Ivo Wessel is an avid, bordering on obsessive, collector of both conceptual art and printed publications, who is known to tie the entire collection together with pictorial narration. Having an interest in discoveries and strong-willed artists, in this interview to mark the opening of his exhibition at the Weserburg, Breyhan asks Wessel to try to identify himself, when his love for collecting began and what is it about that Wim Wenders film that he loves so much.
“There are many kinds of collectors and each one of them is moved by a multitude of impulses”, Walter Benjamin once wrote. Ivo Wessel, how would you describe yourself, as an explorer, a patron, an aesthete or a cultural historian?IVO WESSEL
Do we really need these labels? What I find irritating is the idea of the job description “collector”. That’s not how I have ever seen myself; I’ve just done things in life. I don’t feel like someone who’s a software developer just because I program, or a collector because I look at my artworks. I am a fan of the word “amateur” as someone who loves doing something without doing it professionally.
I started programming, soldering, reading and buying art when I was a kid, but even while I was still at school I knew I didn’t want to earn money with those last two things. I don’t want to link something as profane as money with art and literature, both of which I love to excess. In computer stuff and electronics I have found what for me is a reasonable expedient. That’s why I find the triunity of time spent as a software developer, as a reader and as an art spectator altogether practical in my case. I was never interested in commercial matters; I’ve always tried to dig deep into my special area of collecting. Through their lifelong preoccupation with particular realms many collectors are better informed than curators; museums should make better use of this knowhow.
One child, one book, one picture. For a receptive mind, might that suffice to spark a career as a collector?IVO WESSEL
I started off by reading and soldering, art came a bit later. But I still remember the 1977 documenta and Walter de Maria’s “Vertical Earth Kilometre”. That was my first ever encounter with conceptual art. You saw photos on the wall, documentation as proof that something invisible had happened. For me it was brilliant to see an artist not flourishing a paintbrush. Riveting books make you fear the moment of reaching the final page. I remember how two days before leaving on holiday to France with my parents I went to the Zweitausendeins bookshop in Hanover to buy “Die Trilogie des laufenden Schwachsinns” (roughly translated as The Trilogy of On-Going Imbecility) by my favorite author Eckhard Henscheid. But by the following day I had already read the whole thing. I took it with me anyway and noticed that each time I re-read it the book got better and better. Of course, being a Freudian I generally feel very attached to compulsive repetition.
So today, do you still collect for pleasure or have aesthetic categories changed over the years, have you developed a plan? Have you lost interest in cataloguing or adhering to an academic concept?IVO WESSEL
No! It’s still the pleasure principle. Clearly, I hope I can develop and of course I also bear aesthetic categories in mind, but there is definitely no plan. I once met a young collector at Art Basel who told me he needed to buy a Sol LeWitt to fill a gap in his collection. I said my entire life is made up of nothing but gaps and that for the money he would be paying for a weak or mediocre Sol LeWitt, he could acquire a whole house full of young, contemporary positions. This attitude of collecting successful art is completely alien to me. I don’t collect collections, and I also lack the resources to do so. I believe it’s only proper to have a little humility and modesty. Of course there comes a time when you try to get relevant works, but to judge it by objective, art historical standards is pure hubris.
The Weserburg is a non-profit institution. It doesn’t deal in art or data. What does it offer you as a platform?IVO WESSEL
It’s just so wonderful to exhibit there! Without wanting to flatter or having to lie, I can simply state that the Weserburg is one of my favorite museums because I find its concept as a collector’s museum really interesting and modern. Cooperation between the museum and the collector works brilliantly. Of course the museum is where art should be and every artist aspires to get their work there because museums will stand the test of time.
Proust remarked that “the exhilarating joy” of observing a masterpiece “can be had only in a museum, where the rooms, in their sober abstinence from all decorative detail, symbolize the inner spaces in which the artist withdraws to create the work.”IVO WESSEL
As a veteran Proustian and board member of the Marcel-Proust-Gesellschaft let me tell you that Proust’s problem was – as he said himself – that he simply had no imagination. He was incapable of making something up. He needed these peepholes into male brothels in order to participate. Kafka on his deathbed had someone drink a refreshing glass of beer in front of him, while Proust had someone prepare fish and eat it in his presence because he was too weak to do so himself.
