Vulnerability as power
Moments that don’t slip away
Alex de Vries
Rotterdam, the sixties. A little boy walks through the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum. The parquet cracks beneath his feet. He walks through the great rooms, passes through a door and makes his way to the smaller galleries. Stopping at one of the bays, he sits down and stares at a painting. He just sits there, lost in himself. He dissolves. Without any apparent explanation, he knows more than he did before. Art is a puzzle you don’t have to solve. Its secret is its secretiveness.
n October 1999, Han Nefkens (Rotterdam, 1954) and a close friend he’s known since he was eleven discuss the declining share prices on Wall Street. They’re in New York, and for the first time in several years the Dow Jones has taken a two to three percent plunge. Up until then Nefkens has invested his disposable income in stocks, bonds and deposits. He does the math and calculates his losses. Then his friend says, ‘Forget stocks. Why not buy art instead?’ And from that day on, Nefkens switches his focus from ideas like investment and capital. He sells his shares and begins to steep himself in contemporary art. He’s always been an art lover; he grew up with art all around him. His father, an architect and building real estate developer, had a special taste for ancient art, pre-Colombian artifacts and other curiosities. Yet it was never that background that led Han Nefkens to enter into an intense relationship with the world of art. In the seventies he studied communications in France and later in the United States. He began working as a radio correspondent in Mexico. With his fortunate financial situation – he receives an allowance from the family estate – he had always tried to be as level-headed as possible. But in October 1999 he changed his strategy. ‘It felt like a perfect fit,’ says Nefkens. ‘It felt good.’
The ‘problem’ was that at the time Han Nefkens knew nothing about collecting art and was not aware of current practices in the contemporary art world. So for months he immersed himself in exhibitions, fairs, magazines and other trade literature to get an idea of what was going on, and he developed a plan and a structure for building up a significant, distinctive collection that might also be of use to museums. He read Artforum, Flashart, Parkett, Kunstforum, and he visited galleries and museums. A good friend put him in contact with Sjarel Ex, then the director of the Central Museum in Utrecht and now of the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. For six months they carried on regular discussions. Nefkens had still not purchased a single work of art. Then they met at the Basel Art Fair in June 2000. Ex proposed that they each visit the fair separately, take notes of their preferences and compare them. Their lists of preferences overlapped to a significant degree: Pipilotti Rist, Tony Oursler, Bernard Frize, Bill Viola and others. At that point Han Nefkens made another deliberate decision, a decisive moment: the money he had earmarked for art purchases for the coming five years he would spend that very day. The H&F Collection, named after Han and his lifelong partner Felipe, was born. He and Ex came to an immediate agreement concerning the long-term loan of related parts of his collection that are in line with the Central Museum’s collection policy. Later he made similar agreements with other art institutions such as the museum in Reykjavik, De Pont in Tilburg, Huis Marseille in Amsterdam and the Folkwang Museum in Essen.
Characteristic of the work he purchases is its photographic aspect, even if the artist was not working with photography as a medium. ‘This photo could be a painting,’ he says, ‘and the painting could be a photo. I’m intrigued when the medium doesn’t dictate the content. I like it when at first glance you’re not sure if it’s a photo or a painting.’ Nefkens does not buy photographs as such. He buys art. What the works have in common visually is the attempt to tie down what is usually transitory. It is art that holds its breath; everything is momentarily timeless. This apparent contradiction has a certain restrained quality. Something that cannot be expressed assumes a certain form, often not recognizable but certainly personal, certainly obvious. And there is a quality in the work that Nefkens himself calls ‘the power of the understatement.’ You might also call it the ensoulment of the work. In a certain sense they’re all clichés that are negated by the work of art itself, because they demonstrate their importance directly without having to explain it. As a viewer you yourself must look for the explanation. The art has already done its work. Making a work of art involves totally different responsibilities than looking at it.
Han Nefkens recognizes the need for dogma. He also recognizes it for himself. Dogma is the quality of making art that can be analyzed by means of judgment based on objective criteria. Such analysis might free contemporary art from the stigma that has been attached to it for so long, the ‘Oh, I could do that’ response. Why no one except the artist actually does it is a puzzle, however, for which no one has come up with a solution. And the very unfathomable quality of the image – the enigma of art – is the great fascination for Nefkens, the reason for putting his collection together. His purpose is not to unravel the secret of art but to identify it as such, in its enigmatic quality. ‘Art has the same function as air, water and food: it’s essential for our lives, not as a luxury or pastime, but as a basic and indispensable condition of our existence.’
Nefkens’s own life and his own development are decisive factors in the choice he makes as a collector and in the kind of collector he wants to be. He does not see his art purchases as a financial investment, since by housing his collection directly in museums and leaving it to those museums after his death he takes economic distance from them. The important thing for him is the meaning of the work of art in a broader context: life as such and the role that art plays in life. His fascination with works of art in which the perfect moment takes shape and assumes an enduring form that can take on other meanings just by being looked at again and again is partly the result of personal circumstances. ‘The personal is political’ is an almost incontestable statement from the women’s movement of the seventies and eighties, and in the case of Han Nefkens ‘the personal is art’ is equally incontestable. He is convinced that it is becoming more and more important to demonstrate the usefulness of art because of its objective uselessness and lack of functionality. The fact that what can actually be derived from art is to be found in something more substantial than the economic payoff from things that are stable in value – although the art industry itself contributes to this to a great extent – is a notion that must be fully recognized by politicians and decision makers.
