Despite the 40,000 attendees, who tend to view the fair as just another exhibition, the event’s major function is as a marketplace, and the real news generated has to do with the art economy. (At one point, while chatting with a fellow journalist, the phrase “truth and beauty” inadvertently rolled off my lips. We immediately burst out laughing, before he quickly straightened his expression and said, “I’ve got to get out of here in a few minutes. Where’s the Picasso again?”)
So on to the market report. Yayoi Kusama was especially hot this year. Pattern paintings by the aging Japanese minimalist were in at least five booths.
So was Walasse Ting (丁雄泉), the Chinese expatriate painter who mingled in pop art circles in the 1960s and died last year. Taipei’s Vintage Gallery sold at least five of his paintings, the most expensive of which was one of his dayglow paintings of semi-clothed hostesses, Kiss Me Under the Moonlight, which went for NT$8 million. Other medium-sized canvases sold for NT$4.8 million.
Japanese superflat artist Yoshitomo Nara was one of the premium offerings at Tokyo’s Tomiyo Koyama Gallery. They brought two of his trademark cute-yet-vicious little girls painted on cardboard boxes and sold at least one of them, Sprout in Hands for NT$1.9 million.
Star of show
The weekend’s star had to be Hiroshi Sugimoto, who has had at least five photographs sell for over US$1 million at auction, and is one of the world’s most expensive photographers. His lecture was standing room only, he had a special exhibition section, and was also represented at the booth of New York’s Yoshii Gallery. Around 10 photographs were displayed and nearly all of them sold. Those from his “Theater” series went for US$36,000 each, and those from his “Seascapes” for slightly less. (One of these, a photograph of a flat horizon line on Lake Constance, served as the cover for the U2 album No Line on the Horizon.)
Sugimoto’s lecture, interesting enough, had little to do with his exacting black-and-white photographs. Instead, he offered a slide show about his collection of strange, historical objects. The collection begins with several million-year-old fossils of sea creatures (he calls them the “first photographs”) and fragments of meteors, then winds its way through ancient Egyptian papyrus, a Rembrandt engraving he had mounted on a Japanese hanging scroll, the photographic negatives of 19th century camera inventor Henry Fox-Talbott, left-over food packets from the Apollo moon mission and other eclectic fragments of human history.
Cryptically, he explained to the crowd, “I pay attention to weird objects, and that teaches me many things.”
To his fans and aficionados, it was not unenlightening. Sugimoto takes a geological view of human history, namely that the earth was here long before humans, and it will certainly outlast us. This is the sentiment instilled in his people-less photographs, whether they are seascapes, empty movie theaters or the dioramas at New York’s Museum of Natural History (which he snapped without permission). For him, these are meditations on natural harmony, and it enables him to give otherwise dire pronouncements a ring of optimism. For example, he was smiling as he explained, “Basically, I am imagining a time when humans no longer exist.”