In my view, the way we present art is currently shifting away from the white cube again. But when you see pictures from that period hanging in the luxuriantly decorated rooms people lived in back then you realize that a minimalistic space does help to concentrate.
Now it is commonly the other way round. In Berlin, for example, this trashiness is still en vogue at pop-up exhibitions, which I find dreadful. Paper is peeling off the walls or the floors are crumbling beneath your feet. Gradually one is getting fed up with it all, almost so much as to feel nostalgic for the white cube again. But you can’t take that as a general rule – after all, we never look at art in the settings where it was made. If we did we’d have to view the Impressionists by candlelight!
That’s also how we keep turning out new updates for translations. There is a golden rule saying that every fifty years or so we need a new Shakespeare, Ulysses, Proust or Moby Dick translation.
Just like the writer, the reader also withdraws into inner spaces that can open up boundless worlds. Is a certain degree of unavailability necessary if you want to get to the core of something?IVO WESSEL
Yes, of course! The funny thing is that in the Middle Ages reading was always a public activity, i.e. someone read out loud and was surrounded by twenty illiterate people who listened. Which is why there are beautiful sentences like: “I couldn’t read the text because I had a cold”. Nowadays it’s exactly the opposite. People only find time to read when they are laid up ill in bed, otherwise they are constantly communicating with one another via altogether antisocially loud media. So it’s quite funny that in our day and age reading has become something reclusive. For me, finding the leisure to think about things is eminently important. It’s how we reload our batteries.
What is the attraction for you of having duplicates or several copies of one edition?IVO WESSEL
The reason I never wanted to study literature was so as not to lose my pleasure in reading. And the world of software enables me to really withdraw from everything for a couple of months, just to immerse myself in books. I have just finished reading Karl Krauss’s “Die Fackel” for a second time. There are books I’ll re-read all my life and they will always retain something new and different. That’s why I often keep several copies of a book – not just as back-ups. To me it feels absurd to own only one copy of an important book. So I have thirty, maybe forty, copies of such books, sometimes even more, in order to maintain a fair balance between price and value.
Not as a fetish?IVO WESSEL
Well, everything around me is a fetish, not a commodity. Admittedly I also caught myself thinking something similar when Eckhard Henscheid was visiting me and discovered my evidently ample stocks of fifty copies of his novel “Dolce Madonna Bionda”. How was I to refuse his request for a copy? The next day I filled the gap again. There simply had to be fifty. I come from the pre-internet era, that’s all, when one would stumble across books in second-hand bookshops that would otherwise have been lost forever. I save books, and often I think that if I didn’t, I might never again encounter a book like the one standing on the shelf over there.
“Paradise Lost” – Ivo Wessel, did you find yours in a library, maybe filled with “exhilarating joy”?IVO WESSEL
As a fan of Arno Schmidt I follow his adage “There is no bliss without books”. I was once asked by an elderly lady visiting my collection, if you had to decide, art or books, which would you choose? In all my fifty years that was something I had never once considered. But of course I would decide in favor of books.
Particularly at a time when collectors’ profiles are to some extent taking on deranged forms, reading has become an elitist realm where time means everything and cannot be traded for money.
Your question was of course an allusion to Milton. I believe that paradise can always be found but you also need to make an effort searching for it.
Let’s switch to art. Being up-to-date always has an expiry date on it and constantly needs refreshing. The same goes for art and reception. This is demonstrated by ambiguous artworks: Sven Johne’s “Ship Cancellation”, for example, can give you an extended perspective on contemporary events.IVO WESSEL
That’s something good art should do in every respect; it needs to make reference to human existence. Today we are still reading Shakespeare, for instance, because the questions he addresses have lost none of their relevance. In Sven Johne’s case this relevance is easy to see for me because he is strongly influenced by literature. He is always telling stories, most of which are printed or reproduced on the artwork itself; I have a great affinity to that. I don’t collect pure “arty art”. If there’s photography I find particularly appealing it will be documentary photography as that tells some kind of background story.
