Category Archives: Middle East

What would you do with $250 million?

Card PlayersAccording to ArtWorld Salon contributor Alexandra Peers, in an article for Vanity Fair online, the Royal Family of Qatar has celebrated a decade of high profile Art buying by spending that amount on the last of Cezanne’s Card Players.  (The painting was purchased from the estate of the late Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos.)  That is quite a number, and a new record for the highest price paid for a single work of Art.  You could pay for the entire budget of the Museum Of Modern Art in New York for almost two years with that sum.

And what else?  I started to wonder.  Here is my quick list.  In January 2012, US$ 250 million buys:-

1 Cezanne
10 decent sized mansions in the Hamptons
100 upper-middle class family homes in Beijing
1000 Ferrari 458 Italia Coupes in Rome
10,000 Ducati 1199S motorcycles in Paris
100,000 complete (3 yr) high school educations including accommodation, food and healthcare in Lhasa, Tibet
5,000,000 milking goats in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
50,000,000 egg-laying chickens in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Interesting, no?   So let me ask you again.   What would you do with $250 million?

An artist speaks out against neo-orientalism

orientalismIn the wake of the October auctions in London, Kamrooz Aram wrote a piece about the appendage of “Arab and Iranian” artists to Sotheby’s sale of Contemporary Art (full disclosure: I assisted Aram in the editing of his piece and ushered it up online).  Aram rightly points out that this was of course not the first time an auction house or other outlets have used ethnicity as a means to promote a broad spectrum of art works which might otherwise bear no connection to one another; nevertheless, it was the first time that one of Aram’s works had been put up in such an auction and, as Aram notes, solely as a speculative move, given that the work had been purchased from his gallery only months earlier.  What is more, the notes that accompanied the piece in the auction catalogue demonstrated the persistence of some orientalist perspectives at work in what we might as well call the ‘positioning’ of Aram’s work for sale.

One of the many implications of Aram’s piece is its challenge to the not altogether unfamiliar use of ‘identity’, both questioned and not, as a tool of the market.  ‘Identity’ has been a major theme not only for contemporary art, but for contemporary literature and, indeed, politics itself; and it seems part and parcel of this thematic’s rise that it is, exactly, marketable.  One of the questions then is this: are we witnessing a neo-orientalism in the marketplace?  One that is interested to–as the Sotheby’s auction notes do–keep in play the divide between a modern west and primitive east?  Or is what Aram identifies as neo-orientalism more like a single facet of what someone like Walter Benn Michaels would call neoliberalism in art in general–an art that is itself more interested in identity (i.e who belongs to this or that group) than in class (i.e. who has the money and who doesn’t)?

Dubai on my mind

museumislamicartWithout exception, every person who heard about my recent trip to Dubai asked if I saw a parking lot at the airport filled with abandoned cars left behind by indebted foreign workers. I didn’t. But that powerful image seems to have been indelibly etched into the minds of newspaper-reading Westerners.

I did see many stalled skyscrapers and more than a few unhappy expatriates. Yet for the arts, the economic slowdown, here as elsewhere, presents a more mixed picture. In Dubai, it’s about switching from golden dreams to silver linings. I had an interesting conversation with an arts administrator who is matching up arts groups with empty real estate—just the kind of win-win deals we saw in New York City during our own years of blight. It may be that by suspending its mega-projects, Dubai will leave breathing room for scrappy local arts initiatives to take root and evolve haphazardly and organically. Culture sometimes works in such unpredictable ways.

Elsewhere, there was scant evidence of global financial Armageddon. The Art Dubai fair was, by all accounts, the best so far. It has matured into an indispensable regional fair, with dealers from neighboring countries reporting decent sales. The Global Art Forum conference (where I was a moderator) drew an international A-list crowd and played to a packed house in its lovely tent by the sea. The gigantic luxury hotel complex where these events took place was completely sold out. The Sharjah Biennial, timed to coincide this year with Art Dubai, was widely praised by those who made the short trek to the smaller Emirate east of Dubai. Going in the other direction, Abu Dhabi, sitting on vast oil reserves, is pressing on with huge cultural and educational projects. And in Doha, Qatar’s thriving capital, we were shown around I.M. Pei’s magnificent Museum of Islamic Arts, just the first of several treasure troves occasioned by the epic collecting spree of the local ruling family.

In the Gulf Region, the global crisis has stalled some plans but not others. So the question arises, two years into this downturn: Will all emerging markets and scenes suffer in equal measure? Which regions will experience the greatest setbacks, and which ones will get through this difficult period unscathed?

Dubai postcard

Dubai.jpgThe opening night of this year’s Art Dubai fair culminated in a sit-down dinner for 250 VIPs under a tent at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, hosted by Canvas magazine, a glossy local art publication. The invitation called for “lounge suit/national dress.” The smell of pungent flowers from the hotel’s garden mixed with the aroma of the sea just below. The feast of yellow fin tuna and beef tenderloin was paired with generous pourings of American Zinfandel and, after dessert, sweet Tokaj wine from Hungary. It was at that point that some of the guests approached the stage to perform cover songs of Italian pop tunes from the sixties. Shortly after midnight, as the jazz band launched into a hearty rendition of “Parole, parole, parole,” it was time to go.

