By Alex Novak
Only in Miami could this kind of insanity be bred and nurtured. Just think about the title for the main fair itself: Art Basel Miami. How often do you name a fair with two separate locations that are continents apart? Nonetheless, Miami's "Main Event" for the art world packs them in and wows the dollars, pesos and euros out of the pockets of tens of thousands of high (and low) level collectors and curators. With over 40,000 visitors, 8,500 VIPs, 100 museum groups and 200+ exhibitors showing over 1,500 different artists, Art Basel Miami has easily become the contemporary art show to beat in the U.S., and perhaps the world, especially with all the additional satellite activity attached to this show, which runs the second week of December.
The fifth iteration of this mania (Art Basel Miami was launched in December 2002 after being delayed the first year by 9/11) seemed to go all out to prove it was wilder and more adventurous than its older sibling in sedate Switzerland--and I am not just talking about the artwork on display. From an exhibition of chickens and eggs (live, stuffed, glass, etc.) to artist striptease performance art to battling electric fans to a pack of Camel's cigarettes suspended from a conveyor-like system, you were sure to have your senses blasted, confused and overloaded. At one point I stopped at a diagram of what I thought was the show floor to orient myself, only to realize that it was actually a piece of art. Artists were even creating and selling copies of VIP passes ($500 each) and fake directions to the fair. It was that kind of reality. Duchamp, Magritte and Mariën would all feel very comfortable here. At one booth, the artist was also selling a bottle of his own Vodka along with the blowup of a old photograph of his family around the corpse of a young girl. At $18,500 for such a somber work, a stiff drink was probably in order. Oh, and did I mention the human-size ducks in a bathroom doing various things one might do in such a facility? By the way, this installation (Richard Jackson's Ducks in the Men's Room) was sold in a day for $150,000 by mega-gallery Yvon Lambert to a major French collector.
And if the actuality was bizarre, the media coverage of the event was worse. Even the usually staid and sophisticated New York Times and Art Newspaper seemed to be more enamored with the high-flying antics of the celebrities, collectors and dealers and those stripping performance artists than with the artwork on display. Independent bloggers and writers devoted even more attention to who was there and what everyone was doing (to and with each other) and wearing, rather than what was up on the walls and in the booths. It was as if Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood were providing the coverage.
I will try to ignore most of this kind of embarrassing frivolity in this report. My apologies to the gossip hungry among you. Sorry, no mention of actor Dennis Hopper, rapper Jay-Z, pop singer Beyonce, actor Keanu Reeves, hip-hop legend Kanye West, mogul Steven A. Cohen (and, no, we are not talking about the Photo Miami show manager and photo dealer), actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and her ancient hubbie Michael Douglas, or Peaches (the electro-punk singer, not the fruit). After her singing performance on the beach during the fair, the latter stripped down to her underwear to take a dip in the Atlantic followed by a good chunk of her audience. Some thought it was the best performance art of the week. Of course, reportedly Dita von Teese's striptease performance at the Delano Hotel riding a mechanical bull made to look like a giant lipstick (if that's what it was) certainly topped the more sedate version by Ms. Peaches.
Actually my own late night partying was somewhat limited, although I did have a pleasant dinner with Dallas collector Mark Jacobs and friends at Tantra's, a restaurant which has real grass for a floor and shows Bollywood movies. The food was quite good though. Afterwards we went to Rain, a defunct night club reincarnated for the few days of the fair by the Paris auction house Artcurial. I had been invited by the Artcurial photography expert, Gregory Leroy. We were joined there by my three French women friends--Cecile, Marie and Sandrine. The club featured a live French band and karaoke. It was packed and crazy, like the rest of the week, but also a lot of fun. I also learned what a Mojito is. My head did not thank me for the information the next morning.
While I will primarily stick to the photography-related art shown here, you can't ignore all the hoopla and insanity of the broader contemporary art market on display, nor should you. Photography today is about full integration into the overall art marketplace--for good or bad. As John Baldessari told the Art Newspaper for its Art Basel edition, "I often give the same weight to a word as I would an image. I started by trying to make language relevant as art and then to make photography acceptable as art. I wanted them to be up there, arm-wrestling with painting and not ghettoized, like photography was in photography galleries. I am happy to have been a soldier on the front lines."
While I take issue with Baldessari just a little, I do understand what he means. While photography galleries/dealers are no more limited than painting, sculpture or print galleries/dealers, art should be art, mixed and matched with all its different types of media, which is what makes this kind of event exciting--the interplay. I am particularly enthusiastic about the mixture of media that is now coming out of unusual places such as China. More on that later.
