Monthly Archives: June 2014

Twin Passions: the Gensollens and La Fabrique

This portrait of the Gensollens and their collection appeared in the FT:

A marble plaque on the outside of La Fabrique – a converted textile mill in Marseille that houses one of the most rarefied private collections of contemporary art in France – commemorates a “conspiracy” between the Swiss artist-activist Gianni Motti and the collector couple Josée and Marc Gensollen, which took place behind its walls on November 15 2013. The exact nature of this act, apparently directed against the contemporary art market, is a secret the Gensollens will not divulge.

To conspire, from the Latin conspirare, literally means “to breathe together” and, for all we know, the private performance may have involved just that. The kind of art the couple of practising psychiatrists find most stimulating – and avidly collect – is often as insubstantial as thin air. It can amount to a mere sentence, a set of instructions to be activated in live art pieces by Tino Sehgal, Roman Ondák or Pierre Joseph, whose pedigree can be traced to the early conceptual works of Stanley Brouwn, Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth, which date to the 1960s and hold pride of place in the collection.

Psychiatrists and psychoanalysts by training, Josée and Marc Gensollen, who now share a practice, met in their early twenties and started collecting art together when they were still students. Their first acquisitions, which go back to 1973-74, consisted of prints by surrealists whose work was familiar to them through their studies. They discovered minimalist and conceptual art by reading Art Press. “The magazine brought together our two main interests – psychoanalysis and contemporary creation,” says Marc. But it was seeing the Marcel Duchamp retrospective in 1977 at the newly inaugurated Centre Pompidou in Paris that led to the “radicalisation” of their collection, he says.

Josée and Marc Gensollen
©Cyrus Cornut Josée and Marc Gensollen at La Fabrique with ‘The Yielding Stone’ (1992) by Gabriel Orozco

Immaterial and ephemeral artworks may be among the Gensollens’ most cherished possessions but there are enough actual objects from the collection on display for a tour of La Fabrique to last well over three hours. The 1,000 sq metre live-in exhibition space can accommodate about a fifth of the collection’s 500-odd pieces, whose hanging changes yearly, allowing the collectors to make new connections between works.

The Gensollens take visitors around their collection themselves. They work inordinately long hours, hence the nocturnal character of some of these tours, which tend to start around 10pm on a weekday. Visits are by appointment and mainly through word of mouth. “So far,” Marc assures me, “we have not denied a single request.”

My private tour of what has gradually become the collectors’ home since they acquired the ruined building in 2000 and set about renovating it with the aid of Marseille-based architect Harald Sylvander, began shortly after 8pm on a Saturday. The decision to live among their artworks in a former factory – not unlike the Ghent-based collectors Annick and Anton Herbert and Erika Hoffmann in Berlin, whose collections they admire – has certain lifestyle implications. “You could say we have no furniture,” says Josée. “For a long time we made do without even a sofa in the lounge.”

To say the Gensollens have no furniture isn’t quite true. The bed with its black satin spread in the guest bedroom where Tino Sehgal has stayed is an installation by French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, “The Milwaukee Room” (1997). What looks deceptively like a ceiling fan, whirring round in the adjacent corridor, is a mobile sculpture by Gabriel Orozco. The colourful dining room chairs are by Franz West, and the row of lamps hung above it are Liam Gillick’s work.

Dining-room chairs by Franz West
©Cyrus Cornut Dining-room chairs by Franz West, and lamps by Liam Gillick

When asked why they work 15-hour days, they reply: “How else would we feed our artists?” The couple have made a point of supporting young artists, and were among the early collectors of Sehgal, Ondák and Pierre Huyghe, whose 1997 video “Blanche-Neige Lucie”, included in Huyghe’s recent retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, is one of the moving image works projected on the lower-ground level, near Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “Roller: Cinéma de Ville” (1998) installation.

According to Liam Gillick, it is their ability to reconfigure relationships between artworks and create daring juxtapositions that makes the couple interesting as collectors. The Gensollens own several of his works, including one of the platforms designed as potential discussion spaces, currently installed above “The Milwaukee Room”. They started collecting his work in the 1990s, which the artist sees in hindsight as their way of “buying him time”.

In the past, Gillick’s relationship with his patrons has been mediated by Air de Paris, one of several galleries that has helped the collectors spot young talent over the years. (Paris-based Michel Rein and Chantal Crousel, Jan Mot in Brussels and Esther Schipper in Berlin also frequently crop up in conversation.) But, in the past few years, the Gensollens have taken to commissioning site-specific works, made with La Fabrique in mind, directly from artists.

