Friday, March 22, 2013

Bright Light, Big Money

Who Collects Major Light Art Works By the Likes of James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson? - Penta -

There are some kinds of art that only museums or the very rich can
collect. Among these are major pieces of “light art,” usually made by
sculpting light in very large natural or industrial spaces.
Switzerland’s Hess Family Estates makes wine on four continents, and its
77 year-old chairman, Donald Hess, is a long-time collector of Francis
Bacon, Anselm Kiefer and other important artists. But his newest gallery
on the world’s highest vineyard, at Colomé in Argentina, is dedicated
to only one light artist: James Turrell.

Light art has been around for just short of a century. The first piece, called Light-Space Modulator,
was made in 1922 by László Moholy-Nagy. Not everyone got the
industrial-looking contraption made of shadow-casting wires, glass, and
perforated metal. When the Hungarian took Light-Space Modulator
through U.S. customs in 1937, officers refused to class it as art.
Nonetheless, some big names, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper
Johns, have worked with light since, making it arguably the true medium
of the 20th century. For purist collectors like Hess, however, real
light artists work with nothing else, and of these, James Turrell, an
American Quaker who turns 70 this year, is the acknowledged grand

Turrell’s Sistine Chapel is in Arizona’s Painted Desert. In 1977, the
artist bought an extinct volcano, called Roden Crater, outside
Flagstaff. He has spent the last 35 years, and an estimated $45 million
of institutional and private contributions, working on his masterpiece.
Of the twenty works Roden Crater will eventually contain, around a
third are finished, including the Alpha Tunnel, an 845 foot borehole
designed to focus a perfect disc of light on a slab of white stone. Like
all of Turrell’s work, this so-called Skyspace relies on two things:
natural light and the human eye. Look at the disc and it slowly changes
shape and color, our vision constantly shifting to accommodate Turrell’s
astonishing creation.

When Roden Crater is finished – and no-one knows when that will be —
it will be the world’s biggest artwork, a combination of sculpture,
solar observatory and Egyptian pyramid. Until then, access is limited
to the wealthy patrons, like Hess, who have between them contributed
tens of millions of dollars to Turrell’s project. “I have been to Roden
several times,” Hess says. “It is a fantastic, crazy work.”

Buying Bacons is one thing: you can hang them, move them around and,
if necessary, sell them again. Buying Turrells is quite another. Light
artworks tend to be site-specific, and on an epic scale – so much so
that they usually spend years as blueprints before their owners can have
them built.

“I bought the first of my [nine] Turrells, Stufe White (1967),
in the early ‘Seventies,” says Hess, from his home in Bern,
Switzerland. “For years, I had these big, grey books in my library here –
contracts from James, with minute instructions on how each work was
going to be made. One day, I thought: ‘I’ll be damned if I die without
seeing them.’ So I went around museums, offering to lend my Turrells if
they would build them. And they all said, ‘You must be crazy.’”

So in 2009 Hess built his own, 18,000 square foot James Turrell Museum in
Argentina. “I rang James to tell him what I was planning and he said,
‘Great! I love Buenos Aires!’” Hess recalls. “I had to break it to him
that it was not quite BA, that it was a two hour flight and five hour drive away.”

Undeterred, Turrell came to Colomé and designed his own gallery. Last
year, the museum attracted 3,500 visitors; that’s hardly the 85,000 who
went around the Hess Family Collection of wines in Napa, California,
but not bad considering where it is. As to the near-impossibility of
selling his Turrell works, Donald Hess is sanguine. “Wine is my
business. If you want to drink it, you have to pay,” he says. “Art is my
hobby, and you can enjoy it for free. I don’t do it for the money.”

Meanwhile, eight thousand miles away, in southeast Ukraine, light art
also serves a practical purpose in the grim industrial town of
Dnepropetrovsk. Dnepropetrovsk was a manufacturing base for ballistic
missiles, and, until 1991, closed to foreigners. Last October, however,
the Ukrainian steel magnate and major art collector, Victor Pinchuk,
opened the Interpipe metal works on the Dnieper River, the first
large-scale steel mill to be built in Ukraine for 40 years.

Sunrise by Olafur Eliasson, hovering over a Ukrainian steel mill town.
Courtesy of:  Sergii Illin/The Victor Pinchuk Foundation

Pinchuk’s electric smelters claim to be among the world’s most
environmentally advanced ­– not the smoke-belching Soviet-era plants of
the past – and Pinchuk wanted to signal this fact. So he commissioned
the Danish light artist, Olafur Eliasson, to create Dnepropetrovsk Sunrise, the 200-foot-tall sun, light-emitting and made from steel, which now shines from the Interpipe compound. By night, the work doubles as a moon.

“In post-Soviet Eastern Europe, it’s important to send a message about innovation and modernization,” Pinchuk says.  “Olafur’s Sunrise
symbolizes a new start, a new light. It combines two artworks – the sun
and the mill which I, as an engineer, also see as art.” Four more of
Eliasson’s monumental light pieces are built into the factory’s

“He loved the craziness of creating a new astronomy for
Dnepropetrovsk,” says Pinchuk. What did this craziness cost? The
Ukrainian industrialist merely notes that the entire Interpipe project
came in at $700 million, of which Eliasson’s fee was a part. “That is
certainly the highest price I have ever paid for an artwork,” he says.

While that’s no doubt so, smart collectors like Hess and Pinchuk also
use the visibility of light art to attract visitors to their
businesses, subtly changing the economics of their unusual collections.

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