Christies’ Sale

June 30, 2008

This evening’s sale at Christies in London brought a total of $175 million.   As I mentioned in an earlier post, the market for art seems only to strengthen as other financial instruments get weaker.

Unfortunately, whatever serious critics and I might say, Jeff Koons continues to prosper mightily.  His absurdly juvenile “Balloon Flower (Magenta)” was sold for $25.6 million, which is I believe a record for the artist. Christies calls it a “masterpiece”!

The fact that one of Damien Hirst’s pieces failed to meet its over-extended minimum supplies only partial consolation.

On the other hand Francis Bacon’s “3 Studies For A Self-Portrait” from 1975, sold for a very impressive $34.3 million.  Lucian Freud’s “Naked Portrait With Reflection” was perhaps a little disappointing at $23.4 million (the estimate was up to $30m).

Art As Fart (Part 2)

June 29, 2008

I have in passing mentioned my disdain for quite a bit of contemporary “conceptual” art.  I described one show as being “[l]ike a fart; it was unpleasant to be around, but the memory quickly fades in fresh air.”  I have trouble seeing the work of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst as anything but marketing manipulations, and their influence seems malign. It is good to have it confirmed that I am not alone.

Jed Perl, art critic of The New Republic, has come out swinging in a long article called “Postcards From Nowhere“, which is his review of five major new exhibitions.

What there is to discuss is not visual experiences so much as visual stunts, which are frequently mind-boggling in their size and complexity. Mostly what I can offer, after all this museum going and gallery going, is a series of postcards about nothing written from places that felt like nowhere … It is the artists, and a certain line of thinking about art, that have given the people with the cash permission to buy and sell what amounts to nothing, and to do so for ever larger and more insane sums of money …

He complains vigourously about

the laissez-faire aesthetics that give collectors sanction to regard one of Jeff Koons’s stainless-steel balloon animals as simultaneously a camp joke and a modern equivalent of a Tang dynasty horse. (A critic in The New York Times described one of these glistening metal doggies, currently on display on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as a “masterpiece.”)

… Koons is mostly concerned with massaging the egos of gallerygoers and museumgoers–and, of course, high-end collectors. He knows how to cozy up to his constituency. Those of us who are outraged that Koons and Hirst and Murakami now take up so much space in our museums are not angered by their work. We are angered by the significance that arts professionals are attaching to this work. There is no art here to enrage me–or to engage me, either.

He is particularly sharp against Takashi Turakami, currently enjoying a retrospective in Los Angeles.

In the case of Takashi Murakami … you cannot possibly understand what a safe haven for frauds and con artists the art world has become until you have walked into this trickster’s trap … the work is all shell, all facade, all empty assertion.

And he notes the baleful influence of the new style on the physical buildings.

This helps to explain the poorly defined character of so many new museums and galleries. These exhibition spaces, whether the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles or the New Museum in New York, are as incoherent as the art they have been designed to house. They are bland, generic warehouse-style spaces–places to dump expensive stuff. And the new style in exhibition design, especially at the Whitney Biennial, favors a chockablock look, with works set in front of one another so that nothing can be experienced in and of itself.

There is a great deal more of meaty discussion in the article.  For anyone interested in contemporary art and its markets, It is well worth the time it takes to read.

Update:   It is clear, however, that in New York at least, the conceptual monster is still loose on the streets and waterways.


June 29, 2008

It’s amazing what shows up in our little garden when the sun shines!

The Scythians and Global Warming

June 28, 2008

Discover has a piece on some archaeology that is fascinating on a couple of accounts.

First, it is about the Scythians, the mysterious mounted warriors from the East that early Greek historians despised (through fear) so much.   A multitude of Scythian graves have been found on the Central Asian plains, some of which have wonderful mummies and other artifacts preserved by ice over permafrost.

Second, it reveals yet another consequence of global climate change.  Scientists fear that the ice lenses preserving the remains may soon thaw, consigning the bodies to rot and decay.

