The Art Angle Podcast: How a Tech Giant Helped Helsinki Create the Biennial of the Future

Welcome to the Art Angle, a podcast from Midnight Publishing Group News that delves into the places where the art world meets the real world, bringing each week’s biggest story down to earth. Join us every week for an in-depth look at what matters most in museums, the art market, and much more with input from our own writers and editors as well as artists, curators, and other top experts in the field.



Some of the most impactful stories to surface this past year have revolved around three major issues affecting the world as a whole: there’s a worsening climate emergency, a global health crisis and—in the fold—a breakneck acceleration of technology that’s increasingly entangling itself into every aspect of our lives.

When it comes to the art world, we can probably agree it’s time to ask some hard questions. Should there be so many art events? How should we gather? Do we need to experience art in person to understand it?

During lockdowns around the world over the last 18 months, we’ve been learning just how fluidly art can transition into the digital realm—and how clumsy a failed attempt can be.

Among the art events that managed to pull off successful ventures this year is the first edition of the Helsinki Biennial, which took on these questions. Taking place on an island off the coast of the capital of Finland, the exhibition, called “The Same Sea,” meets our collective moment, exploring concerns around our interconnectedness, nature, and sustainability. And it’s not just in theme: the Helsinki Biennial is calculating and trimming its climate footprint every step of the way with a goal of becoming the first carbon neutral biennial by 2035.

In the middle of a pandemic and rising temperatures, 41 artists are presenting works that carefully consider the surroundings of Vallisaari Island and the array of plants and creatures that populate it. To reach a wider audience when travel is both restricted and carbon-intensive, the biennale, which is on view until September 26, has partnered with Facebook Open Arts to explore how technology might help connect audiences with artworks peppered on the island.

This week, we’re thrilled to welcome Maija Tanninen, director of the forward-thinking Helsinki Biennial and the Helsinki Art Museum, and Tina Vaz, Head of Facebook Open Arts, to discuss the Helsinki Biennial’s unique approaches to greening a biennial, and how technology can be used to bring us closer to nature in meaningful ways.

If you enjoy this conversation, please join our panel conversation, “Helsinki Biennial and Facebook Open Arts – Future Visions / Art & Tech”—which will be available to watch on our Facebook page on September 22.


Listen to Other Episodes:

The Art Angle Podcast: Artists in Residence at the World Trade Center Reflect on 9/11

The Art Angle Podcast: Genesis Tramaine on How Faith Inspires Her Art

The Art Angle Podcast: The Bitter Battle Over Bob Ross’s Empire of Joy

The Art Angle Podcast: How Britney Spears’s Image Inspired Millennial Artists

The Art Angle Podcast: How the Medicis Became Art History’s First Influencers

The Art Angle Podcast: How Two Painters Helped Spark the Modern Conservation Movement

The Art Angle Podcast: The Hunter Biden Controversy, Explained

The Art Angle Podcast: Legendary Auctioneer Simon de Pury on Monaco, Hip Hop, and the Art Market’s New Reality

The Art Angle Podcast: 18-Year-Old NFT Star Fewocious on How Art Saved His Life, and Crashed Christie’s Website

The Art Angle Podcast (Re-Air): How Photographer Dawoud Bey Makes Black America Visible

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Simon de Pury on How the World’s Top Fashion Houses Have Worked With Artists to Create a Red-Hot Market for Collaborations

Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.

In 2019 I conducted an auction in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, to raise funds toward protecting the dwindling population of snow leopards. Included in it was a clutch bag by Olympia Le-Tan. There was spirited bidding, and to my own surprise the price had climbed up to $90,000 by the time I sold it to a very elegant lady in the room.

A few days after the auction, OLT’s cofounder Grégory Bernard asked me to curate a collection of clutch bags for them. I accepted, as at a number of galas and special events I had been struck by the originality of these accessories, which reimagine classic book covers and art, and were invariably worn by the most interesting women. Olympia Le-Tan managed to create an exquisitely crafted fashion accessory that looks as good when in use or when simply lying on a coffee table.

