Frieze Art Fair in London not only brought back Frieze Masters’ 3rd edition but also introduced the curated booth. The most discussed booth “The Collector” was curated by Helly Nahmad Gallery. Helly Nahmad dreamed up the life of imaginary collector Corrado N, who works as stock broker in 1968 in Paris and lives in a small apartment in Montparnasse, collecting the greatest artists of his time.
Production designer, Robin Brown was commissioned to create The Collector’s fictitious Parisian apartment. The installation included such breathtaking detail that visitors could feel being set back in time, stepping into Corrado’s appartment and absorbing the carefully collected Dubuffets, Fontanas, listening to Stockhausen or looking at 1960s Art Magazines scattered around the apartment. We had to find out more about the full story to this magic collector’s home that barely existed for one week.
Helly Nahmad came up with the idea for the imaginary apartment of Corrado N set in 1968 in Paris. Could you please tell us more about where his inspiration came from and the process of bringing his vision to life at Frieze Masters?
It was based on Helly Nahmad’s concept of the stand presentation representing a fictional collector’s life and apartment. His original brief was to bring to life the idea of a character who is submerged with a passion for 20th century art. The character would remain a fiction but loosely based on Helly’s uncle – a collector who had a house just full of everything. Helly wanted it to be a time capsule, and to have a nostalgic feel, ‘Cinema paradiso’ being one of his favourite films. He liked the idea of setting it in the 50’s or 60’s and in either Paris or Milan. He was clear that the space should not be too dark, and that there should be a good clear view of the apartment and his collection of art, and that it should not overwhelm the art in its architecture.
I designed it as a small modernist top floor apartment with a modest functional style referencing the architecture of Corbusier, Lubetkin, Perriand, Prouve, and Erno Goldfinger with a compact assembly of spaces divided by a curving central wall, modernist style corner bookshelf and plywood kitchen, split level parquet floor and cut away stepped ceilings.
The apartment set in the centre of the stand so onlookers look into the space rather than entering an empty box to look at art on the surrounding walls. I intended it to be an immersive experience with an vast emotive collection of found objects, books, magazines, letters and cultural references and then to bring that to life with the addition of contemporary television broadcast footage and radio playing nostalgic music of the period, cutting between moments of radio interference to spoken word to place the observer firmly in Paris at that time.
I chose the year 1968 to remind us of the political headwinds that are still relevant today with authentic posters from the May student riots torn from the streets and pinned up alongside original art exhibition posters and a collection of works by Picasso, Miro, Dubuffet, and Fontana. Other major events of this year included the Prague Spring riots, the death’s of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the first French Nuclear test. Whilst celebrating the spirit and life of a collector of not just art but objects, music, and memories, it reminds us that art used to be at the centre of the political and intellectual life of its times.
It references and takes a zoom lens to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and allows you to look directly into a very personal space where the clutter and possessions are stacked up against the missing fourth wall. The private intimate space is in one of the most public environments in the art world. The use of music drifting across the courtyard in that film lured the observer into the lives and stories that exist behind the windows of the apartments. The audio soundtrack moves source from room to room with music from Miles Davies ‘l’ascenseur du scaffold’, Nino Rota’s soundtrack to Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’, Giovanni Fusca’s soundtrack for Antonioni’s ‘L’avventura’, George Delarue’s music for ‘Jules et Jim’, Martial Solal’s music for ‘A bout de souffle’ as well as Charles Trenet’s theme song, Francoise Hardy and Charles Aznavour. The two televisions play authentic contemporary footage and original programming with news reports of the Paris May ’68 student riots, the French winter Olympics, the Tour de France, the ’68 Avignon festival along with documentary, and nouvelle vague cinema with Brigitte Bardot and Jean Pierre Leaud in Godard’s 1966 film ‘Masculin et Feminin’
I particularly was drawn to the idea of this older man still with a passion for and surrounded by modern things, and with a love of the modern. The furniture pieces are intentionally less well known but have the distinctive handwriting of Modernism and the most important architects of this era, collected with the same passion he has for modern culture and art. Together with the 30’s Giovanni Garibaldi credenza and 1950’s armchairs the collector brought with him from Milan he has a collection of modernist furniture found in the Paris Flea markets he frequents including a small desk by Dutch designer Willy Van der Meeren, a desk by George Nelson, an original Marcel Breuer canvas sling chair, a Hans Wegner console, Peter Nelson FA2 desk lamp, Walter Gropius plywood stool tables designed for Isokon, and Plywood Group chairs, an Arne Jacobsen AJ royal floor lamp, a 1956 Floris Fiedeldij designed Artimeta floor lamp, and desk lights designed by Louis Kalfe for Phillips.
The installation was deliberately not too dark, nor theatrical so that it felt like a current day in 1968, a living believable modernist apartment not a museum like period recreation. There are no smoking cigarettes, nor plates of half finished food as these too would have felt too theatrical.