‘ZNS (Zentralnervensystem)’ by Didier Faustino
©Didier Faustino/ADAGP ‘ZNS (Zentralnervensystem)’ (2006) by Didier Faustino

Even before the building works were completed, they invited French-Portuguese artist and architect Didier Faustino to conceive a piece for the basement patio. Faustino came up with an extendable, nodal structure, designed to hold two people facing each other in a foetus-like position. The work is intended as a portrait of the couple as collectors and psychiatrists, sharing everything – their passion, their profession. Called “ZNS (Zentralnervensystem)” (2006) after a song by German band Einstürzende Neubauten, at first glance it resembles the brain with its two hemispheres but, for Faustino, it is also a heart, a nest within the built space.

After we retire to the library, Marc suddenly bends over and makes a sweeping gesture with his arms while uttering an inhuman grunt. He catches me unawares: I can hardly make out the individual words of the title of Sehgal’s 2003 “This is about”. Collecting, as the Gensollens conceive of it, does have its moments.


Ian Kiaer: Tooth House

This preview of Ian Kiaer’s “Tooth House” at the Henry Moore Institute appeared in Mousse magazine:

Courtesy Private Collection, Paris, Marcelle Alix Galerie, Paris and Alison Jacques Gallery, London
Photo: Aurélien Mole

In a famous episode of François Rabelais’ Pantagruel (c. 1532), the narrator Alcofribas boldly ventures into the eponymous giant’s mouth by climbing up his tongue. He begins his vivid account of the “new world” he finds therein by likening the lofty interior to Hagia Sophia, which had made a deep impression on Renaissance travellers: “I walked there as they do in Sophia (at) Constantinople, and saw there great rocks, like the mountains in Denmark – I believe that those were his teeth.”

Destabilizing shifts of perspective and scale, from the micro- to the macroscopic, characterize Ian Kiaer’s precarious arrangements of seemingly disparate objects, hovering between painting and sculpture. A selection of works made by the London-based artist since 2005, some old, some new, are brought together at the Henry Moore Institute – a space dedicated to the expanded field of sculpture – in a solo exhibition that will tour to Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea later in the summer.

Like Kiaer’s Endless Theatre Project before it, the show is named after one of architect and designer Frederick Kiesler’s unrealized visionary projects, a housing unit shaped like a tooth holding many cavities, rapidly sketched out in a series of drawings made around 1948-50. Fraught with literary, architectural and scientific allusions, the mystifying but seductive titles of individual works on view take some unpacking. The 2013 a. r. nef, sol, for instance, references the theories of the Italian architect Aldo Rossi, as well as indicating the work’s placement since sol is French for “ground” (ironically, the work will be installed high up on the wall at the Henry Moore Institute), whereas the German compound word Erdrindenbau in one of the project titles translates as something like “building fashioned from the earth’s crust”. While each offers a point of entry and generates possible meanings for the work, ultimately they run the risk of deflecting attention from the artworks themselves.

Spread over three gallery spaces with ceilings of different heights, Kiaer’s works roughly fall into three groups corresponding to different or entwined series. Gallery 1 contains the earliest pieces on display, the two-part 2005 Grey Cloth project: Glashaus and several works from the 2006 Erdrindenbau project. In both, delicate works on paper transcribe into flattened out, spherical shapes equally frail, three-dimensional architectural objects or models (a miniature version of Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion, designed with the German writer and architectural critic Paul Scheerbart for the 1914 Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne, and a translucent fan-powered inflatable); the muted pink in a detail of the one – the taffeta deer straddling the floor and the board leaning against the wall in Erdindenbau project: Scheerbart picture (pink deer) – contrasts with the acid yellow and green touches in the other.

Color is also used sparely but effectively in Gallery 2, which spans works made between 2009 and 2014, mainly from the eclectic “Black tulip” series, whose title references Alexandre Dumas’ novel of the same name. These share the space with two large-scale a. r. nef, sol pieces, hung on the wall dividing the first two galleries, next to the entrance, and four new works belonging to the 2014 “Tooth House” series, which spills over into Gallery 3, housing a moving image projection titled Tooth House, companion and a vast site-specific ceiling piece. The odd bright orange accents of the latter series are a counterpoint to the black floor pieces and the use of materials essentially void of colour, such as plastic, foil, polystyrene, and bubble-wrap (here and there soiled with coffee and tea stains in the case of Black tulip, offset, stain of 2012), or aluminium and silver leaf for the two a.r. nef, sol pieces, made using a frottage technique, their bristly silver-foil surface flaking off in places.