I was a great admirer of Olympia’s father, Pierre Le-Tan, whose illustrations graced the pages of numerous publications, including the New Yorker, Vogue, and the New York Times Magazine. He was also a connoisseur and eclectic collector. I had the privilege of being the auctioneer for the sale of part of his collection at Sotheby’s in London in 1995.

Tête de femme avec un chapeau à pompons, OLT X Picasso.

Tête de femme avec un chapeau à pompons, OLT X Picasso.

Before giving thought as to which favorite album or book covers to select, I felt the dream would be to choose works by the greatest artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso. I called Almine Rech Picasso to discuss the idea. She put me in touch with the Picasso Administration, for whom OLT prepared a detailed proposal. The embroiderers and stitchers started the search for the finest silk threads that would faithfully render the color range of the original works. Little did I realize that, after it was agreed, it would take months for each clutch bag to be produced. OLT will therefore come out every few months with another Picasso clutch in limited editions of 77.

This fun project made me reflect on the cross-fertilization between the worlds of art and fashion. The greatest fashion designers were at all times naturally drawn to art. It is therefore hardly surprising that some of them figure among the greatest collectors. Picasso’s seminal 1906 masterwork Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which is one of the quintessential works hanging at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), used to belong to the French couturier Jacques Doucet, who bought it in 1924. Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino Garavani, Giancarlo Giammetti, and Hubert de Givenchy are not only part of the pantheon of fashion but are also some of the most significant collectors and tastemakers in the world of art.

Despite that, there were clear borders between art and fashion. For an artist to do work for a fashion brand would have been seen as a perilous exercise.

The actual game changer was Bernard Arnault, the chief executive and owner of LVMH. Under his leadership, the designers of his main brands—above all Louis Vuitton and Dior—have instigated some of the most successful collaborations between artists and fashion houses to ever take place.

When a big retrospective of Takashi Murakami took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, not only did a number of paintings include the LV logo, but one room was devoted to the bags the artist had created for Vuitton, and they could be purchased then and there in the museum. Those manning the cash register must have been thrilled, but it made the soi-disant defenders of high art cringe.

Models hold Louis Vuitton bags designed by Richard Prince at the Louis Vuitton cocktail reception celebrating the Richard Prince exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum on January 8, 2007 in New York City. Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images.

Models hold Louis Vuitton bags designed by Richard Prince at the Louis Vuitton cocktail reception celebrating the Richard Prince exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on January 8, 2007, in New York City. Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images.

I am an unconditional admirer of Richard Prince, so when Marc Jacobs chose him to design a series of Vuitton bags covered with his jokes and nurses, I was ecstatic. The bags were released gradually, and the chief salesman at the LV store on the Champs-Élysées had the power to decide who was worthy of acquiring them. I would show up after each new release. He would ask me, “Did your wife like it?” I was not married at the time, but did not dare to admit that I was buying them for myself. The prices for Prince’s paintings were rising steeply, so while the bags are not exactly cheap, they were clearly more affordable than his canvases. I still have them wrapped up, and have actually never opened them.

The collaboration between Yayoi Kusama and Louis Vuitton helped towards establishing her in the art-world firmament. While the bags she created for the brand were being sold, her original paintings were being presented on the VIP floor of the Vuitton store on Bond Street in London. I was particularly fascinated by little plastic figurines of the artist herself. I was desperate to get my hands on one and used all my contacts, to no avail. I was told that they would all be destroyed once the display was over. I don’t know whether this really happened, but I have not come across any such figurine since. KAWS managed to do collaborations to satisfy both his “high” and “low” fan bases more or less simultaneously, when he collaborated with Dior and Uniqlo. I tried my luck at Uniqlo to get a T-shirt for my youngest daughter, but they were all sold out.

A general view during the Louis Vuitton And Yayoi Kusama Collaboration Unveiling at Louis Vuitton Maison on July 10, 2012 in New York City. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage.

A general view during the unveiling of the Louis Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama collaboration at Louis Vuitton Maison on July 10, 2012, in New York City. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage.