Details III

June 28, 2008

Thought For The Day

June 28, 2008

“There are no foreign lands.  It is the traveler only who is foreign”

— Robert Louis Stephenson

My Son Sam

June 27, 2008

Happy birthday, Sam!    I love you!

Two Cyclists

June 26, 2008

As I get my mind in gear for the start of the Tour de France in a week or so’s time, I was reminded of these two colourful Jelly Belly team members from the Gastown Criterion a few years ago.

Damn The Markets, The Rich Get Richer

June 24, 2008

According to a new report by Merrill Lynch and the Capgemini Group, another 600,000 people became millionaires last year.  That brings the total number of millionaires to more than ten million. (Note that the definition of millionaire does not include value of primary residence).  The number of those with assets above $30million (the “super-rich”) has also grown, to 103,000.

Because of the economic slowdown, the wealthy tended to shift their money to safer investments such as bonds and money-market savings accounts, and away from less stable investments such as real estate, the report found.Cash deposits and fixed-income securities accounted for 44 percent of the assets of the world’s millionaires, up from 35 percent in 2006.

I have several thousand pennies in a jar someplace, along with some nickels and dimes.  That’s a start, I guess.

Damn The Markets, Art Still Sells!

June 24, 2008

This week sees a rash of auctions in Europe; and early indications are for a continuing strong interest from the big money.

Earlier today, “Le Basin aux Nympheas“, a Monet water lilies that hasn’t been seen in public since 1971, was sold for $80,451,178 (including premium).  This is the highest price ever obtained for a painting at auction by Christies in Europe.

Other items of interest:  a Degas went for $26.5million; a reclining woman by Henry Moore fetched $8.4m; and even Russian cubist Vera Rockline’s “The Card Players” (see right) was sold for $4m.  A couple of Miros failed to meet their minimums, though.

There is a second day at Christies tomorrow and on Monday, the auction house holds the sequel to its successful Post-War show, with yet another huge Lucian Freud piece (“Naked Portrait With Reflection”) at its heart.

The estimate is $30 million.  We’ll see

TV Dinners Redux

June 23, 2008

If we can survive the $175 hamburger, I guess we can swallow the $30 TV Dinner

courtesy of Loews Regency Hotel and the childhood nostalgia of its executive chef, Andrew Rubin.  “We are looking for comfort food items that we can turn upscale,” said Mr. Rubin. “These days comfort food is this hip, cool thing.”

So what does one get in a $30 TV dinner? The partitioned trays, instead of aluminum or plastic, are made of porcelain. The fried chicken is “free range.” The cheese in the mac ’n cheese is cheddar asiago with a Parmesan crust. And the pot roast is braised in Burgundian Pinot Noir.

Wash it down with a couple of $95 beers and just hope that the TV shows are worth the effort.

Seven Words We Can Now Say On Radio

June 23, 2008

George Carlin is dead.  Rest in Peace.

Single Minded

June 22, 2008

GOOD Magazine has a brief piece about a Chicago-based artist called Sighn who is devoted to the phrase “It’s OK“.

[T]he artist has set out to create a million hand-carved, business-card-sized blocks of wood in the shape of his words. The ambitious project started as a way for him to use up the scrap wood lying around his studio. Now, after selling out the first edition of 500 pieces—each costs $20—he’s turned to bamboo plywood and locally grown basswood for his materials. He has even collaborated with the Arbor Day Foundation to plant a tree for every piece sold—and he appears to have no desire to quit anytime soon. “I absolutely plan to continue this through to completion,” he says. “I hope to plant one million trees.” At his current pace, Sighn estimates that the project will take 60 years.

It all seems more industrial than artistic to me.  To spend an entire lifetime on a single creative idea is depressingly limiting.  But wotthehell, wotthehell, as Mehitabel would say.

In Support of Goonj

June 22, 2008

In India, there is a wonderful organization called GOONJ that helps recycle old clothing and materials to make clothing, school bags and items such as sanitary napkins for poor villagers. The GOONJ organization has just been awarded the Indian NGO of the Year award, a year after winning a UN award for its female hygeine project.