Despite being set in 1968 when art was less of a commodity and more affordable, it felt that a modern day equivalent collector could exist, and surround themselves with found objects and art pieces from artists that are not yet widely recognized. It turns on its head the idea that there is only one way to live and be an art collector and that works of art can be part of the collection of your whole life rather than trophies.
The installation is the result of 3 months work collecting and curating everything from authentic student posters, exhibition catalogues, contemporary art and popular culture magazines, Paris metro tickets, and furniture, to sourcing, editing and making a soundtrack for the 1968 television broadcast, and curating appropriate music to reflect the time and character and editing that together with dialogue. It took 3 weeks to build the apartment, which was then assembled from kit form at the Fair and installed and dressed in 3 days.
Comparing to your other works in production design, has preparing this installation been a great challenge?
This project was a challenge in terms of sourcing sufficient dressing to make a believable Parisian apartment and to tell the story of the man down to authentic details that would be looked at closely by members of the Art world as well as the public. It was also a challenge in terms of displaying as much as possible of the apartment while giving the onlookers a good view into the space. Lastly there is only a 2-day window to install the entire project into the Frieze Masters exhibition, plus a day to hang the art, so it was a logistical challenge.
Astonishing attention to detail has gone into The Collector. Were all the items in this booth genuine and where for example did you source the Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziala, Attese, from 1965?
All of the works of art were genuine and they were curated from the Helly Nahmad Gallery collection, The Lucio Fontana was actually taken on loan for the exhibition.
What was the most difficult item to track down when creating Corrado’s apartment?
The most difficult items to track down were the authentic exhibition catalogues that had to be of exhibitions of the artists he collected and to be the right date.
What is your favourite item in his apartment and why so?
I had two favourite items. Firstly, the bed which I found at a London Antique dealer and which is an original 1950′s French ‘sleigh’ style bed, with a striped inlay wood head and footboard. It seemed so appealing and photographic that even though it was extremely large, being a super-king-size bed, made perfect sense of the bedroom and inspired the placement of the Giacometti ’3 hommes qui marchent’ sculpture right next to it in an unusual piece of placement for such a well known sculpture. It just seemed to me that if you had collected it you would want to wake up right next to it, not in a case, but right there to appreciate it. The second item is a photograph found at a flea market of a young French girl with a severe pudding bowl bob haircut that stood out as such an iconic French face, and had such an immediate and emotive expression that it made a perfect family portrait.
As one of the great highlights in this year’s Frieze London and Frieze Masters, the booth itself has become spectacle of art. Do you think this is a turning point for art fair booths?
In some ways it is the opposite of the minimalist stands that are the accepted standard for displaying art and it seems to be the beginning of a trend in displaying art in situations that are more character and narrative led and are more installation based. The French and European press have noted in respect of the stand that there is a new tendency for art to be displayed in surroundings that are more ‘at home’. I think the installation style and the use of the music and television to create a truly filmic sense of place are what set it apart and we may see more use of this in art fair booths. Italian Vogue called it ‘a hosanna to the preachers of the death of the white cube’.
Corrado’s imaginary French apartment has been a real success at Frieze Masters. What sorts of reactions have you received from visitors and critics?
It seems from the reaction both from the public and the Press that it was something that people, in some way, felt very attached to and able to be involved in. The visitors seemed genuinely entranced by it and some seemed to fall in love a little with the fictitious collector and his life. Many Parisian visitors commented on the accuracy of the mood and dressing, and a visitor who was a student involved in the riots in 1968 in Paris said it was like travelling back in time and remembered all the cultural references and the television broadcast. One noticed and name of a gallerist of the time scribbled on one of the many notes and said it was her husband’s best friend. Many of the Visitors from New York commented on how much they would like to have seen the installation shown there and how well they think it would have been received. One visitor pointed out that it was extraordinary to be able to look at such a personal and intimate space in one of the most public art spaces in the world.
The press coverage has been quite extensive from the Economist, the Guardian and the FT along with the main European newspapers, to Vogue and Vanity Fair and all of the main Art Blogs. The comments have been ‘Spectacular and intoxicating… blowing away the precious pristine smartly labelled art fair piety of everything else at Regent’s Park,’ to, ‘The most atmospheric instructive and exciting stand,’ to, ‘A poem in three dimensions,’ to, ‘The best booth you will ever see at an art fair.’
Others have noted the trend in displaying works of art in more home like situations and noted that this may be the end of the era of the white box, that it was made for the Instagram era, and others that it was a clever low key sales pitch. Others have focused on the nostalgia and also labelled it in nature as a ‘museum’ style display. It is extraordinary for it to have had such an extensive reaction both from the public who visited and the press.
Lastly, is The Collector going anywhere next or will he just continue to live in the minds of Frieze Masters 2014 visitors?
The Collector is not due to go anywhere else in it’s current guise, I hope it will live on in the memories of those who witnessed it , and hope to follow it with something else that they will be challenged and entranced by.