Financial Times, May 27, 2006
From sharks to video installations, some
work is harder to own than others.
Tracey Taylor finds out how to
display “difficult” art
Four years ago a story about a melting human blood sculpture surfaced in the media. The slightly sniggering undertone was hard to miss. It was reported that a work owned by Charles Saatchi – a cast of a head made of nine pints of frozen, congealed blood – had been accidentally destroyed when the freezer in which it was being stored was disconnected by builders refitting the art collector’s kitchen.
The rumour was denied by Saatchi who, one could argue, had the last laugh last year, when he sold the piece – “Self” by Marc Quinn – for $1.5m, a tidy return on the $13,000 investment he had reputedly made to acquire it in 1991.
Still, the melting story raises a serious question about the challenges of displaying contemporary art, much of which does not come conveniently framed or in sizes appropriate to the average domestic interior. Even Jay Jopling, the dealer who sold Saatchi the Quinn piece – and who is presumably unfazed by works involving pickled sharks (Damien Hirst) and rumpled beds (Tracey Emin) – acknowledged that “Self” requires “a bit of commitment on the part of the collector”.
Sometimes just the effort required to accommodate a piece – because it is unwieldy or just plain enormous (say a Louise Bourgeois bronze spider or a work by French conceptual artist Daniel Buren whose signature painted stripes might take over several walls) testifies to the purchaser’s devotion.
As an international art consultant based in Brussels, Oliver Toegemann has seen his fair share of art works that require commitment. His company Slegten & Toegemann has helped many private clients integrate unconventional pieces into their homes by reinforcing floors for heavy items or removing balustrades and railings to facilitate installation.
Toegemann also knows about bringing controversial subjects out of the gallery and into the domestic realm. “With contemporary art, the feeling quite often is the more provocative the better. Take Jeff Koons’ pornographic series ‘Made in Heaven’, or Christian Boltanski’s installations with their images of Holocaust victims. These are aesthetically difficult, yet they are iconic pieces that find their way into collectors’ homes,” he says.
Anyone who hangs them in a living room or foyer must be brazen enough to withstand criticism and even expressions of disgust. This advice comes from personal experience. Toegemann himself lives with “The Healing of St Thomas” by Anish Kapoor, which consists of a deep cut in a wall filled with red pigment. “It looks like an open wound and we get many comments [since it] has a very strong presence,” he says.
He also owns a piece by Carl Andre, the American artist best known for his controversial “pile of bricks” work, “Equivalent VIII”, owned by the Tate Modern. Toegemann’s Andre piece “Valver” is made up of a number of thin, flat metal tiles, which he initially chose to display on the floor in front an ornate marble fireplace. “The piece always provokes the same reaction – ‘This is art?’ – and then nobody dares to step on it, although Andre’s whole idea was to liberate sculpture from its pedestal and to encourage people to walk on it.”
If someone did damage the work by stepping on it, there would be no gnashing of teeth. The work comes with a signed artist’s certificate, Toegemann explains, and, as long as replacement tiles are made according to the specifications on it, the art work remains authentic.
The idea that an artist’s input is not always necessary to the work raises interesting issues when it comes to the ownership and display of works. Lawrence Weiner, a sculptor whose medium is language, first settled on the idea that the original construction of a piece was not critical to its existence in 1968 after one of his outdoor installations was damaged. He concluded that a work such as his “A Stake Set”, which in one variation might be those three words spelled out in capital letters on a wall, could equally well be read in a book or even uttered aloud.
Other art works that might pose challenges – but at the very least will make for stimulating dinner conversation – are those made from perishable materials. German artist Dieter Roth relished working with materials such as rabbit excrement, salami and chocolate. He liked to make time visible by allowing organic objects to decompose. Similarly one can literally watch an artwork vanish with a canvas created with disappearing paint by the American Richard Prince.
Richard and Pamela Kramlich understand well the demands contemporary art can make on owners. The San Francisco couple, beneficiaries of Silicon Valley’s gold-rush years, have what is widely agreed to be the world’s pre-eminent private collection of new-media and electronic art. The pieces by artists such as Matthew Barney, Bruce Nauman, Doug Aitken and Bill Viola they’ve collected since the early 1990s all require varying amounts of technological equipment – DVD monitors, computers, projectors, as well as intricate webs of electronic cables.
The Kramlichs have chosen to live with this jabbering, noisy, visually stimulating, sometimes jarring ensemble in what their curator, Christopher Eamon, describes as their “1929 Tudor neo-neo-Gothic” home in the desirable neighbourhood of Presidio Heights. As Eamon describes it, a guest at the Kramlich residence might wake up to a partial projection of Rheinhard Mucha’s “Auto-Reverse” on the wall behind his bed. Sitting in one of the living areas, he might find Gilbert and George chattering away in their “Portrait of the Artists as Young Men” on a television next to the sofa.
One of the first works the Kramlichs acquired, and one that set the tone for future acquisitions, is Dara Birnbaum’s “Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission (1990)”, which examines the role of the media in the Chinese student uprising and which the artist installed herself in the couple’s grand stairwell. Physically, the piece consists of a cascade of four laser displayers, four sets of directional speakers, four monitors and one large monitor.
The Kramlichs have said they enjoy sharing home with what amounts to around 12 installations and 30 media works, depending on what is out on loan to museums at any one time. It’s rather remarkable considering the fact that even some new-media artists admit they can’t spend prolonged time with their difficult-to-ignore art. As Birnbaum told Wired magazine in 1999: “I’d go crazy if I lived with my own work all the time.”
Apart from the difficulty of going about one’s daily business surrounded by such serious distractions, the Kramlichs must also address issues particular to electronic art. There is the impermanence of the technology, for instance, which raises questions about future value. And there is the fact that, unlike a painting or sculpture, their art can be “switched off”.
For some, the solution to accommodating challenging art is to reject the very notion and come up with a new idea altogether. Tired of what he saw as the trend to treat art as a commodity in the mid 1980s, Steven Oliver, a prominent West Coast businessman and board chair at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, decided to commission artists to create site- specific sculptures at his ranch in Alexander Valley, California. He now has a series of exceptional, outsize pieces by artists including Richard Serra, Nauman, Martin Puryear and Ann Hamilton spread out over the wild, open landscape. Not for him the worries of integration, disintegration or valuation. As he says: “This is art in its process form – I can’t sell it. I can’t give it away. I can only enjoy the experience of its creation and existence.”