In 1987 Han Nefkens learned that he was HIV positive, and from that moment of truth, with its bald inescapability, everything changed. Everything that he had passed by without giving it much thought up until then became at least as inescapable as his infection with HIV. Totally dependent on medication, and on the continuous development of new and better medicines, he embarked on a crazy quilt life that amounted to living on borrowed time. He realized that each moment can be decisive in life and that he could not allow himself to attach less meaning to one moment than the next, to one experience than the next. Yet it’s impossible to live each moment as if it were the last. How can you experience the fact that there is no moment that doesn’t matter? Han Nefkens found that experience in art.
‘I’d like to be a fly on the wall in the museum and see the people looking, listen to them talking. How does the art I’ve collected affect people?’ Nefkens is convinced that art can obliterate fundamental human loneliness, or at least lighten it. ‘If a work of art touches you, and you see that it does something to someone else, your loneliness dissolves.’ Yet he does not see art as the proverbial solace that it can offer. Art does much more than that. Art provides insight, enabling you to recognize something in life that you weren’t aware of before. What Han Nefkens would like to do is to take the personal satisfaction produced by that insight and make it productive in a useful way. During the bi-annual international AIDS congress that was held in Bangkok in 2004 he commissioned Thai artists and artists from the region to produce works with AIDS as their point of departure. In addition, he and Hilde Teerlinck of CRAC Alsace have asked ten international artists, including Lawrence Weiner, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Sue Williamson and Shirin Neshat among others, to make posters based on the theme of the conference: ‘Access for All.’ The results were printed in an edition of fifty by the Mulhouse Art Academy in France, and the proceeds of the sale will be used to benefit children with AIDS in Thailand. Both exhibitions were shown in The Queen’s Gallery in Bangkok during the conference. The ‘Access for All’ posters are now part of a traveling exhibition and are being shown in museums throughout Europe.
That activity gave him the personal satisfaction of knowing that art and the fight against AIDS go well together, and give his activities as a collector extra meaning and an added dimension. Now he’s making plans to be more active in the art world, not only as a collector but as a patron as well, thereby stimulating art in another way and filling an important social role. The ‘Art AIDS’ foundation he is establishing is a result of those plans. His goal is to de-stigmatize AIDS by means of art and to create awareness, especially in areas where keeping things under wraps has always been seen as a better approach than addressing the problem and fighting it. The sale of the works of art that will be commissioned through ‘Art AIDS’ will be used to benefit AIDS projects in different parts of the world. But he’s got new plans for his patronage as well, plans that must be realized in the coming years together with the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. In fact, these plans mean an expansion of family responsibilities for Han Nefkens. After his mother died of cancer in 1971, his father set up the Josephine Nefkens Foundation, which contributes to cancer research and development cooperation.
In his apartment in Barcelona a work by Jörg Sasse is hanging on the wall. It’s a landscape composed of many images, with a prosaic gate to the right, a hilly area in the middle and a hazy vista on the left. On the hill, which might be covered with sand or snow or a fine powder, there are footsteps. They start suddenly, somewhere, just like that, and they end suddenly, just like that. These footsteps, which aren’t going anywhere, dissolve the person who left them behind. His presence can be demonstrated by an investigation of his tracks, but his form can no longer be retrieved. It can only be imagined. Even when art doesn’t depict anything it always makes a proposal. The idea is to discover what you want to see. Yet for Nefkens, collecting art is not a form of self-realization. Self-realization is what he strives for in his work as an author. His moving novel ‘Bloedverwanten’ (Wereldbibliotheek, 1995) about two brothers who hide their real feelings for each other, plus the short pieces he regularly publishes, are proof of that.
Human weakness is a virtue – something Han Nefkens knows from experience. A few years ago he was struck by encephalitis, which brought him to the brink of death. His recovery was slow, and he had to relearn all the things he had long ago mastered: writing, reading, talking, walking. For a long time he could only grasp a few of the details inherent in the relationships between things. All he could see of the whole were discrete bits, and he wasn’t able to connect them. Reading a book or watching a film was not impossible, but what he read and saw was not what other people read and saw. Works of art, on the other hand, which present themselves in a single image, were able to touch him as never before. He remembered that as a child in his parents’ home he always looked at the same painting, until one day he walked into the room and found himself totally surprised by that very work. It was with the same intense and sudden insight that he experienced his own art collection during his recovery from encephalitis, mortally afraid that he would no longer be able to see anything in it. But just the opposite was true. More than ever the works revealed their mystery to him, their meaning in their inexplicable presence. And from that collection he came to understand once more the connection, the intercultural synthesis of works of art from all parts of the world that really do have something in common, united in the intention – which he shares – to demonstrate the power of human vulnerability.
15 April 2005
(translation: Nancy Forest-Flier)
This essay was first published in The Suspended Moment, a French-English-German-Dutch exhibition catalogue with texts by Hilde Teerlinck, Hilde van Gelder, Alex de Vries and Pascale Saarbach (2005).
The Suspended Moment is distributed by IDEA books and can be ordered through your local bookshop.