This Dutch resident of Barcelona buys and commissions contemporary works of art from international artists and then lends them directly to galleries.
By Á. M.
EACH COLLECTOR creates their own template and Han Nefkens has created his. During the 1960s and 70s, collecting was a way of constructing history and understanding the present. European and American collections reflected private encounters with artists and revealed personal experiences and intimate communication processes. For Nefkens, a Dutch journalist and writer (born in Rotterdam, 1954): “Collecting is a form of sharing. The act of giving is one of the most underrated values in our society. When you share, you’re not alone.” Resident in Barcelona for a decade, Nefkens bought his first piece in 2001, a video installation by Pipilotti Rist, to which he has added works by Jeff Wall, Sam Taylor-Wood, Bill Viola, Shirin Neshat and Félix González-Torres among others. What is special about Nefkens is that he gives his art to European galleries. “I feel I’m more of a guardian than a collector, because I always make sure that the works are exhibited in the best way possible for as long as possible.” Since 2001, Nefkens has collaborated with the Centraal Museum Utrecht, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Huis Marseille in Amsterdam, FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais in Dunkirk and Fundació Miró.
QUESTION. The 1980s marked the end of the era of the kaisers of collecting: Peter Ludwig, Count Panza, Reiner Speck, Martin Visser, Urs Rausmüller. You have already said that you don’t identify with these figures. How did you start and what was your initial motivation?
ANSWER. I’ve never been a typical collector because everything I buy goes directly to museums and galleries. I benefit from their infrastructure and network of contacts. My work is a help to the museums, not only in economic terms, but also as an exchange of ideas. That’s why I don’t start to buy until I have made a connection with a museum that is prepared to borrow and display the works. Art doesn’t belong to the buyer, it belongs to society. Locking away a piece of art in a house is no good to anybody. I like visiting other people’s houses. As a child I loved visiting people, enjoying the mix of distance and surprise of somewhere new, different curtains, different crockery, a different smell.
Q. So you act more like a patron?
A. Yes. What I get excited about is trying to create a piece that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. In recent years, I haven’t made purchases but rather commissioned works for specific museums from artists such as Olaf Nicolai, Andro Wekua, Steiner & Lenzlinger, Sherana Shabazi, Ryan Gander and most recently, Pipilotti Rist for Fundació Miró. I’ve just come back from Beirut where I saw an exhibition by Mona Hatoum. I’d like to do something with her in Barcelona. I also set up the ArtAids Foundation. I commission works on the subject of AIDS from artists all around the world. And through the H+F Curatorial Grant, in conjunction with FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais, I invite young curators to work on specific projects to acquire practical experience.
Q. The idea of a collector forming part of a cultural and political movement is far removed from the current motivation of big business with the arrogance of those such as Arnault, Pinault, Flick and Saatchi. Do you think that we have now seen the end of the “I don’t care how much it costs, I’ll take it” attitude?
A. No, because there are still people with a lot of money. Art is a status symbol for them, it’s an ego thing. Instead of a third yacht they buy five Damien Hirsts. Many art collections seem similar because the collectors buy on the advice of the same galleries. They are interchangeable collections, they don’t say anything about the person, but rather what was highly valued at a certain time.
Q. Do you think that your collection is an example of Westkunst, of Western culture? Is it a fragmented vision of an era rather than a continuous panorama?
A. It’s a very partial vision of the last decade, but above all it’s a vision of who I am. I lead quite a nomadic life and this is reflected in the collection which features, as well as Western artists, work by artists from Japan, Thailand, the Near East and South Africa. But it is still not global enough.
Q. How big a dose of scepticism does a collector need?
A. With all the hype – artists that are the very latest thing – a collector has to trust his instincts more than his ears. As is the case in life in general, if you go by intuition, things tend to turn out all right.
Q. Walter Benjamin said that collecting is a way of facing up to death. A collection is always alive and can never be completed because there’s always something else to add. You are HIV positive and as a result were seriously ill with encephalitis at the end of 2001. How important has your illness been as a reference point for your collection?
A. Those of us who are aware of the fragility of life are privileged because we don’t have any illusions about eternal life, we know better than anybody that the only time that counts is the present. For me, to live is to coexist. Art is an exemplary act of sharing and a rebellion against death. My collection doesn’t have the stamp of my illness, but rather the stamp of the fragility of life; its expression is poetic.
Q. What has been your most sentimental choice and the work that has been the most difficult to live with?
A. My most sentimental choice is Little Children by Jeff Wall. It was the first work I bought after recovering from encephalitis. It consists of nine photographs in light boxes of children from all around the world set against different skyscapes. It’s a work full of life and hope. The most difficult is a video by Ryan Gander, Is This Guilt in You Too, where you see a car parked in the snow while a voice-over talks about reality and unreality in the world of art. I love this piece of work, but at the same time it awakens a feeling of desolation in me. To be alone and isolated is the opposite of what I’m looking for. My collection doesn’t only show my desires, it also reveals many of my fears. Sharing these fears with the world is a way of exorcising them.
Photo: Cris Izquierdo