Custodians of Difficulty

The private collector, often more so than the public institution, has played a vital role in supporting artists working in ideas. Kim Gurney finds out what motivates these collectors

The days when artworks necessarily sat static on a plinth or hung co-operatively on the wall have long been over. Conceptual art, popularised during the 1960s, privileged the idea over the art object and artists have since employed whatever medium best suits their purpose. Performances, installations or video footage are today more commonplace materials. But for art collectors, they often present challenges of storage and display.

This is something that architect Pierre Lombard knows well. He owns a sizeable number of contemporary South African artworks including significant installation and performance pieces. He does not think of himself as a collector as such — rather a custodian. In this endeavour, his freezer has played an unlikely starring role.

For a couple of years, it was home to a conceptual artwork by Kendell Geers called Small Change, a scattering of coins Geers threw onto a gallery floor. The work has a contentious history, with the coins once being stolen for beer money. Lombard says: “It is an incredible work because of the impossibility of being able to deal with the time bomb of a few coins on the floor. I bought that without realising I was entering into the same system.”On occasion, Lombard has also topped up a conceptual work by Stephen Hobbs from his freezer’s ice tray. The work, a final year university project, comprises blocks of ice placed on a pedestal. Lombard said it was an unstable piece by nature; by the time the teacher came to mark the work, it had melted overnight: “The pedestal left in awkward equilibrium as a fragile testimony of the work, which was gone”. He said he has lived with this work for many years.

Lombard had a passion for art from a young age, when he would visit galleries to find “the agony and the ecstasy” explored on canvas. Art then became a modus vivendi and he began buying South Africa art during the mid-1990s: “I loved art and was in a very lucky situation, at a time when something started in South Africa to break boundaries.”

According to art dealer Warren Siebrits, Lombard is one of the few people with vision to look at work that is more conceptual in background: “He approaches collecting in a different way; he has a great passion for what artists are trying to communicate.”

Lombard says poor choices will be made if buyers use investment value as the prime motivator; you must buy what you love. He views compelling works of art as akin to poetry — a play of language and meaning that relies on an informed energy between the viewer and the work.

The one quality he looks for is “backbone”. He says: “It is very important because it makes very strong people. I like to meet the artist, spend time with them, and know a little more about where they come from because I consider every work of art a window on the world. Sometimes the window closes and then the work is not sustainable anymore.” He adds: “I am not a museum. I love people.”

Another contemporary art collector with the vision to appreciate more conceptual South African work is Jack Ginsberg. He says price is a consideration but strong conviction is essential: “You have got to love it so much you can’t live without it. You know you will never sell it. I have only ever sold one piece of work. I like more art than I can buy.”

Willem Boshoff is among the artists Ginsberg has followed for some time. He says his interest as a book collector drew him to Boshoff’s art, with its Lettrist concerns of text, typography and concrete poetry. Ginsberg says while the idea is paramount in Boshoff’s works, they are also very beautiful in themselves. He adds: “Conceptual art is fascinating; I am almost as interested in the way the artist thinks as much as interested in what the artist does.”

In addition to a few private collectors, some corporates are willing to take the plunge — ABSA is one example — as well as public institutions like the South African National Gallery (SANG). The most notorious conceptual artwork it owns is probably Bruce Gordon (2003), the concept of whom was donated in 2003. But its head of art collections, Emma Bedford, says South African work usually has a physicality to it and therefore poses no great storage or display challenge. The elephant ears of Alan Alborough’s Heathen Wet Lip (1997), for example, are kept on shelves. It is rather mixed media work — like Moshekwa Langa’s fragile cement bags in Untitled (1995) — and obsolete or precarious technology like video that need special attention.

In the final analysis, the common thread binding collectors of more conceptual works is an impulse that centres around passion not profit. Ironically enough, this lens often leads to art collections that are also highly valued in financial terms. And it is worth bearing in mind that what appears cutting-edge today will be selectively absorbed over time into the broader canon — in Lombard’s words, via “the sieve of history”.