Martin Warnke speaks of political iconography. Today one could read Dürer’s Hare in terms of the vanishing diversity of species. The population of his beloved hare is now also under threat. Can we be accused of politicizing after the fact?IVO WESSEL
You’re referring, I assume, to the work by Frank Hesse, “Wildkaninchen” (Wild Rabbits). That’s also a tremendous Paradise Lost for Jean-Jacques Rousseau who after suffering persecution and banishment from France believed he had found his paradise on St. Peter’s Island in Lake Bienne in Switzerland. He raised rabbits there and set them loose – even considering this a lifetime achievement. In the 1970s people had nothing better to do than completely eradicate the rabbits because they had proliferated out of control. This paradise that had survived long enough was destroyed. I don’t think that with his legacy Rousseau saw himself in that moment as a political agent, but that cannot be separated.
And his “Social Contract or the Principles of Political Law”?IVO WESSEL
He was a scientist too. Today we tend towards the idea of separating everything. A collector is supposed to be just a collector, but I am very keen on things overlapping. Take, for instance, the wonderful work “N-Strahlen” (N-Rays), again by Frank Hesse. It’s a truly tragic story. This is not a word I commonly use but the scientist René Blondlot, also a friend of Einstein’s, believed he had discovered a new category of radiation but unfortunately couldn’t prove it. Having first been awarded a prestigious national award by the French he was then hurled from Mount Olympus by other scientists and entirely vanished from the scene. He was the tragic, negative figure of science, an alleged charlatan. Yet his failure is exemplary and reasons enough for me to be particularly drawn to him. Conceivably, in the end, Blondlot worked all his life as a scientist considerably more, got up in the morning and went to bed at night, firmly believing that he would one day be able to prove his discovery of the century, with a great deal more motivation than did Einstein, who later became a kind of physics celebrity.
What I loved about Einstein was how in their correspondence he and Niels Bohr developed an aesthetic perception of the world. Concerning one formula he sent to Bohr he remarked that it wasn’t beautiful so it couldn’t be correct. After months spent verifying the calculation Niels Bohr finally confirmed Einstein’s suspicion. It’s something as self-evident in science as it is in art: knowing and fathoming for the blissful few who are able.
In the exhibition I also included a few works by Rolf Julius, a synaesthete. For me it made total sense when he said that a certain sound did not match the grey tone of a pane of glass strewn with pigment. To correct it he had to reduce the size of the glass sheet. For those who know, such laws that might appear wondrous to the layman are simply natural. When Julius was asked at exhibitions to expand on his works he often declined very politely, saying there was nothing more he could explain about them.
I made sure that finally, after such a long time, his altogether intimate work on the red wall of the tunnel in the Weserburg was repaired and worked again.
In respect to “origins” you have used precisely environmental pollution to create a work: in 2002, you allowed dust, acid rain, exhaust fumes, sludge and so on to combine to form a true “picture of filth” on a canvas measuring 13 x 18 cm mounted inside your car. Will this collaborative work with Karin Sander one day end up framed behind glass and hanging on a wall?IVO WESSEL
Not for the time being. The car, a yellow Lotus, has fortunately just passed its yearly inspection again. I simply liked the idea of having a work with me on the road. I didn’t just want to expose it to the environment but also to my life. Patina pictures are based on the principle that you receive an empty canvas and you can do with it whatever you like. There is one work in the exhibition that originated on the outside wall of a former flat. After it was sent off to an exhibition, for which it had to be removed from its place of origin, I considered it finished. Logically, when it was returned I had it framed.
Karin Sander then gave me a second canvas that was supposed to replace the first one on the same spot. This is why I am now the happy owner of a diptych made of two very similar works. On the other hand, the work hanging inside against the rear window of the Lotus has not yet had to be removed. From a scientific perspective it is a miracle to me how three suction pads have managed to hold it securely for fifteen years. When Karin once asked to have the work for an exhibition it was naturally exhibited together with the car. That was the only patch of color in the room, and many visitors didn’t even notice the small picture in the rear window of the car, which in an odd way – please excuse the pun – represented the autobiography of the collector.
