Masters and apprentices

Contemporary art rules the market at the 58th Venice Biennale

Lisa Hilton

The Russian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale featured a number of works “in dialogue” with paintings by Rembrandt. The man himself was represented by high quality reproductions, which served mostly to expose the ineptitude and arrogance of the artists who believed that their efforts had anything to teach us about the Dutch master. So far, so Biennale. Despite hideous weather, the contemporary art caravan crashed through the city this year with its customary blend of exuberance and vulgarity. Big boats, big dealers, big clients: all contributed to a sense that the market is flourishing, and whilst many of the works on display at Giardini and Arsenale, the Biennale’s two principal exhibition sites, were arresting only in their mediocrity, there were plenty of startling and engaging pieces amongst the overwhelming volume on display.

Many of the Biennale’s exhibits are site-specific and not intended for sale, but the shows also serve as both status markers for established artists and audition pieces for emerging ones. Creatives in both categories have every reason to be cheerful. According to the Artprice index, there were nearly 70,000 sales of contemporary works last year, reflecting a 5.5 per cent increase in transactions since 2000. Contemporary works now account for an average total of $1.9 billion per year, with a median price per work of $28,000. Contemporary’s market share now exceeds both Old Masters and the 19th century, though Post-War and Modern still dominate the commercial field.

The crowds at the Biennale pavilions represented a  contrast to the dismal, near-empty stands at last year’s Tefaf (The European Fine Art Fair) in Maastricht. One long-established and highly distinguished Old Masters dealer agreed to speak to me off the record about the shrinkage in OM sales which has now lasted for a decade.

“To put it bluntly,” he told me, “it’s dead.” This may seem surprising given that major sales of “sleepers”—rediscovered works by major OM artists—can still command headlines around the globe. Last year, a supposed Leonardo, the Salvator Mundi, notoriously achieved a price of $450 million, to date the only OM piece to have passed the hundred million mark. However, as Matthew Prodger explains on page 65, the “Toulouse Caravaggio” will this month go under the hammer in France, and while there is no reserve for the sale, a figure of €100-150 million is confidently expected. Compare this to the relatively modest prices achieved by other OM pictures: these days you can bag a Rubens for around four million dollars.

“Everyone wants contemporary,” my source explained gloomily. “It’s just easier. At the top of the market, huge OM names are still status-signifiers because everyone’s heard of Leonardo. But no one knows or cares about, say, Cranach.

For new buyers, it seems that OM paintings are just not sexy. A Poussin landscape doesn’t go with the décor of the villa in Ibiza or Tulum, whilst understanding allegorical allusion or the finer points of technique can be both boring and intimidating. Contemporary offers easily-graspable concepts (whatever the achingly convoluted bumf that inevitably accompanies the work will try to suggest). It’s usually bright, simple and uncontroversially “disruptive”. Take the 2017 Carol Bove Ariel on display at the Arsenale this year—an elongated marshmallow of orange steel torqued around a sharp, semi-rusted steel structure, the fluidity of the wrapped metal contrasting with the spiky shards of the sculpture’s supports. Skilful and visually intriguing yes; demanding, no. This is not to say that OM works are automatically brilliant whilst Contemporary is vacant, but it does reflect an interesting shift in art’s social currency. Where once new money felt obliged to polish its origins with the acquisition of country estates, libraries and the odd Van Dyck, it seems that, beyond the big-brand artists, classic works are leaving buyers indifferent. Arguably, this is no bad thing, if it is simply substituting one kind of snobbery for another, but are Contemporary’s customers getting their money’s worth?

“The Flemish School”, an installation by Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai at the Russian Pavilion. (Photo by Luke Walker. Courtesy of the Russian Pavilion, Venice.)

A serious OM purchase will involve years of painstaking research and acquired expertise on the part of the dealer, who will provide the customer with an authenticated work which is likely to hold its value. By contrast, Contemporary is much more responsive to fashion and hence much more vulnerable to dating. “Challenging”, “subversive” and “confronting” were applied to practically every work at this year’s Biennale, but shock value–even when considered a valid criterion for judging a piece–has a tendency to fluctuate. In 2003, the Chapman brothers ignited controversy when they “rectified” a series of Goyas, but their overtly erotic insertions now look old hat. With the exception of the odd bottom at the Iraqi pavilion, sex was notably off the menu in Venice this year. Video installations have become virtually interchangeable—the Danish show, Larissa Sansours Heirloom, featured a black and white film of a woman looking meaningfully at an austere landscape to a menacing throb of electronic music. Ten minutes later she appeared to pop up in Malta. Chairs were strongly featured—I counted three versions of a lifeguard’s rostrum, and Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dear consisted of a blocky white seat over which a rubber hose gyrated in a pressurised air current. Quite funny and surprising the first time, but it could wear rather thin. Mannequins were everywhere: Brueghelesque in the steampunk slum shown at Belgium, real in Lithuania’s winning  Sun + Sea (Marina),  a hyper-real beach scene accompanied by an operetta, beneath which can be heard the “slow creaking of an exhausted Earth”. It’s theatrical art as ecological warning, enchanting and menacing in equal measure.

Also present were spooky automata—Can’t Help Myself, also by Sun and Peng, a blood-scooping digger growling like a demented dinosaur at Giardini, drew huge crowds. Much of it is provocative, much of it is great fun, but how long can Contemporary continue to represent serious investment?

Rather than despairing, maybe OM dealers need to reposition their wares as blue-chip commodities which will outlive trends? Dodgy Caravaggios aside, there’s never been a better time to buy. 

A still from “In Vitro” by Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind at the Danish Pavilion. (Courtesy of the artists. Photographer: LENKA RAYN H)

The 58th Venice Biennale runs until November 24.

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