Any art-world insider will tell you Milan is the capital of the Italian art market -- though you’d never know it, strolling down the aisles of this year’s 11th Fiera Internazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, better known as MiArt 2006.
Italy’s financial powerhouse, Milan contains the highest concentration of top galleries in the entire country. Major sales in the Italian modern and contemporary art sector are almost always transacted in Milano, albeit quietly.
Although Milanese fashion and design are respected around the world as legitimate industries, the Italian art market remains disastrously opaque, dominated by shady private dealers and questionable transactions.
"In a way, the Italian art market is still a primitive structure," says Pasquale Leccese, MiArt’s artistic director and owner of one of Milan’s top galleries, Le Case d’Arte. "But with the MiArt fair, we’re attempting to go from underground to aboveground. We want to show the public how strong the market really is."
But with so much business being done in an "unofficial way" -- especially in the case of Italian modernist works -- MiArt faces an uphill battle.
Only half of the so-called "StartMilano" galleries -- a group of 24 of the city’s best, boasting internationally respected dealers like Lia Rumma, Massimo De Carlo, Francesca Kaufmann, Paolo Curti/Annamaria Gambuzzi and Giampaolo Abbondio -- exhibited at MiArt this year. This left the rest of the roster to be made up of almost exclusively provincial Italian galleries, full of flab.
Many of the dealers I spoke to in the main halls of MiArt complained about a conspicuous lack of sales at this year’s fair.
The uncertainty surrounding the then-impending Italian elections didn’t help. Italian collectors were especially careful about spending large sums of money this year, unsure about whose tax liabilities -- those of Prodi or Berlusconi -- they could be facing.
Another factor, as evidenced in the modernist section, were far too many "burned" pictures making repeat appearances, mainly the unsold inventory exhibited earlier this year at ArteFiera 2006 in Bologna.
Also, although there was a fair share of unmentionably bad work on display in the downstairs contemporary section, among the rough were found a few gems. . . well, Swarovsky crystal, at least! At Corsoveneziaotto, Nicola Bolla’s lyrical Altalena, a sculpted swing, rendered entirely in individually set, gleaming crystals, dangled from the wall and could be had for €10,000. A descendant of four generations of artists who is himself a practicing eye surgeon, Bolla will have his first New York solo show at Sperone Westwater this November.
Back upstairs, one of the few English participants, London’s Max Wigram Gallery, reported moderate sales. Christian Ward’s Sky, Lakes and Holes (2006), a fine, eastern-inspired painting of cascading blue clouds and florescent lakes, all rendered with a topsy-turvy perspective, was on offer for £15,000. There was no lack of buyers for Ward’s incandescent paintings -- but neither iss there back home in the U.K.
More exciting was the "Video at MiArt" section, which featured 16 galleries exhibiting in rows of small, custom-built viewing areas. Notable in the wall of sound blasting out from this section was the Japanese collective Enlightenment, featured at Changing Role Move Over Gallery from Naples. Founded in 1997 by Hiro Sugiyama, the group typifies the hip, multi-disciplined culture of the VJ, cutting-up images into new forms the way DJs interweave sounds.
A more scientific take on "cutting it up" was Aesthetika Genetika by Richard Journo at the NT Gallery of Bologna. Journo’s work is influenced by gene splicing and the ethics of biotechnology. The project was shot during the Russian Art festival ARTKliazma 2004, held outside Moscow, with the participation of over 300 artists and audience members, all blended into a heterogeneous new visual life form.
A welcome break from the video stars at MiArt was provided by a morning visit to the home of 83-year-old Dr. Paolo Consolandi. A notary by trade, Consolandi’s collection is just one example of the treasure chest of modernist and contemporary art in Milan sealed away behind closed doors.
With impeccable old-world charm, the venerable Consolandi escorted a small group of us through his impressive collection, occasionally stopping to share anecdotes about many of the artists -- now personal friends of his -- whose works he has collected over the past 40 years. Among the vast array of works, primarily drawings, by modernist and contemporary masters from Kandinsky to Koons, we were treated to a view of Andy Warhol’s Flash, a limited edition (200 copies) book published on Nov. 22, 1963, depicting the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 11 silk screen montages. The tour concluded in the "Fontana Room," a superb collection of all-white masterworks from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s from the Arte Povera master.
Considering Consolandi’s collection is one among many in the Italian capital, it’s incredible to think that Milan still has no major museum of contemporary art.
This year’s guest country, China, was the indisputable salvation of MiArt. A prescient choice for the organizers, the 15 galleries featuring Chinese contemporary art dominated the headlines. Part of a larger drive by the Italian government to use art as a form of détente, the "MiArt China" section will surly pave the way for future economic development between the two countries.
But as Hou Hanru, curator of the 2007 Istanbul Biennial, pointed out at "China Inside/Outside West," part of MiArt’s lecture series, "One day there won’t be a need to segregate Chinese artists, they’ll be integrated in the fair like everyone else."
The delightful Adriana Forconi was responsible for picking the excellent cross-section of galleries specializing in contemporary Chinese art. While most have spaces in China, not all of them were Chinese, such as the Italy-based Continua from San Gimignano and its new sister gallery Continua Beijing, based in Dashanzi, outside the Chinese capital.
Despite free accommodation, transport and a discounted booth rental (between €4,000 and €6,000 for 32 or 48 square meters respectively), it was no easy task convincing the Chinese participants to come.
"I invited the younger galleries showing more emerging artists -- but many of the dealers had never even heard of MiArt! So it took some convincing," said Forconi.
There was no need to convince bidders across the pond at Sotheby’s New York though.
Occurring simultaneous to MiArt, on Friday, Mar. 31, 2006, the sale of "Contemporary Art Asia: China, Japan, Korea" made auction history, earning a staggering $13,228,960, nearly doubling the sale’s high estimate of $6 million-$8 million. It was the highest total to date for a sale of Chinese contemporary art at Sotheby’s.
