Buyer’s Guide: Up for the Challenge

Speaking about conceptual art in 1967, American artist and writer Sol LeWitt said, “The idea itself, even if it is not made visual, is as much of a work of art as any finished product.” LeWitt’s statement poses a tricky question – how do you buy an idea? Briony Downes finds out.

Starting with THE basics: what’s it all about?

Art with challenging themes or confronting and conceptual subject matters can prompt valuable and informative discussion. Art has the power to start a conversation and encourage the viewer to think deeply and more compassionately about others and the world around us. Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, for example, spent years travelling to refugee camps around the world to bring attention to the global refugee crisis. Exhibited in 2018 at the Biennale of Sydney, Weiwei’s installation Law of the Journey, 2017 consisted of a 60-metre black rubber boat with hundreds of inflatable human figures crammed into its centre, an unmissable visual comment on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. “Installation can make us think about ways of making, where materials came from and other collaborators,” Fernando do Campo, a Sydney-based artist and curator points out. “The challenge and potential solution to presenting conceptual art is the reason why we make art.”

A good story can add immense value to a materially simple yet conceptually rich artwork. At Art Basel Miami in 2019, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan duct-taped a ripe banana to a wall and called it Comedian. Cattelan’s banana gained so much attention, security guards were brought in to manage crowds. Now with its own Instagram account @cattelanbanana, three editions of Comedian have been purchased for more than $120K each. Relating back to LeWitt’s statement about the idea being art as much as the art itself, the concept behind Cattelan’s banana calls upon vaudeville humour and the history of readymade art to question the material value we place on objects.

So, you’ve got your eye on a conceptual or challenging artwork. What next?

Buy it  The process of purchasing a conceptual or challenging art piece is much like any other art purchase. However, as LeWitt pointed out, it is important to remember you are purchasing an idea as much as an artwork. While such works may seem daunting and unapproachable, start by speaking with the artist or gallerist to find out more about the background of the work to gain a broader understanding of the subject and its context. Along with the artwork, the artist or gallery will usually provide a certificate of authenticity, installation instructions and additional information on how to care for the work if it contains perishable items.

Display it  When it comes to displaying conceptually driven art, think about placing it in an area that nurtures discussion and healthy debate. If it is a visually challenging piece, display the work in interior spaces where more intimate and considered contemplation can take place. do Campo explains there are often unique details required when displaying conceptual work. “Context is really important, this means thinking about why or how an artist intended an artwork to be read,” he says. “It’s likely the artist was very specific about the materiality, placement and lighting of multiple aspects of the artwork, and this should be obeyed as much as possible when installing the work in a gallery or a home.”

Ease of storage can also be a perk of idea-based art. When a work is performative in nature or physically tied to a specific place and time, artists sometimes document their piece through recordings and still photography, allowing for digital displays in the home via projections and screens. “A performance often includes or produces objects, costumes and detritus,” says do Campo. “Sometimes there is a hand-out or an object only a live audience was privy to. When collecting a performance-based work, like The Kookaburra Self-Relocation Project (WHOSLAUGHINGJACKASS), 2020, it can be acquired as an iterative laughing-protest performance, but there are also large banners, costumes, objects, video and photographs that can be collected as well.”

Love it  Arguably one of the most confronting art collections in Australia belongs to professional gambler and art collector, David Walsh. Housed within the privately-owned Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart, Walsh’s collection is loosely based around the themes of sex and death. While it remains controversial at times, Walsh makes no attempt to hide his collection and has built entire festivals (the annual Mona Foma and Dark Mofo) around its exhibitions – encouraging a broad cultural dialogue. Ultimately, the trick to buying art outside the box is the same as buying any kind of art – if you don’t love it at first, you may well grow to.

Featured image: Fernando do Campo, The Kookaburra Self-Relocation Project (WHOSLAUGHINGJACKASS). Commissioned by Contemporary Art Tasmania in partnership with Mona Foma, Launceston, 2020. Site-specific performance, mixed textile objects, costumes and banners, 45-60 minutes. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Shan Turner-Carroll.

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