Of course this event is not only about Art Basel Miami, but all the many other fairs (even those "ghettos" that Baldessari referred to), parties and events spread out all over Miami's design district and South Beach.
I started out with Art Basel Miami itself. Those photography dealers' names that some of my readers might recognize included New Yorkers' Howard Greenberg, Edwynn Houk (his first time at Art Basel Miami), Canadian Jane Corkin and Berlin's Rudolf Kicken.
Kicken had what I thought to be one of the most professional and intriguing booths of this fair. He readily mixed Between-the-Wars masterwork collages (in a blackened "cabinet") with large-scale contemporary work by Helmut Newton (a Big Nude, which sold opening night) and Dieter Appelt, along with smaller temptations, such as a collection of shoe images by Sasha Stone. The Appelt was a huge and powerful multi-image collage of the Forth Bridge--one of my favorite contemporary photography pieces of the fair. Kicken's B-T-W work included such rarities as one of only four known distortions by August Sander, original collages by Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky and Rodchenko, and two very fine and important vintage prints by Andre Kertesz ("The Fork" and "Satiric Dancer"). Not surprisingly, Kicken told me that he had his strongest opening here ever. If I only saw this booth, it would have been worth the trip to Miami. It was also a good example of the mixing and counterpoint of pertinent vintage and contemporary work that the best booths and shows now mix with ever great fluidity.
Art Basel Miami actually promotes this mix of old and new with its "Art Kabinett" concept. Galleries can apply for it with a specific curatorial concept and are selected for this special "feature" by a jury. Selected exhibitors get an extra page in the catalogue and a good booth location in order to be able to build a special exhibition space within their booth. In order to educate the public about specific historical art contexts, etc., the fair management encourages exhibitors to make a special effort with a section of their booth that is devoted to a specific historical theme. There are also guided tours at the fair that concentrate on the art cabinets (16 or so), which are spread out all over the fair halls.
Rudolf and Annette Kicken told me afterwards: "We did very well at the fair. It was our fourth year as exhibitors there, and we did better every year. Even though sales were frantic and we could have had even more staff in the booth (we had four already!), we did not get the impression that the business done at the show was 'unhealthy' or only a 'hype'. Sales were made to a very varied group--old collectors we have been working with for years, new collectors, institutions etc. We sold very expensive masterpieces, as well as modestly priced artworks; avant-garde material from the 1920s and 30s, as well as contemporary work. It seemed to us that the situation on the market as presented in Miami was well balanced."
Annette Kicken also applauded the show management, saying "the fair management of the Basel and Basel Miami fair is simply the best--very efficient, highly service oriented and perfectionist. So the service for the exhibitors is outstanding."
By the way, the Kicken Gallery is celebrating its 30th anniversary with an exhibition selected by Janos Frecot, one of Europe’s leading photography curators. For "30 Years. A Curator's Choice" Frecot decided to select 30 photographs from the gallery’s inventory, drawing not only on works by such celebrated photographers as Eugene Atget, Diane Arbus, Helmut Newton, Umbo and Wols but also on photographs by lesser known artists, among them forgotten figures of the Bauhaus era and contemporary photographers like Joachim Brohm. The exhibit runs until February 17th at the Kicken Berlin gallery at Linienstr. 155.
Edwynn Houk had a stunning Man Ray nude (with an equally stunning price), plus some great Brassai's, although the prices on those seemed to have risen after the recent French auction. His rare and famous photograph by Annie Liebowitz of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in bed caught a lot of attention. But the contemporary work of Elinor Carucci and Robert Polidori were also standouts here. Polidori was featured at a number of booths in Miami. He is one of the current "hot" image-makers.
I chatted a bit with Howard Greenberg. His Hiro flower in four parts was spectacular but the edition was unfortunately sold out. Howard also had a great early 1950s Henri Cartier-Bresson, but there was a bit of confusion on the pricing--to say the least, considering the quoted price was less than I recall him paying for it at auction. But he seemed to be doing a brisk business from the booth, which featured some great stuff as usual.
Jane Corkin had a vintage large-scale Barbara Astman chromogenic print of a woman with kitchen utensils in red and black from the 1980s that really knocked me out. She also was selling William Christenberry's small vintage color prints like hotcakes. At 70 and still at the peak of his artistic power, he is an artist that is clearly underrated and underpriced. Corkin was one of many dealers who mixed painting and photography, vintage and contemporary, in a way more and more typical.
