BEIRUT: As art collectors look further afield for the next big thing, the global art market is changing. The swift expansion of Christie’s auction house – which held its first international auction in Dubai in 2006 and in mainland China and India in September and December 2013 – perhaps reflects uber-collectors’ willingness to look beyond established markets in New York, London and Paris.
It also suggests buyers are no longer concentrated in these historical centers of power, nor Berlin or Basel.
A newly released book by London-based publishing house Phaidon, known for their specialization in quality art, design and architecture books, suggests it’s time for dealers to take note of what’s happening outside the usual axes.
“Art Cities of the Future: 21st Century Avant-Gardes” profiles eight artists working in 12 cities around the world in a series of chapters written by curators and critics with an in-depth knowledge of the local scene.
The book follows from Phaidon’s series of “Cream” titles, five of which were released between 1998 and 2010. Aimed at collectors, art-market insiders and “beginners” seeking to come to grips with the world of contemporary art, each book profiled 100 artists selected by 10 curators, most based in historic art centers.
In the preface to “Art Cities,” editor Kari Rittenbach notes that to produce a similar “best of” style book about the current art scene is a far more complex matter. “The art world is more of a world in every sense,” she writes, “with a larger population, a wider territory and a greater number of nationalities.”
This helps explain the geographically driven approach of “Art Cities.” It profiles 96 international artists whose work is intrinsically linked to where it’s made. Whether established or emerging, the preface claims that all share “a commitment to experimental art and a dedication to their local milieu.”
Each chapter begins with a short background essay, exploring changes in the contemporary art scenes of Beirut, Bogot?, Cluj, Delhi, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Lagos, San Juan, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Singapore and Vancouver. This is followed by a brief profile of eight contemporary artists whose work signals a clear break with the preceding generation.
The opening chapter focuses on Beirut. Critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie (the only author here who doesn’t double as a curator) begins by establishing two simple facts: Beirut’s contemporary scene began not in the 1970s, but in the 1990s and, contrary to common perception, it wasn’t a result of the 15-year Civil War, during which Lebanese artists in fact continued to produce new work.
A long-time critic for The Daily Star, among other publications, Wilson-Goldie is intimately acquainted not only with Beirut’s institutions and artists, but also with the city’s tendency to find its way into their work. “Beirut,” as she puts it in the chapter, “is totally and utterly obsessed with itself” and, in the work produced by local artists, has become “at once medium, metaphor and generator of meaning.”
She briefly roots the city’s contemporary scene in a longer history of artistic production, before exploring the emergence of a new generation of artists in the 1990s, in tandem with institutions such as Ashkal Alwan and the Arab Image Foundation. By 2012, she concludes, Beirut had more commercial and nonprofit art spaces than ever before.
It’s a trajectory of development mirrored in Bogot? (introduced by curator of Latin American Art at the Tate Modern José Roca) and Istanbul (covered by gallery programmer Duygu Demir), where a dense network of institutions has emerged in the last decade. It also resembles Johannesburg, where, as writer and curator Tracy Murinik explains, the art scene underwent a major transformation after the lifting of the cultural boycott in 1993.
Given the local environment’s importance in the work of most selected artists – from Akram Zaatari’s locally embedded video works to Kashmiri artist Inder Salam’s politically charged performance art – it is perhaps unsurprising that many of the writers have chosen to ground the cities’ artistic scenes in a sociopolitical context, something Rittenbach says was unintended.
In spite of format limitations, the authors have, for the most part, done a good job of providing a solid primer from which interested readers can launch deeper investigations. As with the “Cream” books however, individual artists are the focus, not the cities that sustain them, despite the site-specific premise.
Rittenbach’s preface doesn’t explain why these 12 locations were selected, which may irritate readers keen to know what has led these cities to be deemed more worthy than other fast-emerging art hubs. In a recent interview with Abu Dhabi’s The National, she stated the criteria included an active art scene, the presence of a critical environment, active institutions and international reach.
The different styles of the writers make for a varied and diverse set of voices, some of which may appeal more than others.
While critic and curator Geeta Kapur’s selection of Delhi-based artists makes for fascinating reading, her introduction is extremely comprehensive, densely written and somewhat difficult to follow. The introduction to Sao Paulo, by contrast, penned by independent curator Kiki Mazzucchelli, is accessible and engaging, though arguably slightly less exhaustive.
Nicely laid out and containing more than 500 color photographs, the book is a handsome object, but at $80, it is likely to prove too expensive for most students. It will perhaps prove most useful to collectors looking for a swift “top 10” list of who to keep an eye on. Naturally, the focus on individuals means the book is likely to date quickly.
Those looking for comprehensive insight into how the art scene in each city functions may be disappointed. The 600-odd words dedicated to each artist barely allow the authors to provide an overview of their work to date, let alone situate it within a context of local production. This doesn’t allow much room for exploring the links between artists, institutions and the public that in turn add up to a cohesive whole and create a dynamic, interactive art scene.
“Art Cities of the Future: 21st Century Avant-Gardes” is published by Phaidon and is available at local bookstores.