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Van Gogh, Kahlo speak from beyond the grave at Frieze art fair

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • Mediums channeled the ghosts of five dead artists for an unusual panel discussion
  • The spirits spoke about the afterlife to a packed auditorium
  • Other projects of note included excavations of an ancient city and a temporary tattoo booth

London, England (CNN) -- A verbal tussle between the ghosts of Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh has become a talking point among contemporary art fans.

A group of TV psychics and mediums "summoned" the late artists as part of an unusual panel discussion at London's Frieze art fair.

Also summoned to speak in the darkened auditorium were Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock, artists well-known for their ground-breaking art but also their colorful lives.

The organizer of this paranormal panel was American multidisciplinary artist Jeffrey Vallance, who invited five mediums to channel the spirits of some of the Western world's best-known artists.

The list of dead artists due to be summoned had been publicized before the event but the mediums were unaware until they entered the auditorium which specific artist they would be asked to channel.

The people there were confronted with something that scandalized their assumptions and beliefs about art in general and the relationship between the artist and inspiration
--Art critic Brian Dillon

The first question asked was: Is there art in the afterlife? And if so, could it be described. The medium channeling Leonardo da Vinci said that the afterlife could not be understood by mortal minds; Kahlo described prisms of light; and Pollock told the packed auditorium that the afterlife was "all beige."

Something of French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp's humor came through in his mediated answer, via medium Karina: "It would be like describing the mechanics of flight to a squirrel," she said.

Though many of the answers met with muffled giggles from members of the audience, Vallance -- whose work frequently tries to find the fantastical in the everyday -- looked pleased with the spectacle, occasionally interjecting to ask questions.

It was at the end of the discussion that things began to heat up.

When the medium channeling Leonardo da Vinci proclaimed that he was a better artist than the other artists summoned for the discussion, he drew an enraged gasp from Vincent van Gogh via medium Grant Colyer, who shouted: "We are all as good as each other!"

Frights and giggles aside, the discussion-cum-performance emphasized the debt that artists working now owe to their forebears and was one of the highlights of the fair.

Art critic Brian Dillon, who chaired the event, told CNN: "The people there were confronted with something that scandalized their assumptions and beliefs about art in general and the relationship between the artist and inspiration, quite apart from whether or not they actually believed the mediums."

Other highlights at Frieze, London's premier contemporary art fair that draws visitors from across the world, included a special installation project by British-born artist Simon Fujiwara.

Entitled "Frozen," the specially commissioned project imagined that the remains of an ancient civilization had been discovered beneath the site of the fair.

Roped-off excavation zones around the fair showed partially uncovered remains such as tombs, columns and skulls -- all replicas. According to explanatory notes, this fictional civilization was undone by its decadence, surely a comment on pre-recession times.

Fujiwara's forthcoming year is due to be a busy one: he is currently exhibiting work at European art biennial Manifesta in Murcia, Spain, and is slated to have a solo show at Tate St. Ives in Cornwall, where he grew up, in 2011.

Death and humor proved to be popular themes in works of art across the fair. At London gallery Stephen Friedman's stand, irreverent Scottish artist David Shrigley exhibited a taxidermied puppy holding a sign saying: "I'm dead."

The stand, which was filled with the artist's ink drawings and sculptures, was a big draw -- not least because for two days, Shrigley was painting tattoo designs onto willing members of the public, leaving them with the option to decide whether or not they wanted to permanently wear a piece of his art.

Elsewhere, Swedish artist Annika Strom masterminded a performance for a curated component of the fair, commenting on gender inequality in the art world.

Ten male actors wandered about the fair in a group, charged with looking awkward and embarrassed by what Strom sees as the under-representation of female artists in exhibitors' stands at art fairs and across the wider arts.

In addition to real-time performance works, sculptures and installations proved to be popular attractions.

A wooden structure entitled "Reading Room" by Cuban collective Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters) attracted wearied fair-trippers, while its slatted structure became a temporary library for books.

Elsewhere, an installation composed of gently turning globes courtesy of New Delhi-based artist Bharti Kher entitled "Not all who wonder are lost" (2009-10) drew delighted viewers.

Kher has been enjoying positive critical reviews in the last couple of years for her work, which often includes sculptures and paintings covered in thousands of bindis. One such painting, in delicate blue, was also on show at the fair.

The art didn't stop at the tent's confines: outside was a sculpture park featuring works inspiring regular double-takes from visitors entering and leaving the fair.

What looked like a pile of smoking rubbish was in fact an artwork by artist duo Kaj Aune and Wolfgang Ganter -- and out in the street, visitors walked past an upturned car by German artist Hans Peter Feldmann.