Of course, many of those attending were also focusing their attention on the contemp art mega dealers (all of whom have artists who utilize photography), such as Robert Miller, Larry Gagosian, Yvon Lambert, Sonnabend, Barbara Gladstone, Metro Pictures, Marian Goodman, White Cube and Matthew Marks.
German dealer Spruth-Magers shared a large booth with New York City's Metro Pictures. They had a huge and spectacular Andreas Gursky of a manipulated ski slope. The cost was $400,000, which wasn't that bad for a Gursky of this size and strength, considering that price is about his current auction level for similar prints. And, here is a bit of breaking news: Gursky will release new work in February for the first time in two years.
I actually tried to buy a photograph here, but it was by another German artist, Nina Pohl, whose swirling, high contrast multiple imagery of trees and swarms of birds was entrancing. But, alas, the last one of the very small edition size (the print wasn't small; it took up the entire oversized wall height) had been placed on hold just before me, and when the dealer called the collector, they did indeed purchase it. While I was in this booth, someone actually tried to sit on a piece of sculpture that looked a bit like a free-form bench. The dealer did go a bit crazy for a moment. Again, reality and art seemed to blend together.
One booth had the entire space devoted to two fans pointed at each other with a Mylar ring floating between them, which one of the young gallery assistants had to constantly readjust so that it didn't fall on the floor or get shredded by one of the fans. The price? A mere $28,000 (or was it euros?). I offered to go and buy two fans and some papier-mâché for a ring at the local Wal-Mart and only charge them a thousand or two. They were not amused. At the price of a booth here, they would have to sell quite a few of these expensive fans.
Even stranger was a booth that had a conveyor-like system with a fish line down to a pack of Camel's cigarettes by the artist Urs Fischer. The pack moved in wide swoops through the booth space often getting tangled up in the hair and clothing of visitors. The dealer Gavin Brown was quoted as being more concerned that a maintenance worker would throw out the pack of cigarettes than with the object being stolen. By the way, the price was just $160,000 each, and the gallery sold two of them at the show.
A lot of these kinds of pieces seemed to be just a way to gain publicity for the galleries and artists involved and position them both as being very cutting edge. And the ploy worked, as network TV and the print media all reported on these two exhibits.
Surprisingly some of the bigger names had some of the most boring images. I was not really impressed with the images at Gagosian or neighbor Yvon Lambert. One of the images that Lambert showed was a rather mediocre photograph by Nan Goldin of two men kissing--I guess for the "shock" value. Frankly, it wasn't shocking, just boring. Goldin has done much better work than this, and Lambert has shown better work than this.
In a way, it was startling how little truly shock-worthy art was up on the walls of Art Basel Miami itself. Most pieces were quite saleable and relatively conservative--even the sillier pieces, of which the only things shocking were the price tags. Where was the power, the innovation? Well, maybe outside these halls.
Sonnabend Gallery had some ok Candida Hoffer's up on the wall and in the portfolios. She is hot at the moment and I like some of her images, but I find that her work can be a little too "Architectural Digest", even though she is technically excellent. The current prices here reflected her recent auction run-ups. She had been underpriced, but not so much now.
Robert Miller Gallery reportedly sold a large-scale Lee Krasner for $1.8 million; plus two Alice Neals at $275,000 and $350,000, respectively; and a Diane Arbus for $360,000. But this was at the upper extreme of sales here.
White Cube had work by the English photographer Sam Taylor-Wood, whose photographs deal with issues of truth and vulnerability. I like some of her work, but the pictures sometimes seemed too finished, too commercial and illustrative.
I moved on to South Beach's spread of hotel shows, where collectors hopped from small hotel room to room. I found most of these vaunted small hotel shows were pretty messy and unprofessional affairs, although there were some rare bright spots in these hotel rooms/galleries, where the usual viewing conditions were poor at best. It reminded me of hunting at the little table-top photography shows, with their hotel room viewing the night before. Unfortunately, the material found at these shows seemed less interesting than that seen when I was starting out in photography collecting. At times I felt like I should have brought along a flashlight, like at those late evening hotel room viewings and pre-dawn flea markets of my earlier years.
I bumped into Chicago AIPAD dealer Catherine Edelman at one of them. I think it was at "Bridge"--but these small exhibitions all blended together after awhile. She had some great pieces on display in a tiny room with most of the images just propped up on the wall ledges or flat on the bed. The images did supersede the viewing conditions. The Photoshopped images by Julie Blackmon were simply wonderful, but my favorites were sold out and/or selling out quickly. I also liked the dreamlike images by the French team of Clark & Pougnaud. As Catherine describes them on her website, "They started working together in 1998, mixing photography and painting with digital help. Miniature sets and paintings are made and photographed in their studio in Paris as well as the shooting of the models. Digital retouching comes along in order to place the models in their settings. The result is strange but probable. It is not anymore a photo, not a painting, and the settings have lost their scale."
