According to a recent Bloomberg report, art stars Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst saw the prices for their work fall 50% last year at auction. Could this be proof that the bubble has burst on speculative art investing, as it did for real estate and other markets? London art critic Ben Lewis jauntily explores the roots of that question in his illuminating and deliberately bullheaded docu “The Great Contemporary Art Bubble,” which easily found a receptive aud at the Palm Springs Film Fest, though his Cassandra-like warning will take some creative handling to expand beyond the smallscreen Stateside.
Lewis, who also hosted BBC4’s “Art Safari” series, belongs to the Nick Broomfield school of self-reflexive documentary filmmakers, and as such, he makes “Bubble” about his personal crusade to expose the sneaky dealings that keep prices high (and headline writers salivating) in the contemporary art world. It’s highly entertaining for the masses who can’t wrap their heads around the multimillion-dollar pricetags commanded by pickled sharks and shiny steel hearts, though anyone with money to spend in that world already knows what Lewis pretends to expose.
The pic argues that auctions are theater, the prices absurd (with multiyear payment plans negotiated by the houses in secret), and much of the buying is done by those who already own an artist’s work, hoping that higher prices drive up the value of their entire collection. That last point is perhaps the most controversial, with Lewis confronting two unusually candid megacollectors on the subject: Aby Rosen and Alberto Mugrabi (who owns so many Warhols that, as Lewis points out, if art were regulated, his 9% stake would amount to cornering the market).
Though art-world entrepreneur Charles Saatchi helped trigger the outlandish prices commanded by Hirst and his fellow Young British Artists, he warrants only a brief mention in a film aimed at the period between 2003 and 2008, when an influx of oil money, Russian investors and speculation in recent Chinese art drove the prices in Sotheby’s and Christie’s contemporary sales up by 800%. With a finite number of impressionist and modernist paintings available, these new investors turned to work by living artists.
Are top sellers Hirst, Koons, Takashi Murakami, Anselm Reyle and Zhang Xiaogang the best artists of our age? Though Lewis reserves judgment, he appeals to those already skeptical of modern art’s value, and is more than happy to reveal several reasons why such work dominates auctions: Today’s richest collectors have large lofts to fill, and these artists’ work comes big, often in multiples, produced by teams of assistants and blessed by powerful gallerists and collectors alike.
In Lewis’ most outrageous stunt, the helmer attempts to confront Hirst dealers Jay Jopling and Larry Gagosian (the Rogers to his Michael Moore) with a leaked inventory of Hirst’s unsold works. Lewis’ access to artists proves more successful; he pays visits to Reyle’s and Zhang’s studios, where he asks the pros how they feel about the commodification of their work, and even tracks down the wealthy Asian businessman who purchased Zhang’s record-setting Bloodline painting.
All this globe-trotting around London, New York and China gives Lewis’ adventure a sense of excitement. To accentuate his roving-reporter persona, the director opens the film by commissioning German artist Tobias Rehberger to pimp his tiny electric car, then shows himself puttering about in it between scenes.
Whatever the auction world may say in its own defense, Lewis picked the right time to make his statement. On the same “Black Monday” that Lehman Brothers went under, Hirst was hosting his “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” sale, and though he managed to sell a fresh batch of work at record prices, it’s been mostly downhill since. Don’t be surprised, however, to see this bubble return.