Your collection focuses not only on fine art but also on manuscripts, rough and preliminary drafts, and galley proofs, as well as all of the exhibits are interrelated. Gauguin attended the literary group gathered around Mallarmé, who was also friends with Manet, “like Baudelaire had been a friend of Delacroix’s. It is not necessarily the theorists but the poets – to be precise, Baudelaire and Mallarmé – who are the best connoisseurs of the painting of their time”, André Malraux wrote in “Le musée imaginaire”. Are these the links between literature and art that interest you?IVO WESSEL
Absolutely! I wish we had politicians like Malraux who knew considerably more about his era and culture than is common among politicians. I am especially interested in overarching disciplines within art.
There was once a wonderful dedicated copy of a book that was inscribed with the three signatures of Joris-Karl Huysmans – who wrote “À rebours” (Against Nature), the “yellow book” so familiar to fans of Oscar Wilde for having poisoned Dorian Gray – of Stéphane Mallarmé and of Odilon Redon.
They collectively dedicated a work to another author, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam. Today I am still annoyed with myself for not having bought this treasure as a schoolboy. If my memory is correct it was available for around 200 Deutschmarks. It would have been a symbiosis of all these disciplines whose interrelation means so much to me.
On a literary level Proust projected his own knowledge of art onto the collector Swann. He then transferred his veneration of Botticelli onto his lover Odette. He rendered homage to the painter by saying that thanks to Odette’s similarity to Zipporah he had “given up much of his time to the study of an inestimably precious work of art.” (Marcel Proust: Swann’s Way).Can a work of art exert such a lasting influence on everyday life?IVO WESSEL
Of course! Oscar Wilde pronounced one should either be a work of art or wear a work of art. Swann isn’t Proust’s alter ego, but a composition. He mirrored himself in a large number of figures. Similar to Oscar Wilde whose “Dorian Gray” encompasses the gorgeous, desirable youth alongside the rich, blasé, cynical Lord Henry Wotton and, between them both, the painter Basil Hallward. In a letter Wilde wrote: “Basil Hallward is who I think I am, Lord Henry is who the world thinks I am, Dorian is who I would like to be, in other ages, perhaps.” He saw himself more in the role of the ugly painter who sees beauty and seeks to preserve it, for whom the gaze is more important that the object. I fully agree with him when he says that nature imitates art, when he sees a sunset as no more than a second-rate Turner, and when we appreciate London’s fog only because poets and painters have first revealed its enigmatic beauty.
There is this wonderful sentence by Joris-Karl Huysmans that appears again in Dorian Gray. He discovers the story of his own life “written before he had lived it”. I am convinced that this kind of reminiscence, this kind of mirroring can exist.
Nowadays artists reveal their thoughts and insights to us not through beauty and sublime grandeur but through that which provokes, alarms but also stigmatizes. The work of art without smoke and mirrors?IVO WESSEL
I find art that unambiguously reveals itself from the very outset wholly uninspiring. It needs some background and a second glance. I am also a big fan of conceptual art, and in painting I personally, not art historically, find only concrete and constructive art appealing. I don’t like what is immediately obvious because I would like to preoccupy myself with it all my life.
Works of art with something unapproachable and cryptic about them are often not immediately decipherable. “And we shall love it longer than the rest because we have taken longer to get to love it.” Do you share Proust’s experience?IVO WESSEL
Definitely. Of course, that comes partly from the outstanding German translation by Eva Rechel-Mertens who caught this wonderful cadence with such precision. That is exactly what makes art appealing. Art is beautiful but hard work too, Karl Valentin said.
I could never understand collectors who called an art purchase a fine opportunity or bought it on someone’s recommendation. Sure, that’s one way of looking at it, but it’s a bit sad too. I would like to appropriate the whole thing.
But for me it’s altogether natural not to exchange or sell anything. You see, I acquired the works for personal reasons. Even if at some point I can no longer recall the reasons or no longer find them plausible I would continue to respect them.
Would you also urge an artist to make a work?IVO WESSEL
I already have. Especially with artists I am good friends with such as Via Lewandowsky, Sven Johne, Bjørn Melhus or Stefan Panhans there are things that go beyond our friendship that we discuss or where one has the courage to venture into these kinds of very intimate areas. What’s curious in Via’s case is that we still address each other with the more formal “Sie” rather than “du,” even though we’re the same age. But in view of my constant preoccupation with the works he has passed on to me, keeping this distance means a lot to me. It creates a level of respect that might otherwise get lost. It acts as a barrier that maintains style, something I altogether relish.