Founded in 1998 and organized entirely by volunteers, GOONJ now supplies more than 20,000 kilos of materials to poor families each and every month.  Taking the idea of recycling would-be waste to a whole new level, the GOONJ project has become well established as a distribution network able to reach the poorest areas of India.  They deal with a number of recycling issues, but their primary target is clothing.

The Global Oneness project has an interesting video interview with the founder of GOONJ.  He makes the very valid point that huge natural disasters bring international clothing assistance, but that for those with no clothes, just a regular winter is a continuing disaster.

Rasta Rags

June 21, 2008

Not to be outdone by Milan, Paris, or London, the Caribbean held its own Fashion Weekin Kingston, Jamaica, last week.

Colourful and decidedly Caribbean, I liked many of the designs.  The Moment has a good review of the show, noting that

Caribbean Fashion Week is trying to build a viable industry in a region fragmented along language lines and hampered not only by bias but also by a lack of manufacturing and limited access to materials.

“Four Dancers”

June 20, 2008

“Four Dancers” (2008), acrylics on canvas, 16″ x 20″


June 18, 2008

Listening To Mayan And Protecting Quechua

June 18, 2008

The work of making the Mayan language, as found on their numerous buildings and monuments, available to researchers today has been one of the triumphs of linguistic and anthropological research.  Success has only come in the last couple of decades, but the output of completed and ongoing projects has been immense.

It was a thrill, therefore, to fall over the Nova site supporting their TV show’s look at the decipherment of Mayan.   If you follow the link to the Interactive Feature, you can actually hear the Mayan language of a stela dedication spoken while the English translation of each glyph is discussed in brief but fascinating detail.

It is quickly being forgotten that less than twenty years ago, we did not have the technology to make this research available to any but a limited few researchers.  We need to keep reminding ourselves about how lucky we are.

Further south, in the lands of the Inca, Demetrio Tupac Yupanqui’s new translation of “Don Quixote” into Quechua is helping to boost the once-imperial language that had fallen on hard times.

Once the lingua franca of the Inca empire, Quechua has long been in decline. But thanks to Tupac Yupanqui and others, Quechua, which remains the most widely spoken indigenous language in the Americas, is winning some new respect. Tupac Yupanqui’s elegant translation of a major portion of “Don Quixote” has been celebrated as a pioneering development for Quechua, which in many far-flung areas remains an oral language. While the Incas spoke Quechua, they had no written alphabet, leaving perplexed archaeologists to wonder how they managed to assemble and run an empire without writing.

Both Google and Microsft have versions in Quechua, and the current government in Bolivia is trying to make fluency in Quechua a condition of civil service advancement.  It might well survive.

The Missing Colours

June 18, 2008

I was in a major art supply store the other day and just stood in awe in front of the acrylic paint section.  I was marveling at the different types of paint now available, fast acrylics of every colour in every possible consistency.  Hard paints, soft blending paints, liquids: guaranteed.  It is not that long ago when artists had to create and mix their own pigments, never being absolutely sure of the properties of their ingredients, and whether they would last.

It was of interest therefore to read of the work going on with modern equipment to track down faded or disappeared colours in works of art.  In particular, the now almost colourless sky of Wimslow Homer’s “Oh To Be A Farmer’s Boy” has been shown to have been a brilliant red and orange.

In preparing for the Art Institute’s major Homer exhibition, conservators discovered, using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry and visual examination through a microscope, that the painting’s white skies were originally painted in unstable red and orange dyes that have almost completely faded.

That’s neat.  But modern techniques allow for even more improvements in method.  Just a few years ago, given such information, the restorers would have been busy re-painting the original.  Now, we can retain the original as it has become (important in my judgment) and the conservators can use sophisticated software to display to the public their idea of the original painting.  This is what they have done with the Homer exhibition.  Good stuff.