Carefully positioned in relation to each other, individual pieces and ensembles of two- and three-dimensional objects subtly reconfigure the spatial boundaries of the exhibition rooms they inhabit. The spindly, six-metre tall Offset/black tulip (frame), which dates to 2009, spans the height of the room, connecting up the floor and the ceiling, just as the silver-foil flakes fallen to the ground in a.r. nef, sol enfold the floor within the work’s sphere. Elements of architecture singled out in the titles of the Tooth House series (“wall”, “floor”, “plinth”, “line”, “shadow”, “corner”, “ceiling”), in an anatomy of sorts, are less discrete and more continuous than would appear at first, in keeping with Kiesler’s magical conception of architecture. In an unfinished essay on the subject (“Magic Architecture: Origin and Future – The Story of Human Housing”), Kiesler insists that magic architecture is “not dream-architecture, like temples or castles; it is an architecture of every-day, every-moment reality, an implement of contact.”

Dhaka Art Summit

This review of the Dhaka Art Summit appeared in frieze:


Rana Begum, No. 473 (detail), 2013–14, handwoven baskets and string, dimensions variable

Until recently, due to the absence of any kind of contemporary art infrastructure, the capital of Bangladesh was hardly recognized as an art world destination. But, owing to the efforts of the Samdani Art Foundation, which was set up in 2011 by Dhaka-based collectors Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, it is fast becoming one. Despite being modelled on the India Art Fair in Delhi – with its gallery booths, solo art projects and speakers’ forum – the biannual Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) prides itself on being more than a purely commercial venture. A new initiative with an unusual format, DAS is still in the process of defining itself. It is also free of charge to visitors and exhibitors alike.

Although Bangladeshi artists were the focus of the first edition in 2012, this year the Samdanis and their team decided to widen the geographical scope by inviting artists from Afghanistan, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The three-day fest of contemporary art drew a crowd of 70,000 visitors, including over a 1,000 school children who took part in workshops.

That an event of this scale and sophistication should have taken place without a hitch – amidst strikes staged in the aftermath of contested national elections that all but ground the city to a halt for a month – was a remarkable feat. Aside from the Raqs Media Collective’s Meanwhile/Elsewhere (2014), which comprised road signs and billboards with sleek double clock faces showing word associations in Bangla in lieu of numbers, and Asim Waqif’s No Fly Zone (2014), a drifting sculpture spelling the titular words with helium-filled balloons, the 14 solo art projects, five curated exhibitions, 33 gallery booths, panel discussions, film screenings and performances were spread out over three floors of the government-run Shilpakala Academy that ordinarily houses the National Art Gallery and Academy of Fine and Performing Arts.

Though some compromises had to be made to accommodate local laws, the authorities chose to turn a blind eye to sexual content (the word pairing of ‘Electric/Orgasm’, for example, on one of Raqs Media Collective’s billboards); politics (Naeem Mohaiemen’s single-issue newspaper in Bangla only – a gleeful take on the news ten years from now if the revolutionary left had come to power in 1971, when the country gained its independence from Pakistan); and activism (Bangladeshi filmmaker Molla Sagar’s poignant 2011 documentary Siren about farmers affected by the closure of jute mills).

With a few exceptions – Shahzia Sikander’s mesmerizing three-channel video animation Parallax (2013); Afghani filmmaker Lida Abdul’s haunting short films; and some of Jitish Kallat’s photographs – the solo art projects were commissioned by the Samdani Art Foundation and sensitively curated by its artistic director Diana Campbell Betancourt, who had to cope with technical difficulties and a lack of adequate equipment to install what was a beautifully mounted exhibition. A highlight of the show was Shilpa Gupta’s arresting mixed-media installation (Untitled, 2014) documenting the plight of some 50,000 people trapped in a legal no-man’s-land known as chhitmahal – Indo-Bangladeshi enclaves whose inhabitants are barred from the most basic amenities.

The 14 solo art projects showcased work by established and internationally acclaimed artists, many of whom live in London and New York when they are not in India – the one country that dominates the regional arts scene. To see the work of emerging artists from Bangladesh and other South Asian countries that do not boast India’s or Pakistan’s art or educational facilities (an issue touched on at the Cross-Generational and Pioneer Panels), one had to look to the experimental film and performance programme curated by Mahbubur Rahman, co-founder of the Dhaka-based non-profit artist collective Britto Arts Trust, which staged one of the collateral shows, ‘Cross Casting’, or else to the Samdani Art Award, jointly run with the Delfina Foundation in London, for which ten projects by local artists had been selected.