The circular flow of thought from earth to the heavens and back down to earth, with a constant yearning to take off towards infinity and weightlessness: Via Lewandowsky seems to have adopted this as his theme of the crash-landing of human dreams in all its variations.IVO WESSEL
Was it really a crash-landing? Your question refers to the work “Last Call (Komarow Gedächtnisraum)”. Komarov was the first person to die in space, the first person to have been there twice and without whose failure we would probably no longer remember him. It was only through Via’s work that I got to know about Komarov. As an artist he was attracted to the special role assumed by the cosmonaut: for the first time, Russian space travel was confronted with the problem of how to deal with someone for three and a half hours that you’ll never see again. Seemingly Komarov knew that the control system in his space capsule had not been perfected and that he would burn upon re-entering the earth’s orbit. But he didn’t want to chicken out, otherwise his back-up pilot Yuri Gagarin, who as the first man in space was clearly very “precious”, would have perished instead. So they then whiled away this excruciating time with pseudo communication. Of course Komarov was aware of this as well and can be heard swearing like a trooper.
The work consists of the last minute of their radio communication when ground control is still giving out procedures to simulate rescue measures, even though they knew precisely to the second at what moment Komarov would die. And he too knew that nothing could be done. There’s a fantastic novel, also one of Via Lewandowsky’s favourite novels, by Victor Pelevin called “Omon Ra”. It’s about how the Russians conquer the moon yet have to deal with the prospect of there being no return. At the novel’s end the Russians successfully land on the moon and “after that they lived on the lunar surface for one and a half minutes, and then shot themselves.” That, indeed, is how casual and terse victory can be.
I think that the moment of tragedy or failure in Lewandowsky’s work very often tips the other way. Ultimately, these events might have turned Komarov into a big star in spite of the Russians keeping the drama under wraps for decades. It only came to light because the Americans were listening in on Russian radio traffic and witnessed it all.
I also like the failure you find formulated in Sven Johne’s very early work “Vinta”, the piece through which I first discovered him. It describes the disaster of the film director Fritz Lang who was meant to shoot “Woman in the Moon” as his first major Hollywood production ¬– obviously, completely state-of-the-art with sound and in color. Being the artist he was, he made a black-and-white silent film that ruined him and abruptly finished his Hollywood career.
Yet in his failure he created a superb work of art, a classic of the science fiction film genre. And because it was a silent film he had to invent something for the rocket launches that absolutely everyone knows: the countdown, of course, counting the seconds to the rocket’s ignition.IVO WESSEL
Not unlike the greatest work by Anton Stankowski, who is also represented in the exhibition as a concrete painter. Literally everyone in Germany is familiar with it but hardly anyone could name the artist: he designed the logo for Deutsche Bank. Does that count as a failure or is he a larger-than-life artist? Besides, Stankowski also designed the logo for my software company, and I am grateful to own a whole series of his artistic works.
There’s another artist in the exhibition everybody knows from one work of his. It is the most frequently photographed work, can be seen on television every day, as well as being reproduced daily in a German magazine: I’m talking about the Euro Monument by Ottmar Hörl, that until its recent move stood in Frankfurt at the base of the Euro Tower of the ECB, the European Central Bank. Nobody thinks of it as a work of art, everyone assumes it’s just a logo. So does this constitute a failure for the artist who made something to which no one can attribute the authorship? He could almost be a tragic person, especially with this being such a large sculpture in public space. Samuel Beckett was not the first to teach us that big failure and big success are separated by no more than a hair’s breadth.
The tipping moment in Lewandowsky can also be witnessed in his exhibition “Hokuspokus”. Like a magician he transforms arbitrary, everyday things into mysterious objects with lives of their own. Is this his way of pulling the rug of familiar perception out from under our feet?IVO WESSEL
He is something of a paradox and bears a close affinity to Oscar Wilde, also in his sense of humor. (Although that’s my personal slant given that Wilde is one of my house gods – I’ve owned a collection of first editions and many rare books by him since my schooldays.) Paradox is manifest in the works in which he breaths life into dead things. The baseball bat is probably a good example – see how it twitches. There is a flower vase that gyrates, a blue helmet that hops or – here in the exhibition at Weserburg – a canvas that sings if you stop in front of it.
