SIX years after it was founded, London's Frieze Art Fair is not so much a fair as a three-ring circus,
with the work of about 1,000 artists on show on 165 stands – and the crowds in the tents set up in Regent's Park making navigation around the event difficult.
Trying to shoehorn the event into any single over-riding theme is like trying to pick a trend from the masses of shows at the Fringe. But in this year of recession and insecurity, there is something of a thread, in erased faces and lost selves.
In the fair's sculpture park, Pumpkin 2009, by Erwin Wurm, is a plasticated cartoonish man, his head replaced by a giant pumpkin; inside, Mr and Mrs Cabbage Head, by the artist Simon Popper, shows what the titled describs.
Major artists, including Louise Bourgeois, also seems bent on assaulting the human figure: in The Couple, a silvered man and woman turned slowly from a tree, their heads and torsos spun into a kind of Mr Whippy swirl.
So has Frieze – a barometer for British, international, and, increasingly Scottish contemporary art – taken a sombre turn? Tate director Nicholas Serota is looking at the long term.
He says: "I think over the last five or eight years it's been noticeable that the younger generation of artists has sought to find ways of expressing their views about the economy, about political violence, about wars … There's probably less froth than there was."
Serota was standing by the stand of the Sfeir-Semler Gallery of Beirut, from where the Tate had just secured a miniature concrete landmark, Monument for the Living. One of six works bought by the Tate from a special contemporary works fund, the piece is a 1:200 scale model of a famous unfinished skyscraper on the border between East and West Beirut, used by snipers on both sides. The icon of no-man's land is by Lebanese sculptor, Marwan Rechmaoui.
But why should the Scottish art fraternity be interested in a London fair? Founded in 2003, Frieze has become the UK's leading gathering for the contemporary art scene, drawing galleries from Beijing, Dubai and New York – and this year five from Scotland.
The latest addition is Edinburgh's Ingleby Gallery, joining Doggerfisher, also from the capital, and Mary Mary, Sorcha Dallas, and The Modern Institute in Glasgow.
Two Scottish artists represented by those galleries, Lucy Skaer and Richard Wright, are currently showing in the Turner Prize shortlist exhibition. The Scottish presence at Frieze includes the Turner winner Martin Creed, commissioned to carry out a dance project. The striking Scottish artist Charles Avery has work in two stands.
Elsewhere, the VIP rooms of Deutsche Bank, the fair's main sponsor, are plastered with the photographs of Thomas Struth, famous for his giant jungle pictures. He will be plying his trade in Edinburgh early next year as part of the Randolph Cliff fellowship programme.
Ingleby's offerings at Frieze this year range from pieces by Callum Innes to three new paintings from Alison Watt – smaller versions of her large fabric paintings – priced at up to 16,000.
Richard Ingleby says: "Why would a gallery come to Frieze? In terms of the UK it is the one art fair type event that guarantees a huge international audience."
Frieze has also become the hook for a run of museum and gallery openings and rival fairs across London galleries, including a solo show by Rosalind Nashashibi, another Scottish artist, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. .
"It's a no-brainer, if you can afford to write the cheque and get in," says Ingleby. He has already sold several works; on the opening day, visitors strolling by have ranged from writers Colm Tobin and Andrew O'Hagan to Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, whose partner, Dasha Zhukova, runs a modern art gallery in Moscow. Other celebrities touring the stands have included singer Lily Allen and actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
Away from the glamour, there are practicalities to consider: even a small stand at Frieze can cost 15,000, a major one closer to 50,000. One or two big sales can pay the bills, but last year's fair, in the throes of the economic crash, saw nerves running high. Estimates for price falls in the contemporary art market, which surged in the boom years, have ranged from 20 per cent to more than 60 per cent.
But while it may be a buyer's market, there's a sense that the panic has subsided. However, you won't find a dealer at Frieze willing to admit to a reporter that prices have even softened.
Damien Hirst is cited as someone who rode the crest – and may see a backlash; his new paintings at a London exhibition were panned this week. But at White Cube, the gallery of Hirst and Tracey Emin, his work Night of the Long Knives – steel-glass cabinets filed with rows of surgical tools – is priced at 2.5 million.
Another Frieze project, however, is a studio where American artist Stephanic Syjuco leads a team making instant, cheeky, and cheap reproductions of works selling nearby for tens of thousands of pounds.
Scottish art collectors will be keeping a close eye on works like the new-style portraits by Edinburgh artist Moyna Flannigan, on Doggerfisher's stand. The sea-green surroundings of her faces and figures suggest she has almost taken her characteristic people and portraits and put them on the ocean floor.
And The Modern Institute's strong showcase this year ranges from painted cutlery knives to stunning collages by Tony Swain to Jim Lambie's Mirror Chair, sold for 35,000.
The gallery's Toby Webster says 22 pieces have been sold so far this year. "Everyone's lost the 'fear factor'," he said. "It seems more relaxed, people focussing on what they like."
• The Frieze Arts Fair continues until 18 October.