Paris Photo ended its 5 day run yesterday closing on what organizers could only call a success. The halls of the Carousel du Louvre were jammed day in and day out and notable crowds gathered for the evenings of the vernissage and the finissage in which any unobstructed movement was nearly impossible. But a success for fair organizers and a successful fair for a gallery are two different things. I received diverse reports, perhaps as one might expect since not every gallery had the same caliber of work or could appeal to every sort of client. A few galleries complained of slow or indifferent sales while others claimed to have record-breaking years. Of course, neither complaint nor boast are verifiable so I will confine my thoughts to more subjective matters.
The theme this year was the Arab World and Iranian photography. In theory, I am all for this. I suspect I'm not alone in being rather under-informed when it comes to photography from this part of the world, so any effort on the part of a major art institution like Paris Photo to promote awareness and to foster dialogue is very welcome.
However the reality is, as reality always is, a little more complex. First off, the definition of what is meant by "the Arab world" is unclear at best. Certainly a culture as important and old as this has spread its influence to every corner of the earth. And in our global, "flat" world, what does geography mean to artistic output? Is Hiroshi Sugimoto a Japanese artist? Is Mona Hatoum a Lebanese artist? British? German? Palestinian? None of the above? I found taxonomic questions like these rather unaddressed by the galleries involved. Secondly, given that the definition for what what the "Arab" world describes remains hazy, I was unconvinced that there is enough distinctive work around which to build a thematic foundation. Perhaps there are, but I wasn't moved by the totality with which I was presented here.
But there were notable exceptions. Motive Gallery from the Netherlands had examples from Martine Stig's "Sisters" series. I had admired this work 3 years ago when I saw it for the first time during the FIAC show, and I continue to respect the combination of the political and the graphic in her high contrast shots of covered women. Hamburg/Beirut gallery Sfeir-Semmler had a great example of Walid Raad from his work "I Might Die Before I Get A Rifle". Hans Kraus, as one would expect, brought superb examples of 19th century work featuring Arab sitters and portraits.
I also found some unexpected pleasures in work outside of the theme category. Serge Plantureux was showcasing the work of Rossella Bellusci. I am always intrigued by work at the limits of visibility, so Ms Bellusci's explorations of blown out portraits, objects, and self-portraits caught my eye. I'll be looking to learn more about her work. Galerie Vu had some fine work focusing on the Mexican-American border by under appreciated artist Jeffrey Silverthorne. Too many have only known him for his early morgue-based work neglecting his later output. Take a look. Vu also had a fine self-portrait by Christer Strömholm. I'm pretty familiar with this artist's work, and I've never seen a self-portrait like this. Pretty great. I was completely blown away by some exquisite vintage Raoul Ubac prints at Galerie Thessa Herold. This gallery is new on my radar; I've never seen them at a fair nor heard of them. I found the contemporary work at the booth to be a mixed lot, but the Ubacs were superior in every way. I'll be curious to see more of what this gallery is about.
As I have mentioned in the past, European fairs just seem to draw bigger crowds than North American ones. I don't think this is represented in sales figures, but it I do think it represents a difference in the way culture is consumed in the two locations. Families and couples out for a weekend diversion spend hours at these fairs (FIAC, Art Paris, Paris Photo, etc.) in a way that is simply not found even in New York City. While it makes for uncomfortably packed conditions for the serious collector, I can only see it as a positive thing when looking the society as a whole. Perhaps responding to this, Reed Expositions, the organizer of Paris Photo, inaugurated a VIP morning time on every day of the fair. Instead of the usual practice of having one VIP preview a few hours earlier than the scheduled general opening, Paris Photo had a VIP-only morning period every day from 10:00-11:30. Any collector who needed some quiet face time with a gallery would find the fair at a civilized density each morning. I cannot applaud this innovation loudly enough, and I hope it was enough of a success that it will be copied by every fair on earth.
Outside of the fair, there was an exceptional surrealism show at the Pompidou Center, La Subversion des Images. If you going to Paris anytime before January 11, 2010, just plain don't miss it. I spent hours on 2 visits as did everyone I spoke to about it. It's an exciting, scholarly show that also rewards even a casual visitor. If you're not heading to Paris, the catalog has its own pleasures. It's only in French, but is still worth the $60 tariff. Amazon.com sometimes says it's out of print. Don't believe it. Pompidou bookstores had copies piled to the ceiling. There's also a soft cover bi-lingual "album" that is worth it especially if you don't speak French. Amazon.ca has plenty of copies though the album seems a little harder to find outside of the Pompidou bookstore.