Correspondents at the sale reported furious bidding, with over 20 Sotheby’s representatives pressing their ears to the telephone receivers at one time. The top selling lot, Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline Series: Comrade No. 120 (1998) sold for $979,200 (est. $250,000-$350,000) to an anonymous bidder from Singapore. Other auction records were established for Xu Bing, Zhang Huan, Liu Xiaodong, Fang Lijun, Chen Yifei and Wang Guangyi, with prices often going for quadruple the high estimate.
"I think what happened at the Sotheby's auction of contemporary Chinese art is great," said the indomitable Meg Maggio, director of Pekin Fine Arts of Beijing. One of the most important westerners on the Chinese contemporary scene, Maggio has lived and worked in China for 20 years as an arts writer, curator and former co-founder and exhibitions director of CourtYard Gallery (opened in Beijing 1996). "I'm neither surprised nor shocked by the high prices. Top prices for Chinese artists are still relatively inexpensive compared to their peers in Europe and the United States. . . but given the recent auctions and boom in Chinese contemporary art, people talk too much about prices. I want them to be more inquisitive about the artist’s work!"
Like a liquid mercurial bridge between nature and art, Zhan Wang’s sculptures, on view at Maggio’s booth, are inspired by "scholar’s rocks." Fashionable in the Tang dynasty, stones eroded by water and wind were placed in gardens to inspire "men of letters" into meditative states. Regarded as works of art, the best examples came from Lake Tai and fetched astronomical prices. Out of deference to Meg’s quote, we won’t mention the price of Wang’s. . . this time!
Primo and Maria Rosa Marella, co-owners of the Marella Gallery in Milano, first went to China four years ago. In March of 2005 they opened a new mega-gallery at the 798 factory in Bejing’s Dashanzi district. A former weapons lab built in the 1930s, the complex is now a center for contemporary Chinese culture, with numerous galleries, studios, bars and restaurants.
Most the Chinese artists now gaining worldwide recognition started working around the time of the Cultural Revolution. And nearly all of them studied traditional oil painting, a prerequisite for cultural status in China.
If there’s one constant we can call Chinese -- and I emphasise "if" -- it’s the way Chinese artists can take the best elements from other cultures and make them their own. Or as Ezra Pound would say, "Take something and make it new."
In the West, medium plays a large part in defining artistic identity, hence the labels "painter," "sculptor," "photographer" and "video artist." But not so in China.
Typical of many of his peers, Ma Liuming defies such limitations, his creative energy shooting across all mediums. One of the best known artists in China, his performance character "Fen-Maliuming" ("Fen" meaning "woman"), with the facial features of a woman and the body of a man, appears nude in performances, photographs, paintings and sculptures.
"In the early days, many Chinese artists didn’t have materials, so they used their bodies instead. Many, like Ma Liuming, who appeared nude in his work made-up as a woman, ended up in prison for ‘disturbing public consciousness’," Maria Rosa Marella told me.
In May 2005, Continua Beijing reversed the cultural flow. "We were one of the first to do a major show of Western artists at our gallery in Dashanzi 798. ‘ManMano’ featured many international artists seen for the first time in China, such as Daniel Buren, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Kendell Geers, Anish Kapoor and Michelangelo Pistoletto," gallery director Federica Beltrame boasted. "The response was incredible! Over 1,200 people were at the opening and 200 people a day visited the exhibition."
At MiArt, Continua Bejing featured Perseverance of Regeneration (1999), a major work by the late Chen Zen, on offer for €800,000. Like frenzied insects, thousands of miniature cars swarm out of the carcass of a battered, full-sized automobile. The entire piece is painted an ominous matte black. "Like a quirk of fate, everything regenerates," wrote the artist of this work.
Given all the press and soaring auction results over the last year, a supermarket mentality of buying all things Chinese, regardless of quality, has developed among international collectors. "But out of all the Chinese artists working today, perhaps only .5 percent are actually the real thing," says Swiss dealer Urs Meile.
Based in Lucerne, his eponymous gallery formed a partnership in 2003 with CAAW -- Chinese Art Archives & Warehouse in Beijing, China, (founded 1993). In January 2006, he opened his own gallery in Beijing, an addition to the existing CAAW exhibition spaces, under the artistic direction of Ai Weiwei.
Artist, curator, editor, authority on Chinese history and tradition, architect, advisor to architects (Herzog & de Meuron) and co-founder of CAAW are just a few of the titles appropriate to describe the astonishingly talented Ai Weiwei. The son of one of China’s most renowned 20th-century poets -- disgraced and banished to the Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution -- Weiwei’s critical understanding of authority and tradition come from deeply rooted experience. And his works are nothing short of profound.
At Galerie Urs Meile, we were treated to two works by this humble master. Colored Vases (2006) is made up of eight pots from the year 4,500 B.C. painted over in garish, Ikea-like colors. A purposefully iconoclastic gesture, the effect seems to liberate the objects from the paralyzing rigidity of their historical origins. In one stroke of the brush, our perspective on the past is transformed. One of the steals of the fair, the work was priced at a mere €40,000.
The other bargain was Table with Three Legs (2005), priced at €65,000, part of the lineage of Weiwei’s Fluxist-influenced Furniture Series, begun in 1997. A challenge to authorship and tradition, an authentic Qing dynasty table (over 450 years old) was cut in two and absurdly put back together by traditional Chinese carpenters. All the pieces are joined together without the use of nails.
But we should all be grateful to the organizers of MiArt for attempting to unite two formally estranged cultures, the East and West, in a creative dialogue. Contemporary art can have few greater purposes.
JOE LA PLACA is Artnet’s London representative.