A Pall On (Some) Malls

June 18, 2008

Thirty years ago when I first settled in Vancouver permanently, I lived in the Plaza Towers at the north end of the Lions Gate First Narrows Bridge.  In those days, there wasn’t much going on along Marine Drive going east from the Bridge.  But turning west off Lions Gate brought you straightaway to the Park Royal Shopping Centre.  When it was built in 1950, Park Royal was officially declared the first covered mall in Canada; and it was still a big deal in 1979. I’m sure someone told me it was the biggest shopping centre in the Commonwealth.

If Park Royal was the first mall in Canada in 1950, then Canada was a generation or more behind the United States in the development of automobile-based consumer paradises.  The first official mall is said to be the 1931 Hugh Prather design for the Highland Park Village, Dallas TX, although both the County Club Plaza in Kansas City MO (1924) and Arthur Aldis’s Market Square in Chicago IL have their supporters.  By 1951, multi-story malls were being built in the States and culminated in 1992’s Mall of America in Bloomington MI, still the largest in the county.  (When I was working with a bunch of folks in Bismarck ND a few years ago, they used to joke that a good day in North Dakota was driving to the Mall of America.)

But Canada learned quickly, and the West Edmonton Mall — with its entertainment centres and submarines — has been the largest such centre in North America since it opened in 1981.  In fact, it was the largest in the world until 2004.  In my early days here, I had several colleagues who took honeymoons or vacations to West Edmonton.  Much of downtown Vancouver has malls for several levels below each street, and we have easy transit access to suburban centres such as Metrotown.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, at least, the  mall seemed to be the centre of youth culture, driven by and thereby helping to drive post-Vietnam consumer-capitalist retail marketing.  And on the very few occasions that I visit malls — pre-Christmas mainly — these places generally still seem very busy.  However, they don’t always work.

The UAE National has a fascinating article about the largest mall in the world — the South China Mall in Dongguan, China, with 7 million square feet of available space — which

is not just the world’s largest. With fewer than a dozen stores scattered through a space designed to house 1,500, it is also the world’s emptiest – a dusty, decrepit complex of buildings marked by peeling paint, dead light bulbs, and dismembered mannequins.

The few tenants are not required to pay rent any more.   It wasn’t supposed to be this way:

Three years ago, just before the South China Mall opened, it was featured on the front page of The New York Times as part of China’s “astonishing” new consumer culture. As the Times put it, with perhaps a trace of hyperbole, the “Chinese have started to embrace America’s ‘shop till you drop’ ethos and are in the middle of a buy-at-the-mall frenzy.” A spokesman for the mall’s developer Hu Guirong, an instant-noodle billionaire, told the Times that Hu’s team had spent two years traveling the world – France, Italy, Nevada – in search of ideas. They expected the mall to average more than 70,000 visitors a day. “We wanted to do something groundbreaking,” the spokesman said. “We wanted to leave our mark on history” …

The big attraction of the South China Mall was supposed to be its “foreign” design. Learning from Las Vegas, where replicas of European monuments and New York landmarks draw throngs of tourists, the Dongguan mall modeled seven zones after various exotic world locations. Its rooftops reflect at least twenty different influences, from Czech town halls to Turkish mosques. As the mall was about to open, one of its design consultants, Ian Thomas of the Thomas Consulting Group in Vancouver, told the trade publication Shopping Centers Today that the zones were “done with such authenticity, with such great attention to detail, that you really think you’re in the real thing.”

But for all the hype, the mall has failed because the shoppers never came.  The article suggests that the mass middle class with disposable income has not yet arrived in most of China.  This, plus faulty financing and leasing plans condemned the South China Mall to its present fate.   I assume that different reasons are behind the hundreds of thousands of square feet of empty space in the US featured on  And here at home, what explains the failure of the International Centre in Chinatown when other malls succeed in the Lower Mainland?

The shopping centre is a key component of 20th century economic, retail, marketing and social history.  If you are interested in going further, you should visit here, here, and here.