Clearly, this may have been the year of digital manipulation, as Photoshopped images have taken off and gotten much better--and much subtler. No longer the poor step-child, these images are taking the photography art market by storm. Not only did Andreas Gursky's manipulated "99-cent" set two world auction records in quick succession this past year, but I also saw many very strong examples of such work here in Miami, which I will discuss throughout this article.
At Aqua, the biggest and probably the best of these hotel shows, I saw San Francisco's Limn Gallery, which showed a very fine selection of Chinese paintings, sculpture and photography. I particularly liked the photography of Lin Tianmiao. She started off over 10 years ago with mixed media installations, and her work was featured in the seminal show "Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China", which was exhibited at the ICP in New York and the V&A in London. As with much of Chinese photography, the images here at Aqua were focused on a performance. Mio actually created futuristic outfits for the performers and set her theatrical players in bizarre landscapes, calling to mind the dilemma of a Chinese past in confrontation with the new technological China. Photoshop also played a part in these startling images, which are a part of a series called "Here or There".
Another of the artists that Limn Gallery presented was Sheng Qi, whose paintings mirrored the styles of several of his contemporaries in a series entitled "A Dedication to My Friends." Qi is more famous though for his photography, including an image that ran on the cover of the ICP catalogue. This photograph again relates to performance art. Qi cut off his own pinkie finger to protest the events at Tiananmen Square. He then photographed his hand with several other images, including holding a picture of a young child.
I spent some time at Limn watching a rare video on a CD of the Gao brothers and their most important art performance, which was sent out of China and, inexplicitly, made its way safely through the Chinese censors. It was fascinating to watch the Gao brothers have to pay participants to take their clothes off and hug each other (seriously) while knowing that the Chinese authorities could (and had at times) bust the performance at any moment. The CD was art onto itself.
I also liked the work in the neighboring room of Portland, OR's Elizabeth Leech Gallery. This gallery is Portland's finest contemporary art gallery, and represents such major lights as John Baldessari, Adam Fuss, Robert and Shana Parke-Harrison, and Robert Rauschenberg; but it was the work of Dinh Q. Lê, a Vietnamese-born artist that really drew my attention. His patient collages of bits of chromogenic photographs made into colored mosaics of commercial and journalistic images with Asian themes are simply a tour de force.
For my taste, it was the real satellite exhibit shows that held most of the excitement of new work, ideas and approaches. With a few bright exceptions, the hotel room stuff was mostly too low brow and kitschy and the Art Basel art too predictable and conservative (despite the occasional publicity whimsy).
Before I get to these shows, let me talk about a few of the trends that I saw here, particularly at these larger exhibitions. Many of these trends have been well underway for some time now, but all still bear mentioning.
As I just noted previously--the use of digital manipulation has broken through and is now helping to produce art that is quite subtle, yet powerful and hypnotic. The mind-numbing six-foot images by Barry Frydlender's of New York City and Israeli streets and scenes are a prime example of manipulated images by this new breed of digital artists. Frydlender combines and blends as many as 50 separate images into a single hyper-real image. More on him and this trend later.
Also, this is a period where exciting new work is coming from unusual places. Asia, and in particular China, is clearly the leader when it comes to producing artists whose innovative approaches are now astounding the marketplace. What I find particularly exciting is how these artists blend several art forms seamlessly into results that are all the stronger for this Gestalt. Most of these relative newcomers are combining the Performing Arts and sculpture with new media, such as photography and video. Even the paintings coming from China are drawing on photography and other media. Artists such as Zhang Huan, the Gao Brothers and Xiao Lu are creating photographs of their performances--or in the case of Xiao Lu, a photographic and emotional response to her original performance--with such power that the work begs the question: Why can't the rest of the world produce such purity and strength of art? These artists took chances--not just commercially--but with their very freedom and lives. Sometimes environment does breed artistic greatness. Sometimes taking real chances does mean better art.
Some in the art field think that the only reason that this work is soaring in price is because this sleeping giant of a market is finally starting to wake up from its hibernation. But I think it is because this work cuts with such emotional and intellectual sharpness across the dull plane of neo-modernism, which often has appeared to have simply surrendered to non-critical mediocrity. After all, it is mostly Westerners who are buying these images, and there is a reason. This new blend of forms made amid the intense political, cultural and social drama in China is exciting and challenging, not boring and commercial--like so much of the art pumped out of (or should I say "copied in") London, Berlin and New York these days. It is felt first, rather than made.
