The following essay was originally published in Benji Knewman 13.
There are several distinctive, stable directions in my collection of images. Some of it is linked to my work in art and architecture, though they don’t always correspond to my professional opinions. In my work I value innovative, future-focused, human- and planet-friendly new architecture, but in my private collection I have no such images. There are a few wooden structures, but they are summer homes and form part of the collection that features carefully restored countryside manors and other old brick buildings. With layers of time, dirt, and ugliness washed off, they are homey and elegant, furnished beautifully, but with only the minimal necessities. The collection also has grand houses with openings, terraces, woven furniture, and pools in magical places by the ocean or in the woods – Los Angeles, Italy, India, Australia. There are grand apartments in New York, Milan, and Paris. Giant flower arrangements also appear in the collection, in vases, in compositions hanging from ceilings, and so on, as well as iris flower beds in gradients of sentimental pastel tones from fluffy peach to flamingo pink, English gardens, and David Austin roses of all colours.
A strong chapter in the collection contains book and magazine covers – the physical faces of novels, biographies, art and cookbooks. Most often covers are symmetrically organized collages of a photographic element, bright colour blocks, and Swiss-style letters.
A small but mighty corner of the collection is dedicated to black-and-white stills from old films, depicting beautiful women and handsome men. The women usually have light hair like my mum, whereas the men – dark hair like my dad.
The collection has almost no small spaces. It basically has nothing small at all. The spaces featured are usually wide, dominated by natural light and perceptible fresh air, so it is no surprise that in the art section of the collection there are openwork architectural installations in rooms with ceilings at least ten metres high. These objects and installations often levitate within the space and incite questions about if and how they are attached to the ceiling, walls, and floor. They can be geometrically accurate mathematical constructions, as well as ethereal bubbles, the materiality of which is almost impossible to determine. Poetic, stimulating colours, such as coral red and emerald green, dominate this selection. Though they can be in bright modernist colours too – red, yellow, blue. There is almost no black or grey.
The essence of the collection is as follows: it is purely based on my personal taste and choices. I rarely show it to other people, but frequently look at it myself.
The collection took root around the time that smartphones entered the market and my possession. I mean the latest-generation models with the most possible memory, on which images look better than in books, magazines, and, admittedly, even real life. When I see the right image, there is no doubt, the decision to add it to the collection is, almost always, immediate. I come across beautiful images that correspond to the aforementioned themes every day, but I only add one image per week to the collection, sometimes fewer.
The collection organizes itself – there are applications based on image culture with saving and organizing functionality; some images are unsystematically saved on my phone, which usually means that this part of the collection will eventually be lost, because I tend not to transfer images that are not associated with important private events from one data carrier to the next. Some things stay in the cloud, but overall, I don’t see the collection as property of material or other value. I am not afraid of losing it. At the same time, the collection is important to me; it is part of my identity. It is needed in moments when I forget – which is easy to do nowadays – what it is that I like and am interested in. With the help of this collection, I have realized that our ability to appreciate the excellence of art, the harmony of a space, or the beauty of nature is not something one can learn professionally. It can be cultivated and trained, but it is a gift from the universe, a gift each of us gets when we are born. I have realized that in my collection, which, as I said, I rarely show to others, are the things, places, forms, feelings, colours, and proportions that I experienced as pleasant in my early childhood and which, even though I may not have seen them every day, I could easily conjure up in my brain, living in a world of dreams and books. It is my dialogue with beauty, then and now.
A new direction in the collection is moving images with sound, and pictures with things that do not exist in physical space. While they differ from photographs, which are largely staged, though based on facts in the actual space, I don’t see them as less worthy or interesting.
There are times when imagined things and places intrigue and excite me even more than real ones, and, for a moment, it is possible to experience singularity, in which the real and the virtual are united and, just as my body recognizes its two arms, I recognize myself in these spaces.
In this context, the NFT (non-fungible token) – an indispensable digital unit representing artwork, interior design, or even sneakers – does not surprise me as an innovation, nor do I find it difficult to explain. Everything is simple. By ensuring the authenticity of a digital unit with the help of a blockchain, a digital collector like me can attribute authenticity to themselves and their irreplaceable collection. Unlike me, someone who collects for private use and keeps unauthorized digital copies or screenshots on their device or cloud, often without knowing who the authors are, an NFT collector buys an authentic and irreplaceable piece of work (or digital unit) by a specific artist, a work that is available only in a set number of copies and is the legal property of the collector. Technically I don’t own a thing, but an NFT collector acquires a digital asset which, like gold, banknotes. or a painting in the old world, is a tangible asset. My collection has only sentimental value: it gives me the emotions I need, but it does not provide the status or the opportunity to ever earn money with it. What is even more unfortunate is the fact that the artist does not get anything from my collecting; movies and music I at least pay for. NFT collectors have a more socially responsible role to play, and they are more than just blockchain and cryptocurrency enthusiasts. They know what they’re doing and take risks when they want to. An NFT collector supports an artist not only at the time of purchase, but also if they ever choose to sell the work. So, unlike creators of physical art pieces, who only get paid once, NFT artists earn something each time their art is sold.
Anything can be turned into an NFT, and the author’s opportunities to attract attention and gain material satisfaction are tempting, though not fully understood.
NFTs can be things other than art. In theory all of my David Austin rose and Florence iris flower bed collections, as well as a bed with a flowing canopy photoshopped onto the shores of the Indian Ocean, can become NFTs. A blazer and sneakers can be NFTs, and an actual house built in 1950 can be sold as an NFT. Similarly, it is also possible to build, furnish and sell a house on Mars and finally buy that digital settee that you’ve failed to find in furniture stores for years.
In my work as Head of Exhibitions at the Zuzeum Art Centre, I have the task of reflecting the mood, values, and echoes of future directions of our society using the 25,000 artworks in the Zuzāns Collection. Part of my job is tinkering with ideas for the development of the collection. Being aware of the history of the works of artists who don’t fit within the panorama of official political views, or in terms of the emotional growth of society, the desire to enrich the collection with NFT artwork was an experiment, one that would have been much harder to bring to life in the traditional public art sector. It was lucky that in the moment we were ready to add NFT art to the collection, a genesis drop by Latvian graffiti artist Kiwie was being auctioned. He had turned his graffiti art into NFT format, and one piece is on a wall of a high-rise block of flats here in Riga, around the corner from Zuzeum.
The new NFT artworks in the Zuzāns Collection have already been described and assigned a number in the database. They have also incited a desire to cast my eye and analytical brain over the part of the collection, which is, due to lifestyle, way of thinking, and aesthetic taste, of interest to an ever-decreasing segment of society; for example, porcelain, a collection of tiny, fragile items incompatible with the dynamics of modern life. Can it, if turned into an animated digital performance with sound, become a new work of art and, through the medium of art, share its message?
We find answers by doing.
For now, only a few traditional art institutions and even new media collectors have also become NFT collectors, but the routine of art collecting has been disrupted and disturbed. Players who have never hung anything on a wall have entered the rink, and I understand them. Digital nomadism and the concept of life without luggage can make any physical unit, even if it is art or a book, worthless the moment life has to move on. It is not a mindset, it is personal freedom. If physical assets get in the way of one’s development, then their value is low. That is exactly why my collection, despite not having a fixed value or status, fits in my pocket. It is valuable to me personally, and, perhaps, if circumstances and interest allow, I will be able to solidify my status as a collector. But it is equally possible that that won’t be necessary, because what is important is the impulse of seeing and the mind of a collector.