Read more of my report in Men’s Vogue about the immense cultural projects in the United Arab Emirates here.

Dissent and its consequences

DISSENT_TERRORISM.jpgOne of the leitmotifs running through much of the chatter about the just-closed fairs and the ongoing Whitney Biennial here in New York has to do with the palpablility of politics, or of political content, or of “commitment,” in contemporary art. The question seems to be one of whether our art should or indeed needs to be more “activist.” And following closely is the question of whether we, as critics, historians, artists and other devotees to the art and culture industries, need to be more “activist” ourselves.

I bring this up because I was reading through a recent special issue of October, the contents of which took the form of myriad responses to a questionnaire on the problem of contemporary political “passivity.” Needless to say, the war in Iraq forms the backdrop for such an inquiry. And the last question of the bunch asked “What, if anything, can be done to make intellectual and artistic opposition to the war more active and effective?”

Responses to this question were understandably–and perhaps understatedly–varied, but one struck me as worth reflection, if not debate. Critical Art Ensemble offered that we, presumably as intellectuals and artists, must “be more daring and less afraid,” and then they continued with, “losing a job, being beaten, or going to jail isn’t the worst that can happen.”

I must confess that this bit caught me up. To be sure, CAE’s list is aimed at increasing the numbers of those who would choose to man the (police) barricades in demonstrations of resistance to our current administration’s asinine execution of a debatable foreign policy. But I imagine for many people, and not only in the U.S., these three actions are indeed and exactly the worst that can happen to a human being, especially given the rather sinister way in which their combination has become a hallmark of the war on terror: think extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo.

It occurs to me that only someone who has never lost a job (upon which daily survival depends), been beaten (and so by it lost, say, an eye, or the ability to walk), or gone to jail (without recourse to a legal defense) would think these potential returns for dissent something less than “the worst that can happen.” Nevertheless, the question remains, if opposition and activism is the goal, how does one “be more daring” and of what should we be “less afraid”?

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, post-Krens?

This thought in from Steven Kaplan in Manhattan

Thomas Krens will step down after nearly twenty years as director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and the search for his successor has officially begun. This announcement is barely two days old, but the art pundits are already circling like hawks high above the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, gliding over the thermal gradients for indications of future trends, while also hunting smaller anecdotal tidbits to feast upon.

If the age of Krens is soon to recede in our collective rear view mirror, how will it be remembered? As a period when the establishment of a coherent aesthetic identity for the museum took a back seat to the art of the deal? When international franchising and corporate sponsorship became overriding determinants of exhibition content? When fashion, architecture and other borrowed interests reigned at the expense of the art itself? Or did Krens manage to create a system of patronage and power that will endure? Was he in fact a visionary, an advocate of his own peculiar manifest destiny: always expanding, always seeking out new funding, always ready to open his doors if the price was right, while placing greater and greater financial demands upon his board of trustees, who perhaps finally had
no choice but to mutiny?

Gehry_Guggenheim_Abu_Dhabi_.jpgPart of the answer will be determined by the policies and personae of his successors. In particular there remains the legacy of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the jewel of his franchising effort, “35 percent larger than Bilbao”. A major mission for Krens (and starchitect Frank Gehry) is the completion of this monolith in the desert. It is the fulfillment of his expansionist dream and his ultimate expression of museum realpolitik. Because when domestic benefactors such as Peter B. Lewis balked at the huge cost of funding the satellite projects, Krens did an end run and appealed directly to the oil-rich sheiks — in much the same way that the banks have recently looked to UAE money to bail them out of the mortgage crisis.

The Guggenheim is presently committed to building their satellite in Abu Dhabi. But as the museum reassesses its priorities, considers its post-Krens identity, and examines its finite resources, one can imagine a revision of this decision. Especially in light of the Emirates’ policies of not allowing entry to Israeli passport-holders and their censorship of gay content and nudity in the art to be exhibited.

The final decision of whether or not to proceed is reserved to the museum’s board of trustees. But I would pose the following questions to ArtWorld Salon readers: Should institutional initiatives be reconsidered in light of new economic realities and new leadership? Should the leftover projects of an old regime be cleared out, to allow the new director a “clean slate”? And might the fate of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi give us some indication of how museums will operate in a post-Krens era?

Nationalism in collecting?

As we ponder who has been buying what at Miami, this has come in from Michael Hatch in Beijing.

Mahishasura_by_Tyeb_Mehta.jpgThe markets for Western contemporary art and Western modern art are often assumed to be universally engaging across national and ethnic borders, but I’d wager the vast majority of buyers are caucasian, reflecting the dominance of Euro-American artistic traditions, and reflecting the historical dominance of Euro-American economies.

The market in Indian art, however, is said to be driven almost entirely by Indian collectors; and the main buyers for both classical and modern Chinese art are Chinese or Chinese diaspora. Though the spectacular growth in prices for contemporary Chinese works has been largely driven by Western buyers, one hypothesis is that some of the mainland Chinese currently investing large sums in real estate and stocks might soon turn their attention to chinese contemporary art and become the dominant force in this market.