In these works it is easy to recognize something good and new, which leads me to ask whatever happened to critical analysis from curators and even art "critics", who seem to be embarrassed these days to express any real opinion on any piece of art? The vitality in this new work might force the honest ones to admit that much of the garbage hanging on museum walls and in barons of industry's offices is just that--so much refuse with little value except for egoist games. This work is revolutionary on many levels.
Adding emphasis to this trend and during the very week of Art Basel Miami, Phillips de Pury announced that it will sell 41 works of art by contemporary Chinese artists from a private collection, thought to be Italian, with an estimated value of $2.1-$3.1 million. Apparently it will be the largest auction ever of contemporary Chinese art from a single-owner collection and the sale will be held in London on February 6th.
I don't want to make it seem that only the Chinese are producing great art. Many Europeans artists are also producing stimulating and engaging work. Most of them are coming from outside Germany and England, whose artists now often seem to be too ingrown and comfortable with imitation rather than innovation. I saw excellent work being made by French, Slovenian, Dutch and Belgian artists. There are, of course, exceptions. I am just looking at the overall trends.
Finally, as the Art Newspaper put it, this may be the year of the return of the mannequin or the human figure, although there were still many artists working with other subject matters exhibiting work here. Certainly I saw much more work with the human figure than normal at a contemporary fair; and, thank god, it was not (usually, at least) the Germanic snapshot-like portraits or Photoshop blown-up heads of children that have been so ridiculously popular, but now look so dated, so last year. Maybe it isn't quite yet a raging current, but there is more of the human figure being incorporated into contemporary art pieces, even if the best of it owes its due to Chinese performance art.
Back to the exhibit shows. I had partnered up with a young German couple from Stuttgart who had needed some space at my table for breakfast at the hotel. After hitting it off at breakfast, they offered to drive me over with them to the shows. One of the couple, Anja Klafki, is actually a very talented graphics artist whose large prints were being shown at Scope at Umtrieb-Galerie für aktuelle Kunst (a real mouthful of a name), so our first stop was there. My thanks to her and her patient husband, who claimed he was the equivalent of a German boy scout, but was constantly getting lost. Our joke was that he needed to find a tree with moss on it to get his bearings--something difficult to do in sunny Miami.
Scope had resurrected itself this year in a park as a tented 40,000 sq. ft. pavilion. The set-up was rather chaotic. I felt that I was walking on the deck of a boat, but, nonetheless, there was a liveliness here that seemed to be missing at all the other events. There was also more of a sense of the weird here. You could give a pint of blood and get a print, for example. Performance artists wandered the aisles (you got the impression of something more akin to a circus at times). You could get a massage at "The Gallery is the Massage" (sponsored by exhibitor Curator's Office), although most of the 20 or 30-somethings running this show probably wouldn't even understand that McLuhanesque rip-off. There was a crashed bus where one could see holographic representations of out-of-body near-death experiences. Then there was the full-size Styrofoam Hummer (yes, the car). And finally there was the Vietnamese/Thai Queen Bee Snake Bar and Tea Room, which certainly served the most interesting food at any of these events. Of course, there were also the exhibitors themselves.
Like a lot of the hotel room venues, Scope had a mix of good and poorly done art. Many of the booths looked slipshod and poorly designed, but that may have come from the tent facility itself, which was a last-minute choice, apparently. A number of dealers told me that their booth dimensions and placements had changed dramatically, and they found out only after they had actually arrived in Miami. Despite all that, this was an interesting event, and I found some extremely intriguing work here.
Some of the best photographic art, in my opinion, was that of Barry Frydlender at New York City gallery Andrea Meislin's booth. I have already expressed some of my enthusiasm for his large-scale color photographs, which are priced at $25,000 each for the largest size. But I am apparently not alone. Peter Galassi of New York's Museum of Modern Art has reportedly scheduled an exhibition of Frydlender's Israeli images, and Sandra Phillips at San Francisco MoMA has bought several of his pieces. I particularly liked the two New York images up on the wall, especially "Pastis, New York, 2006", which was made up of a large number of images sewn together in Photoshop. His Israeli woman, a portrait of one woman but made again from a large number of individual photographs put together to make something greater than the whole, was also a favorite. His work seemed to me to be like a successful cubist approach to reality--somehow showing all sides, all elements at the same time. Another photographer at Andrea's booth that I admired was Leora Laor. Her dark, but human-inhabited landscapes were fascinating.
