EVEN artists’ fag ends will sell as art but neon artworks are the cheese sandwiches of art. These are just two of the delicious quotes from documentary-maker and British art critic Ben Lewis in his film The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, to be screened at the Encounters Documentary Festival.
Ben gives us access to New York art collectors’ homes, and interviews astute art market reporters, curators, art dealers, museum directors and economists.
This intriguing documentary gives context to a time when the global economy was booming, when oil was $147 a barrel, there were over 1 000 billionaires on the planet and the thing that went up faster than anything else was contemporary art.
It was, as Ben explains, a time when Andy Warhol’s Green Car Crash sold for $72 million and Damien Hirst’s butterfly paintings were priced at $9m and collectors bought hundreds of them. As art correspondent Godfrey Baker plays it out: “This is the market that makes a lot of money for a lot of people and it does it far faster than Wall Street and more predictably.”
If you care about the world of art fairs, biennales and art auctions and a time when the super rich fluttered about contemporary art, you’ll be sucked in.
“It was a time of the biggest rise in the financial value of art in the history of the world,” says Ben of the art bubble he doggedly spent a year investigating to expose how art is exploited by the richest people to make even more money out of it. Statistics reveal the 55 percent increase in value of contemporary art, compared to the Old Masters at 7.6 percent, during 2006 and 2007.
We witness the historic moment when a Francis Bacon triptych sold for $77m at Sotheby’s. Annoyingly, Sotheby’s refused to enter into the debate about art as a commodity as Ben argues that: “They think the good times will never end.”
We learn how debt drives the bubble, how auction rooms control art prices. We learn of tax avoidance and how billionaires have hijacked art history money.
Ben is a charming narrator and we follow his investigation as he exposes a dishonest system in the art world. My sole criticism is it only gets juicy after about 50 minutes.
Essentially, Ben was motivated to make this documentary because he didn’t like what was happening in the art world. He rightly felt much art was being mass-produced, was repetitive and commercial.
“Collectors bought it for investment and stored it in warehouses,” he says, and shows us exactly that.
Noise of Cairo is another great documentary. It is about freedom of expression for artists after the Arab Spring, specifically in Egypt. Directed by Heiko Lange, it is beautifully shot and provides sensitive insight and a meaningful barometer of the time after the revolution.
We meet stencil street-artists, art commentators, dancers and curators. It is interesting that it is the dancers who are most subtle in reflecting this historical mood.
Contemporary dancer Ezzat Ismail shares a beautiful bench street dance. It is wonderfully conceptual, most poignant and heartfelt. It was shot in black and white during the curfew and just 200m from tanks with soldiers watching him dance in his black leathers under a streetlight.
“This performance is about what will happen next; this waiting provokes fear and happiness, a mix of feelings… same time you are afraid as it might get worse or better, it is the fear of the unknown,” says the dancer. “But now is the time to show everyone.”
“Egypt is such a complex society,” explains choreographer Karina Mansour in an interview.
“We have veiled women but we also have women like me and I am a dancer working with the body… I am not particularly interested to create work directly related to the revolution, it is a fine line between using it to sell something which I feel would be too easy, cheap.
“What lots of the participants in the dance workshop said to me is they want to do something but they don’t want to do something about the revolution. When you see the work it is there, but it is not there, moments of chaos and joy… all related to that.”
The scene where Karina’s dancers evoke raw energy with a biting sense of Egypt’s turbulent history and how that energy transforms is riveting. Dancers in an old Cairo warehouse create a sublime performance that is meaningful and memorable.
“The state theatres have to change… if they don’t, we will have to walk in and squat… because it is enough,” insists Karina as artists in Egypt still struggle to enjoy wider access.
The Encounters Documentary Festival is in its 12th year with 29 international and 22 SA films. Expect compelling documentaries, award-winners, festival darlings, a few SA world premieres and fresh student films.
l The Encounters Documentary Festival is from June 7 to 24 at the Nu Metro V&A and Ster Kinekor Cavendish. See numetro.co.za or www.sterkinekor.com or call The Fugard Theatre at 021 461 4554.