Concerning parallel universes of the art world
The German art historian Julian Denzler, the curator of the Kunstverein Friedrichshafen, as well as the Swiss Museum zu Allerheiligenin Schaffhausen, spoke with Jan-Hendrik Pelz about collecting art, his friendly relationships with the artists, and the ups and downs of contemporary art. They talked in the context of the exhibition “Einmaleins (maleins)” in the Kunstverein Friedrichshafen.
Julian Denzler: Mr. Pelz, when did you begin collecting art, and what criteria do you use? How would you define the focus of your collection?
The Pelz Collection originated in 2015. The first works, which I intentionally purchased for the collection, are by Gregor Schneider. Three drawings by Albrecht Dürer followed. I only collect contemporary art.
Julian Denzler: Albrecht Dürer? An important Renaissance artist. His works, however, don't belong in the realm of modern art.
But on the contrary, indeed they do. Mr. Dürer even invited me to Düsseldorf for coffee and cake. A delightful rapport developed, and to this day we maintain a friendly relationship.
"Albrecht Dürer even invited me to Düsseldorf for coffee and cake."
Julian Denzler: Could we possibly be talking about different artists with the same name?
Yes, that's right! The steadily growing collection includes only works created by namesakes of famous artists.
Julian Denzler: That's amazing! How do you go about doing this?
Extensive research and preparatory work happens in the background. I search for the corresponding persons in the population lists of registration offices, in telephone directories, as well as on social media platforms such as Facebook or Instagram. Prerequisite is a hundred percent name correspondence with a well-known artist of art history or contemporary art. After making contact, I explain my concept: why I collect in this manner, and the motivation behind the project. Of course, the most pleasurable aspect of the search is igniting a spark in the people I contact to start working creatively for the Pelz Collection. Generally speaking, most of them have had no prior contact with art, yet the resulting works are premier creations. In some cases, this leads to a passion for creative work, which motivates the participants to continue working artistically. For me, this is utterly delightful!
"Of course, the most pleasurable aspect of the search is igniting a spark in the people I contact to start working creatively for the Pelz Collection."
Julian Denzler: Let me summarize: Do you motivate people who have namesakes with recognized artists to create works of art for your collection?
Julian Denzler: And after they’ve completed them, you buy these works?
Yes. Each artist receives a fee for their work. I also cover the costs of materials and shipping. In exchange, the participants give me the usage rights guarantee of their works which include presenting them in print and showing themin exhibitions in the future. The artists, of course, maintain the copyright of their works.
Julian Denzler: When considering the lineup of artists, visitors, at first glance, get the impression of a selection of well-known works by renowned masters of the art world. A deception?
I'm not deceiving anyone. We constantly delude ourselves! When I visit an exhibition and discover a work by Gerhard Richter, I immediately assume that it is, of course, the artist from Cologne, who became famous for the transfer of blurred photographic elements in his oil paintings. However, there are hundreds of people with the same name, and another Richter paints a different picture. Of course, I play with this suggestion. Without a doubt, it's the subject of my project. But it’s not so much about deception, as about questioning our expectations, and the deadlocked pathways of perception we all walk.
These are real works by real people, all of which share a commonality regarding their name, but do not have to justify their celebrated namesake. Herein lies the tension - it's not about deception or counterfeiting; instead, the project shows us how our own expectations can prematurely lead us to accept things that we shouldn’t necessarily presuppose.
"I'm not deceiving anyone. We constantly delude ourselves!"
Julian Denzler: Your collection embraces a concept that plays with the nature of expectation, addresses the mechanisms of the art industry - here, thematizing the “star cult" - and shakes up roles within the art establishment. These are all topics that have already appeared in your previous artistic projects. Do you see yourself as a collector, detached from your own work, or do you see the entire project as an artistic creation?
