Tag Archives: Marc and Josee Gensollen

Collecting the uncollectable

A version of this essay appeared in the current issue of Frieze Week magazine:

‘Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in [the collector]; it is he who lives in them’, wrote Walter Benjamin in his 1931 essay titled ‘Unpacking My Library – A Talk on Collecting’. Speaking at an event dedicated to ‘collecting performance’ hosted by the London non-profit Delfina Foundation, Marseille-based psychiatrists and collectors Marc and Josée Gensollen related Benjamin’s claim concerning books to their own experience of collecting live art. For them, ‘the most intimate relationship to an artwork lies in its activation’.

The collector couple not only lives in and among the artworks displayed in their home, which doubles as an exhibition space open to the public by appointment, they also make some of these works ‘come alive in them’ by activating them for visitors. Take Tino Sehgal’s 2003 work This is about that I have witnessed Marc Gensollen perform in the privacy of his home, before seeing the collector faithfully reenact it again two years later, this time in public, at the Delfina Foundation.

The Gensollens, who started collecting minimal and conceptual art as well as video work in the 1970s, have been drawn from the outset to the type of object that eludes the collector’s grasp and cannot be fully owned. Laurence Weiner’s seminal text-based installations that hold pride of place in their collection need not have any material presence and anyone in theory can walk away with the work simply by memorizing the words. Original video works tend to be part of limited edition series, not unlike pieces by Tino Sehgal in this respect, which come in editions of four with the artist retaining the right to exhibit them.

That they are not unique objects, nor even objects per se, might put some collectors off. For Jonathon Carroll, speaking in his dual role of collector and dealer of what can broadly be termed ‘multimedia’ or ‘new media’ art, the ‘concern about reproduction is a complete red herring; nobody should care about it and nobody does.’ The code of the very first work he acquired in 2000, 33 Questions per Minute by Rafael Lozano-Hemmel, an artist that Carroll/Fletcher now represents, is freely available online. New digital technologies and platforms such as Open Source or Creative Commons have made the very idea of ownership feel somewhat redundant and spawned a breed of collector whose motivations go beyond that of mere acquisition. ‘To some extent, being a collector today is about patronage, supporting the artist,’ says Carroll.

Rooted in the radical experiments of the 1960s, time-based media like performance, video, sound and digital art (a label that few practitioners like to be associated with), though no longer new, are still relative newcomers in art historical terms, which may explain their appeal to this new species of philanthropically-minded collector. Aimed explicitly at ‘a young generation’ of patrons, Outset Young Production Fund has thus contributed towards the recently-launched Moving Image Fund of Museums, initiated by artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen with Thomas Dane Gallery to help regional museums in the UK build up their collections of artist film and video works. Though less expensive to acquire than painting, sculpture and other more easily collectable media, these frequently entail high production, conservation and display costs that make them unaffordable for most public institutions.

Tate itself, which has no dedicated budget to either performance or moving image, has benefited from initiatives such as the Artangel Collection at Tate or the Outset Frieze Fund (OFT) specifically designed to endow its collection. Thanks to the former, multimedia installations of often baffling complexity, commissioned and produced by the London non-profit, have entered Tate’s collection at a rate of about one per year since the launch of Artangel Collection in 2011. The OFT allowed Tate curators working together with international peers to have their pick of artworks sold at Frieze Art Fair, before it wound up in 2014, having reached the 100th work mark. (The scheme will be reestablished this year, albeit using a more traditional corporate funding model.) ‘Among the key works added [to the collection] were seminal video and digital works of art, such as Mark Leckey’s Made in ‘Eaven (2004) and Andrea Fraser’s Projection (2008) [as well as] the first performance work to be integrated in the national collection: Roman Ondák’s Good Feelings in Good Times (2003)’, comments Outset founder Candida Gertler.

Not all new media are as well represented as they should be in public collections or by galleries. Curator of Digital at the Serpentine Galleries, and one of a handful to hold that title, Ben Vickers thinks that there is ‘a black hole’ in museum collections when it comes to net art – particularly by Jodi, Ubermorgen, Heath Bunting, Olia Lialina, and other artists working in the 90s with the rise of the World Wide Web, who produced work dealing with the medium specificity of the Internet and digital technology. ‘That work never made it into museums’, he says. For Vickers, the fact that a gallery like Carroll/Fletcher, which has only been around since 2012, has in its stable of artists so many seminal figures associated with the digital medium – from Ubermorgen to Eva and Franco Mattes to Thomson & Craighead – is indicative of this neglect. Since none of these artists were represented by more established galleries, Carroll/Fletcher ‘stepped into that position and represented them all’.

Carroll himself is keen to correct the misconception that his gallery has an exclusive focus on new media-based art. One of the artists Carroll/Fletcher represents, Christine Sun Kim, is featured in this year’s Live section of Frieze London. The deaf artist will work with performers to generate more or less rude and audible sounds that she can sense, responding to the noisy surroundings of the fair. Now in its third year, Live is a subsidized platform for ‘performance-led or active installations’, as Frieze artistic director Joanna Stella-Sawicka puts it, rather than ‘performance in the strict sense’. Stella-Sawicka invokes in this regard the way Tate curators chose to frame things at the Switch House with talk of ‘How art became active’, which reflects a wider ‘active turn’ that visionary collectors like the Gensollens embody.

Collecting performance used to mean buying photographs, video footage and other physical traces of the live event, which is still the case with a lot of the historical performance pieces featured in the main or the Focus sections of the fair. But more adventurous collectors are increasingly adopting what Teresa Calonje Trenor – in the introduction to an imaginative collection of essays and interviews titled Live Forever. Collecting Live Art (2014) – identifies as an alternative strategy, namely collecting the ‘original live experience’ with a view to re-activating it. Though the two strategies are not mutually exclusive, the Live section creates a space where the latter can happen.

Despite or because of their ambitious nature, time-based media of every ilk tend to be relegated to the peripheral or ‘young’ sections of a fair, such as Focus. Showing this kind of work, which often requires a concentrated attention span, in the competitive environment of a fair can be a challenge. Having to hire performers for a live artwork or building a closed environment needed for a quality projection represents a substantial outlay with no guarantee of an immediate return. This does not stop galleries like Hoxton-based Seventeen from choosing for its solo presentation a technically-demanding new work by Canadian artist Jon Rafman. The proposed immersive multimedia installation comprises a central sculptural object acting as a link between the reality of the seated viewing platform and the simulated landscape watched through VR headsets, using Oculus Rift technology.

According to Stella-Sawicka, the young section is a reliable barometer when it comes to sassing out ‘how a generation is responding to the current times: what is the mood, what are the trends’. If the Focus offerings over the past few years are anything to go by, art with a digital sensibility is definitely on the rise.

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.