auctioned for a total of $127,256,306. The agony and the ecstasy. One month later the contemporary art market is once again focused on London and the Frieze Art Fair and on world financial disintegration.
At the Frieze private view on Wednesday one big question kept being asked -- how were sales going? With rumours of cancelled deals at Frieze's Swiss cousin Basel, collectors, dealers and gallerists maintained a fixed grin, giving away nothing. One London based gallerist anxiously told me "things are fine" before flipping out over the fact that her biggest clients had not received the VIP early entry passes. A consultant who works with the larger corporate sponsors sounded concerned. She's seen a big fall off in clients and the cancellation of several projects; "Understandable of course, but slightly annoying as most people don't realise that art budgets are usually quite low and come out of a totally different pot". The 11am viewing had been quiet, buyers seemingly more cautious, maybe they were feeling the squeeze or maybe they just didn't want to appear to be spending big money with the world staring down a cliff face called Depression.
But the financial situation's impact on the art world is not isolated to sales alone. Artangel, the London based curatorial team, which is usually ahead every curve in the business, have comissioned the first work explicitly influenced by the crunch. Crisis in the Credit System is a four-part film piece by Melanie Gilligan. Parodying the ridiculous "team building" exercises large corporations inflict on their employees, Gilligan highlights the absurdities at the heart of the financial crisis. In one exchange the hot-shot funders note that food prices are tripling "Short Weightwatchers!" one of them cries - the inevitable but risible response is: " we'll go short on fat and long on thin".
Gilligan's fictional funds are all ominously named things like "Delphi" or "Babel", dramatising the perennial investor delusion - that the future can be predicted. Perhaps Gilligan, like the great Nassim Nichloas Taleb, thorn in the economist's side and author of "The Black Swan", is suggesting that such predictions are no more enlightening than the augury of old. Gilligan's insight lies in the way she allows her characters to reveal more about themselves than they ought; "one thing an investor doesn't want to know is how connected everything is".
Gilligan's in-joke with the art world is echoed throughout the press as everyone seems to be asking, is art just a commodity now? With every city starting its own biennale or fair the feeling is that new work has become a bespoke offering - tailored for the next spectacle. It's the result of the complacency born of the fat years when artists came to believe the market was bigger than the imagination. In London galleries became the new Starbucks, a new branch opening every five minutes. Works by young artists flew off walls for huge sums of money. Customers were not just buying art, they were buying onto the scene.
By 4pm the Frieze fair was starting to feel busy, gallerinas (the terrifyingly beautiful girls that sit at the front desks) stalked the aisles in varying degrees of Prada as the press poured in. Vast crates of champagne are wheeled through the fair -- each gallery booth presented with a shiny silver bucket and their own bottle. The corks popped. In celebration? Or did the London artocracy just need a stiff drink to steel themselves for the climb down the cliff face called Depression?