I always felt that the work of Kenny Scharf was undervalued. His current collaboration with Dior has changed this. There has been heated competition for his works in recent auctions. There again are wonderful plastic sculptures created by Scharf for the Dior shop windows around the world. Here as well, I was unable to acquire any of them. Urs Fischer has also decorated the Vuitton window displays around the world. There would be a red-hot collector’s market for the temporary display objects the main fashion brands use for their collaborations with artists.

For his collaboration with the Vuitton brand, Jeff Koons used some of the biggest brands of art history: Da Vinci, Titian, Rubens, Fragonard, Boucher, Turner, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Manet, and Monet. Not only did he employ some of their best-known works, as he did in his gazing ball series, he also plastered their names in metallic capital letters across the accessories. The LV logo had a JK logo symmetrically placed across it, and a Koons rabbit in leather was attached to each bag. It was a brand splashing brands on a brand. In 2014, I auctioned a Koons sculpture inspired by Picasso’s Blue Period work La Soupe, which had several Hermès Kelly bags hanging on its arms. The proceeds went to a United Nations campaign for vaccination—we could use such a campaign now!—that was supported by Svetlana Kuzmicheva-Uspenskaya.

In the nearly 20 years since the initial cooperation between Takashi Murakami and Vuitton took place, such collaborations no longer ruffle the feathers of “serious” art lovers. On the contrary, the wider reach and recognition the fashion world is a must for any artist wishing for mainstream notoriety. With at least 40 percent Asian buyers in the main international contemporary art auctions, this is not surprising. After all, many of Asia’s mega-malls, notably in Japan, have been cultural dynamos, staging art exhibitions since the 1960s. As a believer in contemporary culture overall, I applaud the blurring of lines between the worlds of art, music, fashion, architecture, design, photography, and cinema.

Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company and is a private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury

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Top Interior Designer Kelly Wearstler on How She Blends Art and Design to Create Spaces You Want to Be In

Designer Kelly Wearstler is renowned for creating spaces that juxtapose forms, textures, colors, and cultural references, from hotels to homes to a cyber-garage for LeBron James’s all-electric Hummer EV in the Southern California desert. Functional yet artful and always fun, they are often products of cross-disciplinary collaboration. In short, Wearstler says, “I like to mix it up.”

In the past year and a half, as homes became workplaces and entire worlds, the designer’s kaleidoscopic approach has come to make a whole lot of sense. (Incidentally, in the first half of this year, decorative art sales at auction have gone up 207 percent over the equivalent period in 2020, which were themselves up 26 percent from 2019, according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.)

Recently, Wearstler has been busier than ever, designing everything from a California-inspired paint collection with Farrow & Ball to the aforementioned virtual garage for LeBron (a collaboration with GMC), all while putting the final touches on her fourth Proper Hotel (it’s set to open next month in a ca.-1920 Downtown L.A. landmark, with site-specific installations commissioned from local artists). That’s even without mentioning the new collection of furnishings she designed, playfully sculpted from raw metal and stone, aptly titled “Transcendence.”

The other day, as she was making the trek from her home to her Malibu studio via California’s Pacific Coast Highway, she graciously pulled over to take our call and talk about the increasingly intimate worlds of art and design.

A stone Morro coffee table from Wearstler’s “Transcendence” collection. Courtesy of Kelly Wearstler Studio.

The design and art worlds are overlapping more and more, to an extent that design can be viewed as art in its own right. What do you make of this trend?

Art and design have been colliding and merging for forever. I was actually just in Greece and went to the Acropolis Museum and, you know, the dinnerware and the graphics and imagery there—I mean, it’s art. And that was in the ancient times.

If you look at pieces from, say, Ettore Sottsass—and I own several—there’s only so many of them out there in the world and they’re incredibly coveted; they are artworks in their own right.

If we design a chair, I look at it as art, because it’s incredibly carefully considered and it’s my creative outlet. But I don’t know what anyone else would call it.

Where do you draw the line?