Local artists included Yasmin Jahan Nupur, a member of the Britto Arts Trust, who, for her performance Sat on a Chair (2014), was perched high up on a seat bound to a pillar in a vertigo-inducing three-hour performance; and Ayesha Sultana, winner of the Samdani Art Award, who wove statements from her journals onto velvet with gold and silver thread. As well as representing the youngest generation of Bangladeshi artists at the Cross-Generational Panel, Sultana’s work featured alongside that of more established artists such as Rana Begum or Mohaiemen – whose series of delicate blue-grey sandstone sculptures echoed the outlines of family photographs placed above them – in curator Deepak Ananth’s spare ‘B/DESH’, one of the more captivating group shows organized along national, formal and thematic lines.

Although uneven (‘Liberty’, with its hotchpotch of figurative and abstract painting by contemporary Bangladeshi artists, was a particularly weak link), the five exhibitions reflected a desire on the organizers’ part to include the local arts scene – and this was one of its great strengths. Ultimately, DAS was a remarkable achievement: less an alternative to an art fair than a highly original model for a multi-faceted art event.

Real Time: Sensory Ethnography Lab

This piece about the Sensory Ethnography Lab appeared in frieze:


Véréna Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Leviathan, 2012, film still. Courtesy the directors and Cinema Guild.

During a conversation held at my local cinema in Brixton, London, following the preview screening of their documentary film Leviathan (2012), directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor mused about the possibility of a mobile, free-floating or invisible laboratory, unfettered by any institutional affiliations. A utopian proposition waiting for an architect to take up the challenge, this ‘invisible lab’ would be an off-shoot of the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) – a graduate centre with production facilities for making audio-visual work drawing on anthropological methods – which Castaing-Taylor set up in 2006 at Harvard University.

The SEL itself might as well be mobile and/or invisible. When I initially approached Castaing-Taylor to see whether he would let me visit it, I was told there is nothing much to be seen: it’s just some cameras and other equipment lying around, and the filmmakers and anthropologists associated with the Lab are, as he put it, ‘scattered around the world rather than sitting tight at Harvard’. The steady flow of award-winning documentary features and shorts produced at the Lab in the last eight years – by its director, teaching staff and doctoral students alike – has indeed been filmed anywhere from Montana, New York, China and Nepal to Switzerland, Cuba and Lebanon, on land, at sea and up in the air, depending on the research interests and chosen fieldwork locations of individual SEL affiliates.

Equipment and a range of filmmaking techniques are a big part of SEL’s success story. The kind of experimentation fostered at this laboratory of sights and sounds often hinges on the technical possibilities and limitations of the chosen filming or recording device. Filmed in a single, fluid tracking shot, J.P. Sniadecki and Libbie Dina Cohn’s 75-minute feature People’s Park (2012) would have been unthinkable before the advent of the digital, since a standard 1,000-feet film reel yields only ten minutes of footage at most. (It took the filmmakers 23 takes, shot over the course of a single day in a busy park in Chengdu, China, to arrive at the final cut.) The latest film from SEL to win a double prize at the Locarno Film Festival, Manakamana (2013), by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, consists of 11 long takes, each lasting about ten minutes, the length of a 16mm reel, which happens to tally with the duration of a single journey by cable-car to and from the eponymous temple in Nepal.

The film rests upon this formal conceit: each successive cable-car ride, bearing a colourful array of modern-day pilgrims, is shot from within using a fixed camera; the temporary black-out that occurs upon the arrival of each car at the station furnishes an eerie, dreamlike transition between the different takes. A staple of SEL filmmaking, long-take shots are also used to frame Aryo Danusiri’s hour-long high-definition video On Broadway (2010). It portrays an anonymous Manhattan basement space converted by means of a vast blue tarpaulin sheet (that we see and hear being slowly unfolded and then folded up again) into a makeshift mosque and a place of worship, before being reverted to its former state. The six parts of this documentary, which styles itself as a ‘song’ of transformations, are punctuated by words akin to musical tempo markings that act as an additional framing device.

