Eurovisions

June 14, 2017
Urs Fischer, 'Al Dente' (2016)
Urs Fischer, 'Al Dente' (2016)

This year’s Financial Review Rich List reveals that Australia today has no fewer than 60 billionaires. For an economy in perpetual crisis, demanding sacrifices from the lowest wage earners, things are obviously working well for some people.

Looking at this list it’s remarkable how few of our billionaires do anything at all for the arts. There are notable exceptions, but the vast majority of mega-rich Australians apparently couldn’t care less if there were no such things as art galleries, theatres and concert halls.

Philanthropists who have made the greatest contributions, such as the late James Fairfax, have never been anywhere near the summit of the Rich List. Search the top 200 and you will find no trace of David Walsh, whose Museum of Old and New Art has revolutionised tourism in Tasmania. Neither will you find Danny Goldberg, an investor who was the only Australian to feature in Artnews’s most recent annual list of the world’s top 200 collectors of contemporary art.

The speed and quantity of Goldberg’s acquisitions have been astonishing. He admits to buying more than 600 pieces over the past five years. When I once asked him which contemporary galleries he frequented, he replied – only half-jokingly – “most of them”.

If Goldberg were spending only a few thousand dollars at a time this would still be a notable achievement, but many of the artists he has collected now command prices in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Included in the mix have been many works by emerging artists. Some have never taken off, while others have rapidly ascended to stardom. It’s not that different to buying and selling shares.

Eurovisions: Contemporary Art from the Goldberg Collection is the most valuable show ever to be held at the National Art School Gallery. It features work by more than 30 leading artists based in Europe. The selection has been made by NAS Curator, Judith Blackall, from a pool of 100 works made available by Goldberg. When Eurovisions tours to Melbourne, Canberra and Bathurst, each venue will be able to change the composition of the show.

Most of the exhibitors will be unknown to the general public, but they are among the world’s most successful and sought-after living artists. We have caught glimpses of Urs Fischer, Ugo Rondinone and Martin Boyce in the Kaldor Art Projects, and in the Sydney Biennale, which has also featured work by Camille Henrot, Katharina Grosse, Jim Lambie and others.

Katharina Grosse, 'Untitled' (2014)

Katharina Grosse, ‘Untitled’ (2014)

Only Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley might be well enough exposed in Australia to feel familiar. Rudolf Stingel, who is undoubtedly one of the boom figures in contemporary art; or Alicja Kwade, who seems to turn up in every international exhibition nowadays, have rarely, if ever, been seen in this country.

To Goldberg they are all familiar propositions. He has a mental list of masters and up-and-coming geniuses that would bamboozle almost anybody in Australia, including me. If high-end collecting is an addiction it’s also a complex game in which one jostles for position against other collectors. It’s akin to being a member of an exclusive club, because the leading galleries keep a tight rein on who is allowed to acquire a work.

Those who stop buying are swiftly replaced with eager new candidates, perhaps from China, Russia or the Middle East. Very few Australians feature on the lists.

For the big galleries Goldberg is an ideal customer. He is tremendously adventurous in his tastes, and willing to buy multiple works by a favourite artist.

Casual visitors to Eurovisions may find many of his acquisitions to be completely off the map. Take for example, Klara Lidén’s Untitled (trashcan) (2013), which is a perfect facsimile of a green rubbish bin; or Matias Faldbakken’s Moonshine Sculpture (Jugs 10,11,12) (2011), three concrete casts of plastic water containers; or Thea Djordjadze’s Untitled (2012), which looks like part of a cane chair roughly daubed with plaster, dangling from a wooden box fixed to the wall.

Klara Lidén, 'Untitled (trashcan)' (2013)

Klara Lidén, ‘Untitled (trashcan)’ (2013)

There’s a Duchampian aspect to each of these works. They are so-called ‘found objects’, rebirthed as art – a prototypical avant-garde gesture that seeks to situate aesthetic experience within the bounds of everyday banality. Don’t bother asking: “Is this art?” The relevant question is: “Haven’t we seen this all before?”

There is a much simpler appeal in Ugo Rondinone’s blurred concentric circles and painted window frames in vibrant yellow and pink, blue-green and lavender.

Ugo Rondinone, 'The Plain' (2014)

Ugo Rondinone, ‘The Plain’ (2014)

Like Rondinone, Urs Fischer is a style-shifter, who allows himself the freedom to work in many different media – from sculpture to painting, to photo-collage and installation. The dominant piece in this show is Al Dente (2016), a fractured self-portrait, in which the artist’s eyes, nose and mouth seem to float free of the face, to monstrous effect.

Painting is represented in many guises, from a small picture by Sanya Kantarovsky called Abogado, featuring a green, ghostly figure that looms comically over a tiny man, to abstract paintings by Michael Krebber (a blue scuff mark on a white canvas); Katharina Grosse (a vigorous gestural work in rainbow colours); Heimo Zobernig (a flat, metallic grey surface with a burst of pink) and Charline Von Heyl (a work reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism – to my eye, the most evocative of the group).

Rudolf Stingel, 'Untitled' (2012)

Rudolf Stingel, ‘Untitled’ (2012)

The star of the show is Rudolf Stingel, represented by four unusual pieces with a strong conceptual dimension. The most eye-catching is Untitled (2012), which transforms a panel covered in crude, aggressively gouged graffiti, into a gleaming surface of electroformed copper, plated nickel and gold. It’s a more dynamic extension of the Duchampian gesture than the works of the three artists previously mentioned. It pulls off the conjuring trick of making anti-art into something rare and valuable.

For our public galleries such works are increasingly beyond their means, and possibly too controversial to justify the use of precious funds – which brings us to the unique aspect of Goldberg’s collecting. He wants to make everything freely available to the art museums of Australia if only they will agree to share. His abiding problem is the institutional reflex that sets each gallery in competition with the next. But with resources so scarce and billionaires so stingy, our museums can’t keep acting like fortresses. In other parts of the world the Age of Co-operation has already begun.

Eurovisions:
Contemporary Art from the Goldberg Collection
National Art School Gallery
3 June – 5 August, 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June, 2017