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Curator Nicola Lees on Making Frieze Projects a Family Affair


Curator Nicola Lees on Making Frieze Projects a Family Affair
Frieze Projects curator Nicola Lees (Photo courtesy of Frieze)

British curator Nicola Lees has never been one to take the easy route. At the Serpentine Gallery, where she previously was the senior curator of public programs, Lees put on the gallery's famed Serpentine Marathons—two full days of events, lectures, and performances. Then, in February, Lees took on an arguably even more demanding role as the new curator of the Frieze Foundation, one of London's top art posts devoted to finding and showcasing the cutting-edge.

Lees's passion for time-based and interdisciplinary art certainly shows in her selections for this year's Frieze Projects, which includes a commissioned stage by Andreas Angelidakis and a playground by Andreas Plessas. We spoke with Lees about her curatorial process, why she seeks out art that asks questions, and what she is most looking forward to at this year's fair.

Ever since your time as senior curator of public events at the Serpentine Gallery, you’ve been known for your interest in interdisciplinary art. This year’s Frieze Projects seems to be a continuation of that specialty in interdisciplinary, performative artworks. Why do you feel creating a dialogue between art forms is important? 

I am interested in artworks that ask more questions than they answer, so I'm drawn toward interdisciplinary practices—but only when it makes sense, when it's asking the right amount of questions, and when there is an organic crossover between the disciplines within the work. This year, Frieze Projects will hopefully bring to light new ways of creating correspondences between disciplines.   

You've said that this year’s projects all deal with the intersection of play, governance, and sovereignty. How did you come upon this interplay of themes? 

I am very interested in the relationship between ritual and play, how ritual provides structures that play destroys. All the projects will take place in one space, designed by Andreas Angelidakis, and I consider that structure to be an island within the fair. Angelidakis's space is the part where sovereignty comes in. I expect that the relationships between Angelidakis's space's sovereignty and the other artists' projects will evolve throughout the week of the fair.

How will the artists interact with Angelidakis's space? 

It's a space that will be reconfigured on a daily basis to highlight one of the projects each day. In that way, each project tends toward having some kind of performance-based element that comes into focus. Some are more straightforward in their sense of performance, others are more subtle.  

Can you describe the general process of selecting the works that appear in this year’s Frieze Projects? 

As a curator, I always make many studio visits and initiate conversations with many artists. In the case of Frieze Projects, I was certainly doing all of that. Choosing the artists was a relatively organic process. I started with a larger group, and I ended up working with the people who were able to work within a more specific concept.   

The fact that the performances take place on a stage seems to align the works with theater, an artistic direction that gained widespread attention when Spartacus Chetwynd was nominated for the Turner Prize last year. What do you make of the relationship between theater and art, and how do you intend to explore it in your projects?

I'm not sure if I was really thinking about that as I was curating the program. This year's Frieze Projects are not so much about theater. Instead, they're much more about process and works that don't have a fixed end. However, one of my favorite books is Theater Not Theater.                                                                                                                            

Two of the projects at this year’s Frieze—Emdash Award-winner Pilvi Takala’s work produced by kids and Angelo Plessas’s playground—show a marked interest in children. What intrigues you about this kind of work? 

I'm very interested in expanding audiences, and in particular in Pilvi's project is an effort to move away from the constraints of an "adult" world. Having previously worked in public programs at the Serpentine, I really like opening up conversations, and that's what I really hope Pilvi and Angelo's projects will do.  

Plessas has said that his playground is designed for children aged three through 12. Are adults discouraged from interacting with Plessas’s work? 

No, I want adults to participate because it's a family space. The children will be accompanied by their guardians, who will also be encouraged to participate. 

You’ve said that performative artworks have the tendency to get lost or improperly archived. Could you elaborate? How are you hoping to redress that? 

I don't think that I am alone in thinking this. There is a huge interest in this right now. Lars Bang Larsen has been particularly eloquent on this subject. Personally, to fix this problem, I organized "Deschooling Society," a two-day symposium that I did at the Serpentine. The symposium had so many lecturers that discussed the connections between art and education. I hope raising awareness about the importance of art education will help to make it so that performative artworks don't get lost anymore.

Where did you find your inspiration while curating the projects? 

From the artists! It is an emphatically artist-led program.

What are you most excited for at this year’s fair? 

I am really looking forward to conversations with some of the staff of the younger galleries in the fair, particularly those in the Frame and Focus sections. 


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