At Madrid's Galeria Begoña Malone I viewed the large-scale (40 x 50 in.) color work of Slovenian artist Primož Bizak. While his images of night-time Venice were very strong, it was his haunting Sarajevo No.4, Kosovo, 2006 that stays with me: the cemetery that used to be a soccer field eerily lit, with each pointed headstone representing another life wasted by war and sectarian strife. It was one of the most powerful anti-war images that I have seen recently. This 30-year-old photographer now lives and works in Madrid and Venice. Begoña, the delightful owner of this gallery, tells me that the market for art is growing quickly in Spain and Madrid, and that she had sold several of Bizak's pieces at Scope.
New York's Krampf Gallery was showing the sculpture and photographs of the Gao Brothers, one of the best of the new Chinese artists. The Gao brothers, like other performing artists here, photograph and film their performances. The results are magical.
At the booth of Los Angeles-based De Soto gallery it was large-scale color images once again--this time by Trujillo Paumier. Paumier's marvelous night-time photograph of a spinning Ferris wheel of color, which was called "Hotcakes" after the stand sitting at the foreground of the picture, is a show-stopper. And gallery owner Shelley de Soto knew exactly what she was doing choosing it for this fair.
At 31 Grand, I liked the "Children of the Corn" quality of Christa Parravani's Kiss (two white robed women in a sinister-looking cornfield).
New York dealer Bryce Wolkowitz (late of Christie's photography department) had some interesting digital video-related imagery in his booth. But he was so busy in the booth that we only got to say a quick hello.
There was indeed good traffic here, as there was at Pulse, my next stop.
Pulse seemed to be as busy as Scope, but a bit better organized and with more universally professional booths and artwork.
New York's Julie Saul Gallery featured the manipulated photographs of Didier Massard, a Frenchman. To quote the gallery, "Didier Massard is a magician of invention within the genre of fabricated photographs. His series are conceived from his imagination while drawing from our collective romantic and touristic notions of nationality and place. His exotic locales created in his studio have evoked Ireland, China, India, Holland the cliffs of Normandy. Massard works for long periods on each of these tableaux, and ruminates that 'each image is the completion of an inner imaginary journey.' Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times 'color and space combine with fastidious detail to create a sense of illusion and artifice that is more usual to painting, Magic Realist painting in particular...one's willingness to suspend disbelief is a measure of Massard's skill.'" His "Artificial Paradise" (three trees in a waterlogged landscape) was astounding. Again, we see more and more use of Photoshop.
At Senda Galeria, I saw some Roger Ballon black and white photos. His work was popping up at all different venues here, including some booths at Art Basel Miami itself. His quirky imagery reminds me a bit of Ralph Meatyard's work. Good stuff.
At Brussels and Paris gallery Les Filles du Calvaire, I was much taken with the work of a Dutch artist, Ellen Kooi, whose manipulated color photographs had a mysterious feel and attraction to them. I probably should have bought "Twins" when I had the opportunity. Her new book "Out There" is a good one to pick up.
After I left Les Filles du Calvaire's booth and started to walk down the aisle, I found myself confronted by one of the most powerful works that I had yet seen at these fairs. "Open Fire" by Xiao Lu and photographed by Li SongSong just floored me. On the wall there were only three image/sculptures of the full installation of 15. These were life-size photographs of a young Chinese woman facing directly into the camera and pointing a gun. The images were in shadow boxes with pieces of plate glass over them and shattered bullet holes dead center. The first image was dark, the second less so, and the third mostly faded away.
I knew nothing of the artist or the work or what it meant. I could only feel the power as it struck me. The small label near the work said that it was being presented by the gallery in a nearby booth. Michelle Cheng, the young Chinese-American woman, manning the booth of Ethan Cohen Fine Arts was polite and helpful, despite being bombarded by many questions about objects and images in the booth at the same time she was trying to answer my questions. The booth focused on Chinese art. She gave me an accordion-style pamphlet on the work, which included two essays and a biography on the artist and photographs relating to the work.
In 1989, Xiao Lu fired two bullets into her art installation "Dialogue" just two hours after the opening of the China Avant-Garde exhibition in the National Art Museum of China. Since she shot at the mirrored portion of the installation, it can be argued that this was a symbolic form of suicide.