I wonder, therefore, to what degree ethnicity, nationality or cultural affinity play a role in driving particular art markets? Are particular markets dependent on those who have a cultural affinity with those works? If so, are the movements of any given art market only really affected by the economic movements of the home market? If that is the case, will the predicted downturn in the Western art markets that is supposed to follow the current economic doldrums in America affect the markets in Chinese or Indian art?

Thoughts anyone?

Tehran artists vs Condi Rice, the prequel

 Luc Tuymans, The Secretary of State, 2005 Long before blogs existed, I wrote for suck.com (not a porn site, but an outgrowth of Wired magazine). In my favorite of my own Suck pieces, I tried to imagine the conversation that led to a particularly bizarre advertising campaign in Details magazine. It’s a mental game I often play when undeniably intelligent people have taken totally inadvisable steps. Like, for example, Condoleezza Rice trying to co-opt 14 Iranian artists into a State Department PR ploy targeting the Middle East.

As the artforum.com news digest reported, “Ten of the fourteen Iranians who received special visas for the exhibition refused to be photographed with Rice, and two would not even accompany her through the gallery because they were “‘uncomfortable.’” Tracing back to the item’s original source, the Guardian’s Unease As Rice Meets Iranian Artists, I discovered

What was billed as a unique and open expression of culture bridging vast political differences between the U.S. and Iran became an exercise in crowd control as the State Department scrambled to prevent reporters from even glimpsing Rice’s tour. All journalists, including those without cameras, were kept in the final room of the exhibit behind two immense wooden doors that opened only when Rice finished and appeared with four of the Iranian artists to say how much she enjoyed the show.

So how does a fiasco like this unroll? I imagine conversations that went somewhat like the following.

Three months ago…
Political Aide 1: We need to do another cultural exchange to show that we’re really on the side the Iranian people. We’ve already done doctors, wrestlers and teachers. What group can we do next? Continue reading

Sharjah Biennial: Less Oil More Courage

Dan Perjovschi, 2007With the announcement of Abu Dhabi’s multi-billion-dollar cultural tourism plans and last month’s DIFC Gulf Art Fair in Dubai hogging the limelight, it was easy to overlook neighboring Sharjah’s more modest cultural efforts, with the Sharjah Biennial (its eighth installment opened last week) as the centrepiece. In contrast to DIFC governor Dr Omar Bin Sulaiman’s frank admission (at the Dubai fair’s opening) of having no knowledge of art, Sharjah’s Biennial is headed by Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, daughter of Sharjah’s ruler, who holds degrees in fine art and curating from London’s Slade School and the Royal College of Art. While the day-to-day artistic direction was in the hands of Jack Persekian, the peripatetic Palestinian curator, the Sheikha herself reportedly chose the theme of the Biennial “Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change”. A BIG, and on the face of it, highly controversial theme to tackle in the United Arab Emirates, where a reported 30 percent of the construction world’s cranes currently reside.

Driving around Sharjah, the text (Less Oil More Courage) – from Rikrit Tiravanija’s small painted contribution to the biennial – screams at you from numerous roadside signs. The tiny painting itself has been hung on the wall facing you as you enter the Sharjah Art Museum, above a formal portrait of the Sheikh. The incongruity of this stark message serving as the biennial’s main publicity poster perhaps best embodies Sharjah’s own cultural positioning in the UAE’s nascent but fast-emerging art world. As Abu Dhabi uses economic-impact assessments drawn up by management consultants to plan a cultural island as tourist destination, and Dubai extends its ambition of being a clearinghouse to the artworld, Sharjah is attempting to create an infrastructure for artistic production and exchange. The reported biennial budget of $3 million enabled over 50 projects to be specially commissioned.

In this role of regional champion, Sharjah is an interesting example to examine the evolutionary path of the biennial phenomenon. Venice is perhaps the exemplar of the biennial as prize distribution/artworld validation, a fine-arts version of the Oscars, with a similar impact on box office. At the other end of the spectrum lies the ‘biennial as art infrastructure’. Sharjah, to my mind, is part of this group. (Others would include Continue reading

Islamic codes 1, ConArt 0

gulf.jpgA London-based Artworld Salon reader forwarded me this brief article from yesterday’s Guardian: “Dubai art fair says no to nudes,” in reference to the Gulf Art Fair, which opens precisely as I’m writing these words. Apparently,

things got a bit sticky when all participating galleries – whose clients[sic] include Tracey Emin and Jeff Koons – were asked to only show art that was appropriate to display in an Islamic state. John Martin, the Gulf Art Fair director, said: “We have asked all galleries to make careful provision – that is, chiefly concerning nudity and religious imagery.”

This is the same Martin who a few months back told the Artnewspaper: “We aim to be among the top five art fairs in the world.” I’m not sure who Martin ranks as the top five fairs now, but GAF will be hard-pressed to displace, say, FIAC or ARCO while telling dealers to censor their stands.

The broader issue at play here is how well the Western artworld can adapt to Islamic rules and Arab mores while seeking the Middle East’s money. I’m expecting this to be a major point of contention for Continue reading