Lights, mirror . . . reaction

Artworks collected by Francesca von Habsburg, now at the Mori, are just a stop on a contemporary journey of artistic discovery


S ometimes the cutting-edge is five years old. Take the current exhibition at the Mori Art Museum, “The Kaleidoscopic Eye: Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection.” Featuring some of the best of what the contemporary art world has to offer, by the time it’s made it to the museum, the art world has already moved on. But audiences still need to catch up, and Francesca von Habsburg, the collector behind Thyssen-Bornemisza, wants to help lead them there.

“In the ’80s when I was punk, we were hanging out with all these punk musicians. I had a conversation with one who was in The Sex Pistols not long ago, and I asked, ‘When was the last time you really really felt alive?’ ” says von Habsburg. “And he said, ‘Well, (imitates accent) when we was in the Pistols. . . . We were on a mission,’ and I said, ‘I didn’t quite see you as missionaries (laughs).’ But he replied, ‘We was on a mission; we were going to change the musical world.’ And they did.

“And I thought that was so cool, how he described it, because I felt like that’s what I am doing.”

Von Habsburg, the daughter of art collector and European royal Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, met the members of the punk band when she was at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, studying in the same year as the Pistols’ original bassist Glen Matlock, fashion designer John Galliano and artist Cerith Wyn Evans, who is included in the exhibition.

“There is this thing you pick up when you are in your teens: You think that, ‘When I am 50, I’ll have moved past all that,’ ” says von Habsburg. “But you haven’t. You are still trying to change things. There is still a revolutionary spirit that stays within.”

That revolutionary spirit moves quickly, though, as times change.

“(Mori director) Fumio Nanjo said, ‘Japan has never seen anything like this and probably will not see anything like this for another 10 years,” the collector says, describing “Kaleidoscopic Eye.” “And I thought to myself, ‘Well this was something I was doing five years ago,’ and now I wonder how long it will take what I am doing now to enter into the consciousness.”

Von Habsburg picked up most of the works featured in the exhibition at the Mori three to six years ago when she seriously started buying contemporary art, and her approach has changed as she has added to the collection.

“At the time, I was in a very different mind set. So, for me, it is a revisitation of something that was really important in the past,” she says. “It is still important, but it was part of a learning curve that I had to make to be where I am now, which is more in the commissioning world — being more in the creative process of works of art and just being engaged with artists and working directly with them.”

Similarly, for Mori curator Natsumi Araki, assembling the exhibition felt much like commissioning artworks, given the nature of the pieces in von Habsburg’s collection.

“Contemporary art is becoming more temporary, and the concept is becoming more important,” says Araki. “There are special technicians for each work who came from all over the world to install them. This is a collection show, but not in a traditional sense. We can’t just borrow pieces from one foundation. It’s more like making new work.”

The first few rooms of the exhibition present major installations by artists such as Evans (towering columns of harsh white light), Carsten Holler (a “confusion machine” meant to replicate the mosaiclike view through an insect’s eye), Olafur Eliasson (rotating discs that cast and intersect bright colors on the walls) and Jeppe Hein. These are large pieces that use common objects — lights, tape, mirrors — to create immersive, abstract spaces that, by dazzling viewers, engage them with the artworks and challenge their perceptions.

“Hein’s piece is very simple,” says Araki. “A metal ball rolls around by itself (on a floor with zig-zagging gold, white and black tape done by artist Jim Lambie). When the object is moving, the viewer’s attention is instantly drawn to the object, and they react to it. If it rolls away, they follow, and if it comes nearer, they step back. So, instantly, dialogue and communication between the the object and the viewer starts.

“The object itself looks minimalist; but, it is not something to be appreciated but to be experienced. With the mirror, you are seen inside the object, so you become part of the artwork. Without a viewer, the artwork cannot exist.”

John M. Armleder’s room, featuring 10 rotating disco balls, is similarly simple, but the effect is astounding and multilayered: On the walls, fragmented reflections of light turn into a mesmerizing display that looks like churning snow flurries or cascading cherry blossoms; then there are the mirrored balls, which present a pixelated view of the whole room in a miniature reflection, with visitors appearing within the reproduced space as dark obstructions to the light; and finally, you can observe the audience as they respond to the piece itself.

“I wanted to show the dynamism of contemporary art to a Japanese audience,” Araki says, explaining how the Mori choose the nearly 40 works from von Habsburg’s collection of over 400. Many of the artworks selected represent a return to the visual immediacy of abstraction after the conceptual, message-driven art of the second half of the 20th century. Von Habsburg wants to bring an appreciation of the style back into art.

“They have really dynamic works to stimulate people’s senses, and I don’t want people to think that contemporary art is so difficult to understand or approach,” says Araki. “So I chose pieces that have different layers, including a direct impression that is more sensual than intellectual.”

After these seductive introductions to the collection, the art becomes more experimental, but the exhibition will have already hooked the audience with its playhouse sense of wonder. With the complexity of the works on show at the Mori, “Kaleidoscopic Eye” is an important exhibition for Japan because it may represent a passing moment in time not only for von Habsburg as a collector but for the art world at large. With the art market jittery due to the financial crisis, and the kind of big money that was floating around museums and biennales for major projects drying up, times are changing again.

“Will art get any worse, or any better? I think it is just going to shift in medium,” says von Habsburg. “A lot of what I was interested in buying was media art, as you can see. Big installations, complicated to install, expensive to run and maintain.”

“We have tons of monitor works, multiple projections — and these are beautiful and incredible and immersive, and they offer people a really good introduction to contemporary art because it is an easy medium, and people are familiar with it,” she says, describing pieces from the bulk of her collection, many of which were too costly or complicated to bring to Tokyo. “People watch it a little longer, and appreciating art is about that little bit of effort you are willing to make beyond that moment of ‘Ah ha, what’s this?’ ”

While she recognizes the effectiveness of such works in introducing contemporary art to general audiences, von Habsburg is rethinking what it is that artists produce. Now, she is not only concentrating on commissioning them to create unique pieces that challenge their previous way of doing things, but also on what constitutes an artwork itself.

“We are moving into interdisciplinary areas. And some of what can come out of this doesn’t necessarily even have to manifest itself as an ‘artwork,’ ” says von Habsburg. “It could be a publication, it could be a lecture series, a film, a small book. You know, there are so many different ways that you can share knowledge and insight, which is what artists are there to deliver to us: another perspective of looking at the world around yourself.”

This could lead art to move away from objects and become more about a methodology of approaching the world, almost like a discipline such as science or a practice similar to religion.

“The buzzword I am hearing is ‘Knowledge Production,’ ” she says, discussing a new project. “I am going to participate in a magazine called Seed, which brings together science and art and basically is a dialogue between really sophisticated and interesting people; between academics and artists and architects. There is a lot about style and design in there, new inventions, genetics or quantum physics, such as a quantum physicist talking to a furniture designer.”

Whatever form artworks do take in the future, though, for contemporary art, that revolutionary spirit will prevail.

“I think a lot of courage is needed. You have to take risks in the art,” says von Habsburg. “You can’t just content yourself with things that you know people are going to like, because then you are not being ahead of the game.”

“The Kaleidoscopic Eye: Thyssen- Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection” is on show till July 5 at the Mori Art Museum; admission ¥1,500; open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Tues. till 7 p.m.). For more information, call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.mori.art.museum