That's a question that I can answer only partially. I try to soften boundaries and question critical perimeters. Whoever wants to can interpret the project as concept art. It is, however, much more than the conceptual framework. Viewers shouldn't construe the collected works as a “carrier medium” of the idea but experience how they exist parallel to it. After all, I genuinely build a collection and pursue a real interest in the collected works and artists who create them.
The initial contact with art-making, as well as the appreciation and esteem that the participants, who work in areas far removed from art, deservingly receive, allow for a completely free and unbiased approach to art. The resulting works have a naive, but also daring and refreshing lack of reference to art theory, which often gives professionalized contemporary art its typical inaccessibility and severity.
Here, in this context, I'm a mediator, curator, artist, and collector all in one. Maybe this position is similar to the situation with the names: Our expectations and experiences allow us to draw boundaries between areas that may not be as clear-cut as they seem. However, without my role as an artist, the project isn't possible. The inclusion of works like these couldn’t exist as contemporary art on their own. The art world would probably banish them to the realm of “amateur art,” if they were detached from the conceptual framework of a project like this. A situation that demonstrates, with a winking eye, the role of the contemporary artist as a developer of ideas and assertions, vindicating his/her efficacy in designating something as work of art.
Nowadays, the saying goes that “collectors are the new artists, and artists the new curators.” (laughs) Ultimately, these reversals create a series of ambiguities that allow for new experiences.
"I try to soften boundaries and question critical perimeters."
Julian Denzler: How important is the connection and exchange between you and the participants of your project, and this new significance you give to them?
The role of the artist, as well as the expectations placed on him or her, in fact all the clichés that we associate with this figure, have always interested me! I see the self-reference, and my appearance in multiple roles, as a performative element of my work. In the end, the artist also addresses him or herself in the position he or she ascribes to him or herself, or others do. Reflecting upon the system in which I work is, however, also relevant to me.
For instance, the whole concept of performance - I choose to conceive of it in a more expanded way: Do the participants, whom I motivate, now working artistically for the first time, create a performance in which they act as artists? Are they artists or works of art? Where does authorship lie? The fuzziness of the boundaries that illustrate these questions intrigues me. Of course, being an instigator of art is equally essential, and bears vital significance.
"Of course, being an instigator of art is equally essential, and bears vital significance."
Julian Denzler: What about cancellations? Do people sometimes find your concept incomprehensible? I would imagine that your request could also be associated with inhibitions on the part of potential participants …
Of course, there are rejections. These are always sad moments for me. In most cases, refusals revolve around mistrust of a stranger with an unusual idea or the lack of confidence potential participants’ carry regarding their own abilities. Often, it’s also the gridlocked notion of “art” that renders a request null and void with responses like: “I can’t do that!” In such situations, I try to dispel these adverse assumptions of “right” and “wrong” and give positive examples concerning a more expansive idea of art. It’s about showing people how to free themselves from deadlocked thinking patterns by questioning them. Only then is it possible to get involved in an experiment, to take a step into the unknown, and allow something new to emerge. As you know, failure can also be productive - if you don't define it as a faux pas.
And this is the challenge, the same approach that I have to internalize and implement as an artist myself, before every new project! That's not always easy. In this sense, we're all in the same boat.
Julian Denzler: How important are your encounters with participants, and the individual stories that underpin their lives and the works they create for the project?
These are all essential - things I care about a lot. With some of the artists, I've been able to establish sincere relationships, and we stay in touch. The way each person approaches and deals with my request, and the associated task, is unique. I'm continuously interested in the psychological dimension of this process. And not only regarding the participants, but also myself: how does the project affect me, what experiences does it present me with, how does it expand my knowledge, my abilities, and reveal my specific limitations? After all, the artist is less a teacher, but more so a student, who assigns him or herself tasks and challenges, sets out to fulfill them, and invites others to participate in their moment of realization. That might sound a bit inflated, but it’s imperative.
