Paris Photo 2017: A Can't-Miss Festival of Verbosity
From the reflection in the glass ceiling above, 90 of the best photography galleries in the world are rendered miniscule by the sheer immensity of Grand Palais, looking more like a kindergartner’s ant farm than a hyper concentration of the most verbose students in your intro art history class.
Yet on the ground, in a maze of erected white gallery walls—with a few colorful exceptions for galleries with enough clout—there is an undeniable buzz of glamour and who’s-who. This grandeur is augmented all the more by the imposing Beaux Arts architecture of the Grand Palais, which was designed for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 to reflect “the glory of French art.” As one of the biggest indoor spaces in all of Paris, Grand Palais sees over 1.5 million visitors per year.
The spread of mini galleries within the main 240-meter-long space of Grand Palais is so immense that just a few arbitrary choices can change your viewing experience of hundreds of photographs. Most people tend to veer to the right upon entry, guided by little more than brighter colors and a predetermined stream of foot traffic. This can feel quite limiting given the intensity of intellectual stimulation that comes from seeing so many beautiful photographs in such a short succession.
There are endless possibilities to experience Paris Photo. Mine came as an overwhelmed amateur art critic, trying to go with the lingo as a former translator at Galerie Quang in the Marais and as someone who was one of those verbose students in many art history classes.
(The only photograph taken here by me, as seen on my Instagram).
Going left and starting at the back after a brief foray to the right gave me a different perspective as I caught thankful glances from otherwise lonely gallery attendees, usually staffers having traveled great lengths for the half-week show.
Beyond the normal spectator experience are the higher-end paths of the prospective buyers and the media. Putting on my hat as a journalist for “un blog New Yorkais,” I was given a slightly upgraded experience—though by no means as lavish as the art dealers—occasionally receiving guided tours of the gallery, and, always, getting a press kit, or worse, getting on the email chain for a press kit.
These kits—ostensibly biographies and useful information about the artists and galleries—have a remarkable way of saying a lot while not really saying anything at all. Think of them as a well designed and voluminous print version of Ivanka Trump.
Some, however, have no need for such an exercise. Martin Liebscher, for example, is a professor from Dusseldorf who is known for his eccentric collages, where he often poses as the model for photographs and then edits in different versions of himself to form a group portrait. His eye-catching “FIFA Boardroom, 2017” drew laughter from nearly every passerby I saw, even those who did not speak any of the languages on the wall text. The scene resembles a music video from Run The Jewels, only this one sells for over $30,000.
Liebscher’s team from Germany were practiced pros, doling out cost estimates and Deutsch puns left and right while stealing all of the buzz from their Danish and Chinese neighbors. As for the artist himself? He had class to teach on Monday and could not attend the weekend’s showing.
New York’s photography scene was aptly represented, from powerhouses like Gallery Bruce Silverstein to elite artists like Matthew Pillsbury taking up sizeable real estate towards the center of the exhibition. Pillsbury, known for his long exposure street scenes that show the ephemerality of human activity and the permanence of nature and architecture, had a few stand out shots from the Women’s March and DACA protests in Manhattan.
One peculiar and surprising aspect of the exhibition was the lack of female photographers, even among the most diverse photography geo-centers like New York, London, Berlin, Paris, and Tokyo. The gender divides were stark elsewhere, as well. Most of the art dealers moving about were older white men, while most of the folks attending to the gallery spaces themselves were female staffers—again, mostly white. While many featured female curators and directors, few boasted mere equity in representation among male and female artists. By no means, however, was there a shortage of female naked bodies to be photographed.
Some galleries featured no longer active or even deceased artists, such as Hungarian Gallery ACB, whose main star was Karowy Kismanyoky, an innovative photographer whose whereabouts are either unknown or lost in translation between the gallery assistant and I. Kismanyoky became obsessed with critiquing the Soviet Union and presenting his work in fours, the latter of which was far more intriguing in a gallery with perhaps some of the worst real estate in the entire Palais. The mystery of what in the world this guy has been doing—or if he's even alive—since pioneering the neo-Avant Garde in the 1970s made the exhibit all the more irresistible.
The conversations overheard in the maze ranged on the full spectrum of genuine curiosity to rehearsed verbosity, often with the latter winning out four times out of five. Variations of "what is a work of art?" were mixed in with musings about "positionality" and "the aesthetic of non-aesthetics." While interiority and the nature of existence were certainly being mulled about in myriad internal monologues, the oral product often nauseated this reporter.
Yet one couple broke the mould.
A woman in her late sixties and a man in his late eighties waltzed around in a parallel path to mine most of the evening, with the husband photographing his wife in front of each mini-gallery. Why do this in one of the world's most prestigious photography exhibits, I asked? (En français, bien sûr.)
"Sometimes a photograph of a photograph is more valuable than the original thing, and my wife is the most beautiful work of art here," the man said.
When I asked for their names, they said "there's no press kit for that," and shared a laugh with me before we parted ways.