As a designer, I have to create something that functions; I’m also thinking about how something would be experienced with its surroundings. Whereas maybe [for an artist], there’s a freedom to create something that just simply exists. To me, art can be an experience in itself.

Again, it’s a blurred boundary. I kind of look at everything as a sculpture; it’s also about the curation: how things are put together and how they interact.

For example, in my home, you walk in and there is this vestibule. There are two chairs—one’s marble, the other is this metal sculpture chair from the ‘80s. There’s a Louis Durot mirror and a sculpture from Soft Baroque. It’s kind of like an art installation, but functional.

There’s another area in my home that called for seating below an artwork [by Len Klikunas]. So I commissioned Misha Kahn to do a bench—it has these very organic-shaped ceramic pieces that kind of interlock, and the paint ombres. It’s really beautiful and fluid. I love him and his work.

Wearstler commissioned a bench from the designer-sculptor Misha Kahn. Photo: The Ingalls.

In your view, what distinguishes great design from good design?

Good design you really don’t notice. Bad design, you do. But great design is super-inspirational—it makes you happy; it makes you want to continue to experience and enjoy it, whether it’s a product or a space; it makes you want to come back and stay.

That’s more important than ever, given how much we’ve all been forced to stay home—and often also work at home—during this last year and a half.

Well, the home is the most important place and a reflection of your personal style—that much has not changed. People are now just really putting in the time, the money, the consideration about how they live in it and what they interact with every day.

For example, we just commissioned a desk from Ross Hansen. He’s a landscape artist and designer with Volume Gallery in Chicago, and he does limited-run furniture pieces. The client collects art and wanted something that was literally a sculpture in the room, but that they could use. And so Ross came up with this very sculptural desk design that really both serves as art and satisfies a function, using this composite resin material that almost looks like marble.

You regularly bring artists into your design practice. Why is that?

The thing is, artists have their own point of view, and that’s something that I’m drawn to. Coming together and seeing how their minds work when we do something that they haven’t done before—it’s just incredible.

If you look at the commission that we did with Ben Medansky [at the Proper Hotel, opening in Downtown L.A.], his medium is ceramic. It has a lot of dimension to it, and we commissioned him to design this really large, 70-foot wall of his tile installations for the swimming pool suite—which sounds odd, but the hotel used to be a YMCA and we had to leave a lot of the existing architectural features, so the suite literally has a swimming pool in it—like, a large one.

Ben and I met six to eight times, whether it was on site, or in my studio, or at his studio, and we did mock-ups and studied and really came together. I really liked that exploration: having a piece designed by this local artist that is one-of-a-kind and specifically for that space.

How do these collaborations come about?

Visiting artist studios is one of my favorite things to do. I was at Katie Stout’s studio in Brooklyn, and she had this hand-painted resin sample, literally on her floor. And I was like, “This is so amazing.” I was working on a client’s house—this client loves color, loves the Memphis period—and I asked Katie, “Can I commission you to do a piece of furniture with this as the inspiration?” So she made this cabinet with that composite material, and then added these hand-sculpted bronze handles and legs. This piece came out of that visit. It’s spectacular, it’s meaningful, and it was great working with her.

The Victor Vasarely piece at Wearstler’s house. Photo: Grey Crawford.

Which artist has been the most formative for you as a designer?

I would say Victor Vasarely. When I was in high school, I loved graphic design, and I was always super-intrigued by his work. I loved the three-dimensional quality—it’s probably why I ended up going from graphic design into architecture and interiors.

I have a piece of his that’s about 16-by-16—it has spheres that create this kind of pop art trompe l’oeil. I’ve had it for probably 20 years. It was in our master bedroom for a long time, and now it’s in a corridor off the entrance vestibule—in a nice, prominent place.

You’ve worked on projects with everyone from the urban gardener and fashion designer Ron Finley to the Very Gay Paint duo. What do you look for in a collaborator?

I am drawn to creatives who are somewhat subversive or challenge the status quo. That is what modernity is all about, and how we drive a conversation forward as a community. I’m naturally inspired by new voices—if we have the opportunity to collaborate, all the better! That’s where my learning process really starts.

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