The gunshots shook the Chinese art world, the museum and the world at large. The "performance" was considered the most important event at the show, and it was covered in virtually all the world's media at the time. As Gao Minglu, the chairman of the preparatory committee for the exhibition, wrote later, "It can be seen as the most influential combination of installation and performance in Chinese contemporary art history, and as one of the most important emblematic works in that history. Because of its importance, it is mentioned in nearly every book on Chinese contemporary art history, Chinese and foreign."
As a consequence of the shootings, Xiao Lu was arrested and put in the Dongcheng District Jail. Fifteen years later as a virtual extension or closure of that performance, she was photographed by Li SongSong pointing a 54 pistol directly at the camera. The next day Xiao Lu took 15 framed works (actually 75 in the full edition of 5) to a shooting range and fired a 77 pistol at each one of her own images.
Here is what the artist herself says about her work: "I am no good at theoretical explanations, and even worse at talking about art, all I know is real life. As a work, its form, for me, is just an internal necessity. It can be a painting or a poem. Perhaps it requires a gun. All of this is decided by your own psychological tendencies, your disposition. This is not anything that can be explained by the word 'art', but rather a survival instinct, your very life."
"Open Fire" was the single most moving, revolutionary piece of art that I saw all week. Its drama is undeniable, and its psychological complexity and importance serve notice on a jaded art world.
It would be unfair to say that the rest of Pulse was an anticlimax. I was pleased to see new work by Ed Burtynsky at two booths at this fair--Charles Cowles Gallery and Nicholas Metitivier Gallery. The oeuvre of Burtynsky continues to develop. His Chinese shipbuilding images from Qili Port, Zhejiang Province are as stunning as his earlier ship breaking photographs from Bangladesh. His new work from Amarc Air Force Base of the airplane graveyard is also very strong.
We bid farewell to Pulse and moved on to Photo Miami, a brand new fair focused only on contemporary photography. I had visited previously, so this second visit gave me a more in-depth impression.
It was a clean, well organized looking show--from that perspective, the best outside of Art Basel Miami itself. But it also had a lot of first-year jitters: a last-minute change in venue to a location in a particularly tough part of the Design district, facilities problems including broken sewer pipes, a catalogue that was a joke (no photographs!), advertising that had the opening night reception off by two days, and an address that was at the unmarked side of the building instead of at the entrance (I almost gave up the first time when my taxi driver told me the blank building was the address I had given him).
The biggest problem though was a simple lack of audience, although exhibitors did note that the level of those attending was very high and many of the dealers reported good sales here. Attendance continued to climb during the week.
All of these start-up problems can and probably will be dealt with the next time around.
The show itself and much of its art looked quite strong to me, although a French friend of mine told me that he had already seen most of the images and dealers before at Paris Photo and other European shows. Yes, it was surprisingly VERY Euro-centric, but then the selection committee was also heavily weighted in that direction. But for me, it was refreshing.
There was a lot here to admire, and the art that I might not like, others obviously did.
Again, for me, some of the most exciting work came from the Chinese. Michael Goedhuis of Goedhuis Contemporary, whose galleries in New York, London and Beijing focus on Chinese art of all types, offered some wonderful, emotional eye candy. Zheng Lianjie's "Binding the Lost Souls: Memory Loss, 1993" was a striking work with a red scarf covered head dominating a view of a section of the Great Wall. Ann Tucker, photography curator for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and I admired the work together.
The Chinese are also using Photoshop, or its Chinese equivalent to manipulate images. Goedhuis also showed some of this work here, including Cui Xiuwen's popular anime-styled photographs of multiple images of the same Chinese girl. I particularly liked one called Angel No.4, but I believe it is now sold out. Another image manipulator was Xing Danwen, whose Urban Ficion series made it difficult to tell what was real and what was created from virtual pixels.
Goedhuis also displayed his Chinese paintings and larger photographs in a show entitled "The Young Mandarins, 2006" in the elegant Mandarin Hotel lobby during the week. Several major works sold, including a large painting, "Chinese Portrait", by Feng Zhengjie for a reported $50,000.
At Berlin's Galerie Caprice Horn (Dr. Horn headed up the exhibitor selection committee here, which did an exemplary job), I loved the quixotic images by Sveinn Fannar Johannsson, especially "Das rote Zimmer". The surrealist scene shows one woman pouring out a liquid directly on to a small table, while another woman is passed out on a nearby couch, while three men in a back room look like they are getting ready to play music. Other images from this series also reflect an almost comic unreality.
I also have to mention two other artists here: Daniel and Geo Fuchs, whose playful close-ups of old toys, including Batman, were fun to see. I met the German couple over--where else--breakfast at my hotel. I even met their muse and inspiration for this work, a toy collector who was also attending the fairs. The concept of six-degrees of separation shrinks down dramatically at such events. By the way, they are also represented by AIPAD dealer Stephen Bulger, who was also exhibiting here.