Conversely, Lewandowsky also takes a strong interest in people. I organized an exhibition that I titled “Diese Scheiss Sterblichkeit” (The shit mortality), quoting Durs Grünbein with whom Lewandowsky has frequently collaborated. The exhibition was not about death but about the transition from one condition to the other. For the artist the former would certainly have been too mundane. It’s not about either the dead or the living Komarov. For me that is where Werner Heisenberg or Schröder’s Cat comes in: it’s not a question of ambiguity but of double being. The cat is both dead and alive. Komarov too was, you could say, both dead and alive for three and a half hours. That’s why it’s important to me to stress that the theme of Lewandowsky’s work is often the transition from life to death. I feel that people are frequently impervious to this kind of humor, which has something to do with effort. You need to work on acquiring the vision of the second glance. As a collector I feel privileged with less resources: either you have money or you have time. Proust’s Recherche starts with the word “longtemps” and ends with “temps”.
Are you drawn to that which is paid little attention or even scorned?IVO WESSEL
Of course I hold special affection for things that require explanation! Something that is instantly self-evident completely lacks interest to me as a collector. I took it as a great compliment that Lewandowsky ceded works to me that he never thought he could part with, that he normally wouldn’t have sold, such as “Gnadenschuss” (Coup de grâce), which is also hanging in the exhibition. When I showed an interest in this work twenty years ago he told me it had accompanied him wherever he went, that he’d always had it hanging above his sofa. And, he said, all at once he realized that I would always be interested in very particular works from his oeuvre, ones he would like to see kept together, and that quite serendipitously they would all now enter the hands of a single collector.
The photo comes from a terrible companion book to “Stahlgewitter” (Storm of Steel) by Ernst Jünger from the First (and first ever illustrated) World War. It shows the very instant in which a horse “crosses over”. The body becomes lighter in the moment of death; it’s a chemical reaction. As early even as in the Middle Ages people were able to measure this change fairly precisely, although the explanation was less tenable. It was said to be the weight of the soul leaving the body. I felt there is nothing brutal about this depiction of a killing, rather something tender. This creature is given something like death. And the horse’s last thought, you could say, is pictured as the black square hanging next to the photograph as a portrait of the horse’s soul, while at the same time embodying something akin to the germ cell of modern art.
What is your latest idea “In Best Hands” about?IVO WESSEL
Collecting can, as the neon work “Pleasures” by Sylvie Fleury says, give a great deal of enjoyment. I am convinced people have a lot of wonderful things that they never make available on any kind of platform. But you could surely move them to part with them: by means of a persuasive story, maybe, a fair price and the argument that they would end up in good hands. In my opinion this is something lacking on the Internet, and fortunately I am not the only person who thinks so. So I have founded a start-up, taken investors on board and developed a platform that rather than publicizing offers presents requests in the form of tales of search. In other words, receiving instead of searching.
Finally, Ivo Wessel, could you please say something about the title of the exhibition at the Weserburg?IVO WESSEL
The wonderful claim that “the space between people can carry the load” is true for absolutely everything, be it film, art, museums or collecting. And it is spoken in my favorite film “The State of Things”, a film about the improbability of making a film, by Wim Wenders, words he puts in the mouth of his alter ego Friedrich Munro during a melancholy nocturnal stocktaking exchange between the film’s director and its producer. Shot in 1982 on black-and-white film stock laboriously scraped together from all over the world, because at that time such material was only produced on advanced booking, the film was made after Wenders’ artistic debacle in Hollywood and America, in the wake of the “Hammett” project produced by Francis Ford Coppola. “The State of Things” was shot spontaneously and unscripted, with friends and plenty of gut anger in a hotel in Lisbon located on the most easterly tip of Europe. In addition to the four photographs Wenders took of the hotel, the exhibition also includes a film clip, both in the dubbed DVD copy as well as in the very recently restored 4K version of the film. For me this is the most wonderful product of failure in art.