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Art Basel 2020: The pandemic triggers a virtual shift in art

With a new online-only exhibit for Art Basel, gallerist David Zwirner stresses the need for the art ecosystem to embrace technology

Jeff Koons, Balloon Venus Lespugue (Red),2013–2019 © Jeff Koons; Photo by Jason Schmidt. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong.
Jeff Koons, Balloon Venus Lespugue (Red),2013–2019 © Jeff Koons; Photo by Jason Schmidt. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong.

In the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, art fairs, museums and galleries across the world seem to have embraced the idea of online viewing rooms (OVRs). It’s no wonder then that after its first edition of OVRs for the Hong Kong edition in March, Art Basel has launched a second instalment, featuring 4,000 works from 281 galleries, including Jhaveri Contemporary, Chemould Prescott Road and Experimenter from India. One of the highlights of the Swiss edition is the David Zwirner gallery’s Basel Online: 15 Rooms, an online-only exhibition available simultaneously on the gallery’s website and the fair’s viewing room.

Besides featuring significant works by artists such as Josef Albers, Jeff Koons, Donald Judd and Wolfgang Tillmans—some of which have not been on view earlier—the rooms also feature artists who are favourites with Indian collectors, such as Yayoi Kusama, Carol Bove and Oscar Murillo.

The response to 15 Rooms has been positive and Koons’ Balloon Venus Lespugue (Red) has already sold for $8 million (around 60.5 crore), establishing a record for an online sale by the gallery. In an interview with Mint, David Zwirner, founder of the gallery, talks about the changing viewing experience in a virtual environment and about working with an Indian IT firm for innovation in technology and user experience. Edited excerpts:

Every global crisis, be it World War II or the 2008-09 recession, has had a deep impact on the art ecosystem. What are the learnings from the ongoing pandemic?

One of the most important changes that we are witnessing is a pivot towards digital and online. The art industry has been especially resistant to this, as it is a very old-fashioned business. Artists, who are the most important part of the ecosystem, make works for the physical space. However, the fact is that all galleries have been closed for the past couple of months due to the health crisis, including ours, located across three continents (Europe, Asia and the US). Only now are some of these spaces are beginning to reopen, so it makes sense to implement technology-related changes as we continue to programme our online space. We have also been having conversations with our artists about how online is a wonderful vehicle to find newer audiences. And I know for sure that when we come out of this, there will be a much greater awareness and functionality regarding digital and online.

Now that geography is not a hindrance in viewing works at a gallery, auction house or museum, do you expect many more collectors from India and other markets to explore collections and genres in depth?

It is a different experience to see works on a website as opposed to visiting a gallery or a fair. If you are a novice, asking for information at the latter can be very daunting. However, there is no unintelligent question that you can possibly ask when you seek information online. We have been tracking where our visitors are coming from and have found that they hail from an astonishing 160 countries. That’s an absolutely new and beautiful phenomenon. In regards to India specifically, it has the biggest potential for the art market. It has had a long and rich history in the visual arts and a lot of wealth has been created in the last decade or so. Because of this, we are getting more and more response and interest from India every year.

Yayoi Kusama’s ‘RED GOD’, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner New York.
Yayoi Kusama’s ‘RED GOD’, 2015. Courtesy David Zwirner New York.

How has India’s dialogue with international contemporary art changed over the years?

During my 27-year-long career, I have seen that when new regions enter the art market, such as South America, China, Japan and now India, the emphasis in the early years is on local artists—artists from the country that you know and art which reflects the traditions you are familiar with. It is only after you start exchanging information with an international group of collectors that you open your eyes to visual traditions from other countries. One such genre is that of contemporary art from Europe and the US, which we are now bringing to India. This is just the beginning and the dialogue with international art in the country is still in its early years.

There is a very strong social dimension to viewing art: meeting like-minded art enthusiasts, seasoned and new collectors, curators, writers and others. How will this experience change in the coming months due to the impact of covid-19?

Yes, indeed, the social aspect is very important to the art world. In fact, it is a motivation for many to be a part of the ecosystem. I, for instance, have to travel to Venice every two years for the biennale and who can complain that that it is a bad thing! However, meeting interesting people, going to openings, is all gone now. And it is likely to impact the art market significantly. Instead of seeing the rise of a set of emerging collectors, one will now see passionate individuals, who are past the amateur stage of collecting, wanting to add a story or a narrative to their collection. We find that we are not going broad right now as much as going in depth. Maybe that is a silver lining.

How does the format of the online viewing rooms add to an in-depth art experience?

On one level, the online viewing room can’t compete with the brick-and-mortar space and the physical experience. But when you are in the gallery, viewing a painting, you don’t hear the voice of the artist or get information about the history of the work or its context. This context is something that can be built online and it is something that we—producers of content—have not done before. You can view this information in your own time and from anywhere in the world. We realize that in an online viewing room, one can have multiple levels of information to dive into. In a weird way, the pandemic has educated a larger audience about the tools available. For instance, when we opened the online viewing room for Art Basel, we got 20,000 visitors in the first few hours. This is quite extraordinary.

Could you elaborate on the levels of innovations taking place at David Zwirner in terms of design, technology and changing user experience?

While we made a shift to online viewing rooms four years ago—this is our 73rd OVR—we are innovating further. We are very excited that the technology part is being handled by an Indian company, Icreon (a global IT consultancy offering business solutions and custom applications), with offices in New York and Delhi. It was founded by a young gentleman called Himanshu Sareen and is helping us build out our technology features. We can’t claim to be driving tech in the art market but (we) are working on new products that help us present artworks to our clients and audiences. For instance, exhibitions can take place online but where should we present the one or two works that were created in between shows? To address this, we have created a product called Studio, which showcases recent works by gallery artists and also takes the audience into the artist’s studio through photos and videos. The most recent edition from this series was with Jeff Koons, where you could not only see a brand new work of art but also meet the artist, get behind-the-scenes details and read and hear about the genesis of a particular work. This innovation has been extremely successful and we plan to use it in a post-covid scenario as well. The other series we initiated is called Exceptional Works, which is an invitation-only presentation of significant historical works.

What are some of the highlights from ‘15 Rooms’?

We have a trademark work by one of our most famous artists, Yayoi Kusama (RED GOD from 2015 depicts Kusama’s characteristic bulbous, dot-covered pumpkins against a background covered entirely in a thin net pattern). We have been able to sell her works to major collectors in India in the two years, through our presentations at the India Art Fair. We also brought work by a young sculptor, Carol Bove, to India. Now one can see her new work, made during the lockdown period and painted in all-black, in Basel Online:15 Rooms. Another artist, Oscar Murillo, who has been hugely successful in India, presents a large new painting, part of his surge series. There is also a fascinating work by Donald Judd, whose retrospective is being held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

We have spent the last couple of months preparing this virtual offering for the Art Basel, which is the pinnacle of our spring season. This is not just a site for buying an artwork but an experience in itself since you can explore each of the 15 works presented in-depth. This is an innovation that we will be utilising in the future as well.

‘Tragic Deviousness’, 2020, by Carol Bove. Courtesy: Carol Bove.
‘Tragic Deviousness’, 2020, by Carol Bove. Courtesy: Carol Bove.

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