In “Duty Free Art”, a lecture and a text from 2015, the contemporary artist and thinker Hito Steyerl analyzes the complex political, social and economic implications of art storages and their contemporary proliferation. In particular, she focuses on free-port art storage, off-shore protected areas that do not fall under any national sovereignty, housing huge volumes of art belonging to private collections. According to Steyerl, artworks there never get to see the light of day. Removed from free circulation, they are like convicts serving never-ending prison sentences. Free-port art storage sites, Steyerl asserts, make up the biggest collection in the world: they are like museums, but museums of the internet era, “a museum of the dark net, where movement is obscured and data space is clouded.”
The collector Galila Barzilaï Hollander seeks freedom from this cold world of intangible, yet ever present digital economies. Free-ports are for collectors who are willing to give up the physicality of a work of art, satisfied with never experiencing the emotion of sharing daily space with it. Galila is champion of another species, one who gains nourishment from direct contact with art, and who is willing to reduce her living space to allow art to occupy – or invade – every available nook and cranny.
Marcella Beccaria: I understand that you started building your contemporary art collection in 2005. After the death of your husband, a fine collector of antiques, you went for the first time to the Armory Show in New York, a fair that you thought was devoted to ancient armor. Is this true? Would you say that starting your own collection was a way of overcoming your loss?
Galila Barzilaï Hollander: Yes. I think my answer is yes to both questions. In 2005, with no contemporary art background I went to New York. My husband had died the year before. I saw an ad about the Armory Fair. He was a collector of antiques. So I went, expecting to find things my husband would have loved, the kind of curiosities he would have brought home. But no! To my surprise there was no armor! But you know, in just a few minutes the shock had passed and I bought my first piece, a drawing. It was like a cathartic experience. And it continues.
MB: How are art and collecting art healing for you?
GBH: I truly think that art can take the place of a psychotherapist. At a therapist’s office, you talk and the therapist listens (hopefully). I prefer to have this dialogue with a piece of art. It makes me understand things from a new point of view. As I’ve said on other occasions, art makes me better understand myself. For example, I found out that I’m an obsessive person. I did not know it; I never realized it. But you know, in my collection you can recognize recurring themes, such as eyes money, books, chairs, drawers, steps. Also recycling, gender issues. They are numerous, and not necessarily linked one to the other. Each of these, plus many others, are private obsessions of mine. I came to understand this through art.
MB: Your collection is also known for its independence: from the big names, from trends, and, if you like, even from the need to restrain yourself with tight guidelines. Do you prefer to discover and collect your own artists? Do they tend to be young artists?
GBH: Yes, most of my artists are young. I love emerging artists and the way they talk about a word that still belongs to the future. I also do not hide the fact that some of these young artists are not yet expensive. I am happy not to follow the market and I am proudly taking the liberty to decide that a great artwork value is not bound to its price. You started our conversation mentioning collectors who don’t even want to see the art they buy after the moment they make the decision to acquire it. That is purely insane! I always try to meet the artists and to establish some form of communication, which can even lead to a relationship. I truly want to know them personally. Sometimes the meeting leads to a commission.
MB: What are these commissions about? I know you don’t love the question, but I’ll ask anyhow. It feels like we are approaching a very private zone here.
GBH: Ah! You can ask, but I will repeat what I’ve said in previous conversations. The works I commission mostly deal with archiving, storing, souvenirs. In general I can tell you they all deal with memory, and that they relate to my own life. But again, these commissions are my secret world. You can see the results, but I will reveal no more.
MB: Is your commitment towards young artists one of the reasons you visit Artissima quite regularly?
GBH: Yes, indeed. I like the way Artissima promotes young artists, and each time I find new artists to discover. Present Future is always an interesting place to find someone new. It’s nice to spend time in each one of the booths. I like the fact that Artissima has a balanced number of galleries, so there is time to focus, think, and buy. I first came in 2010. Since then, I visited many times and I’m happy to see that, despite the big changes in the art market, Artissima keeps on growing and doing well.
MB: And what about Turin?
GBH: Turin is one of the reasons it is so great to come to Artissima. I like the city, its magnificent Baroque buildings and the scenographic squares. I have to mention the fact that the city offers great museums. You know that Castello di Rivoli is one of the museums I love the most! It is difficult to imagine a visit to Turin without spending time at the Castello.
MB: These days your schedule is very hectic. You are working toward the opening of your new space in Brussels. What are your ideas for this contemporary art space? How will it convey your dynamism?
GBH: It will be an exhibition space of approximately 1,500 square meters designed by the architect Bruno Corbisier, who is integrating in the project a former industrial building. My plan is to host the collection in a dynamic way, meaning that artists will come here also to create new works. I love the way Bruno has interpreted my ideas by designing a space where light plays a major role, reducing to a minimum structural elements and using just few materials, concrete, metal, wood and large glass facades.
I like the fact that you started our conversation by referring to ideas developed by Hito Steyerl on the basis of things that are really happening as we speak. To me, opening a space means going one step further in my commitment to the artists I believe in. As a collector, I feel I have a role to fulfil and artists need to be able to show their work to an audience. Their work does not deserve to end up in crates!