Olafur Eliasson on Why the Art Market Is Counterproductive to Creativity

  • Portrait: © Ari Magg, Courtesy Studio Olafur Eliasson

“I didn’t fall in love with Olafur’s work the first time I saw it,” says Berlin-based collector Christian Boros as we walk through the current exhibition at the Langen Foundation—some 35 works by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson that Christian and his wife, Karen, have collected over the past 20 years. “For me it was too difficult to install it,” he adds. “I didn’t know why it was necessary to buy it.” Three years later, however, on a visit to Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the pair came across Ventilator (1997), and things shifted decisively. They purchased the work and went back to neugerriemschneider, the gallery whose inaugural exhibition had initially put Christian off, and bought that piece too. 

  • Olafur Eliasson – Works from the Boros Collection 1994 – 2015, Langen Foundation 2015. © Olafur Eliasson, photo: Wolfgang Vollmer

In the years since, Ventilator—which is included in the current show and consists of a suspended, spinning fan that traverses the room in which it is installed—has become one of Eliasson’s most iconic pieces and the artist himself one of contemporary art’s most wide-reaching ambassadors. Most know him for massive installations like The Weather Project (2003) or his global development initiative, Little Sun. But the current exhibition takes a different tack. “I wanted this show to put more attention on works that aren’t as spectacular or huge,” says co-curator Christiane Maria Schneider. “In the last years, Olafur has become so popular, but most only see in him a kind of stage master. I wanted to step back and look at works, even recent ones, that focus on more simple, precise, and even economical approaches.” Some of Eliasson’s largest pieces in the Boroses’ collection—Four Corners Light (2004) and Your Spiral View (2002) among them—were purposefully left out.

“It’s a new view on a lot of works,” says Karen surveying the Tadao Ando-designed space. With its natural light and views onto vast fields that once housed a NATO missile facility, the museum is at once kin to and at odds with the World War II-era Berlin bunker that houses the publicly accessible portion of the Boroses’ over 700-work-strong collection, on top of which the pair lives. Indeed, by populating each of the foundation’s halls so sparsely with works, the Boroses and Schneider have managed to inject a fresh sense of experimentation into the pieces on view. In the best possible way, the show looks much more like that of an emerging star than an art-world pillar. 

  • Olafur Eliasson – Works from the Boros Collection 1994 – 2015, Langen Foundation 2015. © Olafur Eliasson, photo: Wolfgang Vollmer

On the eve of the exhibition’s opening, Eliasson spoke to me about the importance of collectors learning to take risks, the art market’s negative effects on creativity, and how culture can change the world.

Artsy: As an artist, how does it feel to have a single collection created by one pair of collectors drive what really amounts to a decent-sized survey exhibition of your career thus far?

Olafur Eliasson: Well, after 20 years of knowing each other, it goes beyond the traditional relationship between artist and collector. With Christian and Karen, when I see them I don’t think of them as collectors; I think of them as friends. It also has to be said that the quality of their collecting has a certain robustness. I don’t mean financial robustness. I mean it has a personality. I’ve been very lucky that they have followed my evolution. But I’ve also been very happy to see that they have maintained a visionary relationship with art. There is an atmosphere in an exhibition like this that is very difficult to generate in a traditional public sector institution. The Langen Foundation has gone to great lengths to create a very specific spatial signature. It’s something that has become, sadly, more rare. They have put priority on a contemplative understanding of space. Karen and Christian have also gone to great lengths to maintain a very emotional relationship to collecting. 

Artsy: Were there certain works that you haven’t seen in a particularly long time or were surprised to see put back together for the show?

OE: Some works are presented in larger spaces than they would normally be. I was afraid they wouldn’t be able to hold their own, but they actually do very well. A couple of small works surrounded by a lot of white walls—maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise—look remarkably good. What I think is interesting is that a show like this exposes a whole other side of the phenomenon of collecting. It should be no surprise that the more conspicuous nature of collecting art—by which I mean less speculative in terms of profitability, in terms of investment—has recently become the more predominant view of what collecting is. The truth is that there are actually collectors around like Christian and Karen who are taking great risks, buying really difficult work, and doing things on their own initiative. Of course, we would hope that shows like this can inspire younger collectors, young people in the private sector, to be more willing to take risks, to be less conspicuous, and to essentially have more trust in art and culture in general. We’re seeing a lot of young collectors who are coming to terms with what risk really means. A show like this could be an indicator of how taking on risk when purchasing works can be its own huge success.

Artsy: It seems important to continue to communicate that there is a return on investment—if you want to go that far—that art provides that’s not monetary or quantifiable.

OE: It’s also important that we don’t alienate them or make fun of them. We need to inspire them to gain more confidence. How can they know better if they only go to art fairs? Without knowing it maybe, art fairs exercise such hostility towards art. The auction houses are also so career-oriented. And, in general, the whole sector of the art world that we call the “art market” has itself lost confidence in artistic values. So the people who enter the art world through the art market, I’m not surprised,  become very conspicuous because the art market is not the best ambassador or representative for art. Sadly, on the contrary, it has become counterproductive to creativity.

Artsy: This show is also unique in not just showing the huge installations and other large-scale projects that you have worked on, but rather focuses on many of the smaller, more contemplative works from the collection.

OE: The truth is that a lot of my shows try to promote this intimacy but it’s just become a trend in the media to cover the experience economy side of things. I’m not quite a skeptic on the experience economy, but the fact that most people think that all my works are very large also has to do with the fact that the media tends to follow more large-scale, event-driven, and spectacular works. But for me the potential in the large-scale works and in the small-scale works is equal: it is about art and it is about intimacy and quality, and to a great extent experiential conditions and atmospheric languages. All of my big works are about the same things as my small works.

  • Olafur Eliasson – Works from the Boros Collection 1994 – 2015, Langen Foundation 2015. © Olafur Eliasson, photo: Wolfgang Vollmer

Artsy: Does the media then also threaten the breadth of possible creativity in your view?

OE: On the contrary, I’m very interested in the potential offered by online media. If I was a broadcaster, without hesitating a second, I would do a Cultural Online Broadcasting Service, that would be C-O-B-S. I have great confidence in the cultural sector being able to create new networks and new alliances across disciplinary boundaries. Maybe not art alone, but I think that the trust that art and culture enjoy from civic society is something that can be turned into great momentum. In every small town, in every suburban area, in every part of the world, there is cultural activity: a small exhibition platform, a theater, or some kind of space for interaction, in which the policeman is suddenly collaborating with people he would never otherwise collaborate with and the audience is encouraged to contemplate things that they would otherwise think about in a more compartmentalized way. That’s why the cultural sector enjoys so much trust.

That’s also why the private sector and the luxury sector are increasingly buying into culture, because they are struggling with a loss of trust due to the financial crisis, shareholder driven decisions, non-ethical brand management, and so on. Now is our chance for the cultural sector to see how we can benefit from the private sector, now that they need us. I’m one of the more moderate people in the art world who think we should try to develop a relationship where we can benefit. The truth is, the cultural sector could use the private money. And it’s an illusion to think that the public money—which we should still maintain and exercise our relationship to—is free. We have seen a public sector that has gained a private quality: due diligence languages, for example. The public sector is not public anymore. It’s all one.   

—Alexander Forbes

Olafur Eliasson: Works from the Boros Collection 1994–2015” is on view at the Langen Foundation, Neuss, Apr. 18–Oct 18, 2015.

Explore the Langen Foundation on Artsy.

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