Confrontation with their unique names is something almost all the participants have experienced throughout their lives. Due to these encounters they’ve found connections, developed relationships with art. Imagine a Max Beckmann at the supermarket checkout who becomes involved in a conversation about expressive oil painting. Think of an Albrecht Dürer, who researches the family tree of his name, and in the process makes contact with another Dürer in northern Germany. Ultimately, they visit a Dürer exhibition in Nuremberg together. Or how about an Anselm Kiefer, who receives incomprehensible letters from a gallery owner, who obviously sent them to the right name, but the wrong person. Then there's a Carsten Höller, who traveled to Berlin to see the work “SOMA” of his namesake in Hamburger Bahnhof, and photographed himself in front of it. How far does the name we receive at birth affect us? To what extent does it shape our expectations of ourselves and our environment? Many of the participants revealed that they have often played with the idea of doing artistic work because of “this famous namesake in art.” To what extent were parents aware of this connection to art in giving their children such eminent names, and what expectations were attached? In fact, several psychological researchers have found in studies that names can have a demonstrable impact on later career choices, position in society and even expected salary. We make jokes when we hear about a person named Hans Wurst (sausage), who later becomes a butcher, or a dentist called Dr. Wurzel (root). However, maybe there is more to this than we think! (laughs)
"After all, the artist is less a teacher, but more so a student, who assigns him or herself tasks and challenges, sets out to fulfill them, and invites others to participate in their moment of realization."
Julian Denzler: That could well be! But to return again to the topic of the art industry: Your project picks up on the fact that museums, and especially private collections, often adorn themselves with large pseudonyms and publicly present collections under their own name. Flashing famous names is an easy way to gain cultural capital as a private collector and for a private collection - provided, of course, you have the necessary resources at your disposal. Your project addresses this mechanism, yet lets it drop into a void.
Oh well. It's clear that the names of the participants of the “Pelz Collection” at first glance imply their association with works by well-known artists. Only a closer examination of the artworks raises viewers’ doubts. In the process, they confront their own expectations concerning art and artists. The perceived value, which is often unquestioningly associated with prominent names, and thus intentionally celebrated in the art market, turns out to be a dubious assumption. This star cult, this “name-dropping” is a common strategy, not only in the arts and culture, for upgrading and profiling. More often than not, it’s associated with financial interests. Playing with the observer, as well as his or her insecurities; the conceptual inclusion of art institutions; and the performatively assumed role as art-collector, all come together in my project as a system critique, that humorously aspires to open up new unrestricted spaces and approaches to art.
Julian Denzler: You mentioned that you have already prepared for upcoming exhibitions. Do you intend to make more acquisitions? What are your overall plans for the “Pelz Collection?”
As far as the size of the collection is concerned, I agree with the motto of most art collectors: the bigger, the better! (laughs) One of my greatest wishes is that women participate in the project. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to recruit any female participants as yet. And that’s a real shame!
Also, in the long run, I plan to open permanent positions for the collection. Here, I'm thinking of “classical art presentation locations,” of museums and other well-equipped showrooms with regular opening hours, that invite visitors not only to get to know but gain in-depth experience with the concepts and works of my collection. I would love to open houses in Rome, Berlin, and Paris. Of course, I must reveal that my Rome is in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, with a recorded 801 inhabitants. Berlin is a village in Maryland, in the USA, with 3500 residents—its claim to fame is as the setting for the film classic “The Runaway Bride.” In addition to this, in Paris, Texas, there's even a small replica of the Eiffel Tower, although only 25,000 people live there. (laughs). I'm not quite yet sure yet how to define the space, where to draw the line: should the show be a walk-in sculpture, be in a museum, or be part of a universe parallel to the art world? Probably all in one and all at once! (laughs) It would be wonderful if sponsors and supporters came forth for this.
Julian Denzler: A collection with grand visions! I wish you all the best in all these endeavors, and I am very excited to see how the “Pelz Collection” develops. Thank you for the interview!
Thank you as well!