Though unusual in their blend of ethnography and aesthetics, SEL films are part of a wider trend in nonfiction filmmaking that New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center (fslc) dubbed ‘art of the real’ in its recent ‘call for documentary to be re-considered as art’. A selection of SEL films was showcased in the fslc’s ‘Art of the Real’ series last month, in the run up to the theatrical release of Manakamana, alongside such classics of ethnographic filmmaking as Jean Rouch’s Jaguar (1954) and Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1986), as well as more recent documentaries that have inspired SEL filmmakers, like those of Jana Ševčíková. Cinema is far from the only art form SEL filmmakers turn to for inspiration and alternative, non-narrative ways of framing a documentary. ‘We try to nourish ourselves with beautiful things,’ says Paravel, ‘in order to be exigent about everything: the form, the thinking behind it.’ These spiritual nourishments range from poetry to painting, from literature to music. People’s Park owes less to long-take films by, say, James Benning than to Chinese scroll paintings, in particular the five-metre-long Along the River During the Quinming Festival, a panoramic painting from the Song dynasty (1085–1145).

Leviathan itself, although routinely likened by film critics to George Franju’s documentary short Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949), is steeped in biblical, pictorial and literary allusions. In particular, it draws on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), which the filmmakers read to each other on board a commercial trawler during six trips that all started out from New Bedford, Massachussetts – where Captain Ahab’s whaleship Pequod also begins its voyage in Moby-Dick. Filmed at night, using multiple GoPro cameras that yielded surreal images bordering on abstraction, Leviathan’s mesmerizing close-ups of the slimy, vibrantly coloured catch recall Dutch still life paintings. (Incidentally, Still Life, 2007, and Still Life / Nature Morte, 2013, are the titles of two SEL shorts by Diana Allan and Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, respectively, screened as part of the presentation of the Lab’s work at the 2014 Whitney Biennial.)

The painterly sensibility of Leviathan came to the fore in the two site-specific installation pieces made for the ‘Forum Expanded’ section of the Berlinale in 2013. In Spirits Still, select frames from the film projected onto walls and illuminating the small alcoves of what used to be a crematorium revealed Goya-like figures and monsters worthy of Hieronymus Bosch captured by the camera but invisible at the ordinary speed of projection. The Last Judgment, on the other hand, titled in reference to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, consisted of a looping 11-minute sequence from the end of the film, played in slow-motion on the vault of the mourning chapel, in which endlessly spiralling seagulls, caught between sky and sea, stand for the damned souls. A monumental HDV and sound installation of the latter will take over the nave, apse and dome of New York’s Cathedral of St John the Divine for six months in 2015.

Yet, visuals are only half the story. Leviathan derives much of its emotive power from its soundscape: the cry of seagulls, the sound of wind and waves crashing, the din of machinery rendering all attempts at communication futile. Many, though by no means all, SEL films steer clear of language, something Castaing-Taylor concedes to be a blind spot. (Spray’s loquacious As Long as There’s Breath, 2009, and other films set in Nepal, being the notable exceptions.) This is even the case when verbal exchanges are part of a film’s fabric. In Paravel’s 2009 short 7 Queens, she strikes up conversations and interacts with locals, some of them recent immigrants, while walking along the overground tracks of the number seven train line in Queens, New York. Their words are often barely intelligible, or else drowned out by the noise of the passing trains, which imparts its own rhythm to the film, just as the periodic black-outs do in Manakamana.

The Shape of Things (2011), Katherine Tygielski’s poignant thesis film shot over the course of the three months that she spent working in a Nepalese kindergarten for deaf children, explores the acquisition of sign language and non-verbal gestures. Among other projects, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor are currently working on a multi-layered essay film about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and its aftermath, parts of which were filmed using a smart phone in combination with a scientific telescope. The film is all about language; or, rather, there is a linguistic dimension to it but it’s not expressed verbally. It has to do with sound – some of it vocal, but mainly ambient and musical – recorded during the directors’ fieldwork in Japan or, in the case of the featured archival sounds, sourced from Japanese films, TV programmes and the internet.

Paying greater attention to sound is one of the things SEL graduates learn with the help of the sound artist, recording engineer and ethnomusicologist Ernst Karel, who manages the Lab and teaches a popular course on ‘Sonic Ethnography’. As part of this practice-based course, students attend weekly listening sessions, make recordings on location and go on audio excursions or ‘sound safaris’. If there isn’t much to see at the SEL, there is a lot to be heard courtesy of Karel, whose name invariably comes up in the credits for the sound mix of SEL-produced features, and frequently for sound composition and design. Karel has made a number of audio-only, feature-length documentaries of his own, including Hourly Directional (2012) in a collaboration with the artist Helen Mirra, and Heard Laboratories (2010). An invisible lab, should it ever come to materialize, would have walls made of sound.