At Stephen Bulger's booth, most 19th-century collectors might have felt at home--at least at first glance. Mark Ruwedel's Western landscape work mirrored that of early pioneers, such as Andrew Russell, William H. Jackson and Charles Savage--even to the printed titles in the bottom margins.
At Flowers I found some new Robert Polidori images of the New Orleans destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the ineptitude of various government entities. I also liked Ed Burtynsky's China work, and Steve Pyke's photographs, whose human face close-ups were very strong.
Charles Guice Contemporary featured Carrie May Weems' powerful old and new work in its booth. Weems' slavery composites are important and rare, and I wish I had the money to buy them. She also made an appearance at the booth during the fair, but unfortunately I was not around to meet her.
At Scottsdale's Lisa Sette Gallery I liked the work of an artist called RES. The photographs resembled an updated color version of William Mortensen's pictorialism, but somehow it was all very contemporary. I have also always liked the work of Moroccan photographer Lalla Essadi. Her almost monotone (although they are color) images of women cloaked in Arabic caligraphy have a calming, almost hypnotic effect.
London's HackelBury Fine Art showed Mike & Doug Starn's Leaf, which they apparently sold for about $35,000. Stephen Ingss' silver prints of every day items also did well for them here at just under $4,000 each.
Tucson photo dealer Terry Etherton, who was just visiting like myself, and I debated about buying a new lithographed portfolio of Massimo Vitali's work from Brancolini Grimaldi Arte Contemporanea (another mouthful of a name), but in the end they couldn't deliver it in a reasonable time frame. The portfolio was pretty tempting though, and I am sure you will see lots of these prints sold individually on the secondary market--cheap and good for decorating.
There were lots of other images here that I thought were quite well done. This may have been Artfairs best show ever in terms of the look and quality of the average dealer. I seriously think though that Photo Miami should take a page out of the Art Basel group and consider top flight 19th and 20th-century "cabinets" to illustrate historical precedents to this contemporary work to put it all in context. Atget's documentary photography still provides influence today. Contemporary artists such as Adam Fuss and Vic Muniz collect early 19th-century images as inspiration to their own work. The Dadaists and Surrealists are imitated freely by many of today's contemporary artists.
Besides the fine galleries here, there were some publications exhibiting at Photo Miami. This is where I met Susan Zadeh, publisher of Amsterdam-based "Eyemazing". If you want to get the most interesting, sensual and beautiful contemporary art photography publication in the world, you should contact Zadeh. She has been publishing the magazine for just over three years. Ok, the name of the publication isn't tremendous, but the thick, oversized and lushly printed color magazine is. I am not often impressed these days with print media (some call it dead media), but the work in this Dutch publication (although the editorial is entirely in English) is startling and not for the faint of heart. Published quarterly, this is work you probably will not see everywhere, but it is selected with surprising restraint and a critical eye. Intermixed are excellent and intelligent interviews with key artists, curators and dealers.
If you really want to know what is happening out there with contemporary art photography and to see some of the most cutting edge images currently being made, then you should subscribe to this publication. The price for Europeans is 99 euros and for America and the rest of the world it is 119 euros. A true bargain, believe me. You may also want to buy the back issues at the same time, while you still have the opportunity. They are sure to eventually be collectors items. You can call from the U.S. or Canada at 011-31-205-84-92-50 or send a fax with your credit card information to 011-31-205-84-92-01. Or you can email the magazine at email@example.com
. You can preview a bit of the latest publication at their website at http://www.eyemazing.com
. New subscribers get a limited edition DVD by Masbedo, a work of video art in itself. By the way, this is not an ad, just my personal enthusiasm for the publication.
I didn't get to see some of the other shows, such as NADA (I understand it was well organized and designed, but the material was erratic) and Design Miami, nor Art Positions (actually on the beach in containers that leaked sand). But then one can never see everything at such far-flung events. Art Basel Miami did live up to its hedonistic reputation. Perhaps next year I will see you down there. After all, the beach at about 70-80 degrees is not very hard to take during December. As for the rest, well…
Likewise, Santa Monica's beaches will be a great break from winter's chill this month, so I hope to see many of you there at Photo LA on January 18-21. Contemporary Works / Vintage Works, Ltd. will be in booth 31, just to the right as you come in the entrance. Now that AIPAD has moved its dates to the spring, this will be the biggest photography event of the winter.