Erling Kagge: “It’s not rational to be an art collector, it’s an obsession”

When Norwegian polar explorer, publisher, lawyer, writer and art collector Erling Kagge was 13, he saw a stone circle by Richard Long at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen.

“They were the same rocks that we had next to my house in Oslo,” he says. “At first I just laughed. . . but then I wanted to understand what this room was about. . . I realized that you can’t walk around being negative and doubting everything. Like contemporary art or life in general, you have to believe in it. And this early encounter with land art certainly resonated with him: “I have always been in nature, even as a child,” he says.

Erling Kagge’s home, Villa Dammann from 1932, designed by Arne Korsmo and Sverre Aasland. Sculptures on the left: ‘Torso’ (2000) by Kristian Blystad; Franz West, ‘Sitzskulptur’ (2004) by Franz West © Thomas Ekstrom

We are talking on Skype. It sits in a book-lined room in his Oslo home, the 1932 Villa Dammann, designed by Arne Korsmo and Sverre Aasland, a monument to Norwegian functionalism. Kagge is tanned and athletic in appearance – not surprisingly, as he took on the “three pole” challenge, having reached the North and South Poles unsupported in 1990 and 1992-93, and climbed the Everest in 1994. As we speak, he runs his fingers through her slightly unkempt hair and gestures with his hands to score points; I think he might be happier talking to me while walking, like he has done in other interviews.

Kagge, 57, has written a book on walking called One step after another, and another, Silence: in the age of noise, inspired by his 50-day solo trek in Antarctica with a broken radio. He also wrote A poor collector’s guide to buying great art, based on its experience in building a contemporary art collection of 800 people. A selection of his collections is presented at the Vincent van Gogh Foundation in Arles (from October 3) in an exhibition entitled My mapping and organized by the Bice Curiger. Other parts of his collection are on display at the Museion in Bolzano, Italy (until February 14), where Kagge was also a guest curator this year.

Erling Kagge crossing Vatnajökull, Iceland's largest glacier, in 2010
Erling Kagge crossing Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier, in 2010 © Erling Kagge

Some interviews highlighted the connection between Kagge’s exploration and his art collection. I ask if there is really a connection. “Yes, absolutely,” he replies. “It’s true in the sense that collecting is a question of wonder, of curiosity, of making life more difficult than it needs to be. In the past, he noted that his affluent and cultured background (his father is a jazz critic and his mother worked for a publisher) meant, for him, that he had to seek difficulty, unlike, say, someone. born in a third country in the world: “To make sense of life, you have to make it more difficult than it needs to be. “

“Contemporary art is very difficult to understand, but I think traveling long distances and collecting art both realize the potential that you have in life,” he says. I ask what are these potentials. “It’s a very egocentric thing to do,” he replies, “just like walking towards the Poles. Do it for yourself – egotistical, but not selfish. I don’t buy art because I want to share it, I buy it because I love it. I want it to be a part of my life, I want to be challenged by it. It’s great that people want to see my collection, but I didn’t buy it because of it.

His first acquisition was a lithograph inspired by Munch, exchanged for two bottles of wine at a party when he was 21. “At that time I didn’t have a lot of money, but later, when I started to earn well [he founded Kagge Forlag, one of Norway’s leading publishers, in 1996], I started spending all my money on art.

Works in Kagge's collection include 'Untitled (Green # 2), (Green # 1)', (2013) by Ann Cathrin November Høibo, installation view at Museion, Bolsano
Works in Kagge’s collection include ‘Untitled (Green # 2), (Green # 1)’, (2013) by Ann Cathrin November Høibo, installation view at Museion, Bolsano © Luca Meneghel

Its collection includes Norwegian artists such as Torbjørn Rødland, Vibeke Tandberg, Ann Cathrin November Høibo, Hanneline Røgeberg, Lars Elling, Matias Faldbakken, Pushwagner, Gardar Eide Einarsson, all present in the Bolzano exhibition. But he also collects many international names, including Olafur Eliasson, Klara Lidén, Diane Arbus, Tauba Auerbach, Trisha Donnelly, Raymond Pettibon, Wolfgang Tillmans and Franz West. Famously, he bought a series of Franz West car hood ornaments – and got the accompanying Rolls-Royce, referred to as a “pedestal.”

Its collection is difficult to categorize, ranging from photography, like the “Department Store Santa” in Arbus (1964) to a tongue of Urs Fischer sticking out of a wall (“Noisette”, 2009), but a common thread of interest in nature and people runs through it.

'Hazelnut' (2009) by Urs Fischer

‘Noisette’ (2009) by Urs Fischer © Courtesy of the artist and Erling Kagge

‘Untitled’ (2007) by Franz West © Courtesy of the artist and Erling Kagge

With such a large collection, I wonder how much he can actually keep at home. “I have art under my bed, everywhere,” he replies. “I admit that it is not rational to be an art collector. . . it’s an obsession, and sometimes i buy something and then i regret it because it’s a lot of money.

He has three daughters (aged 18, 21 and 24) who “come in and out of the house”. They want to go to college, he says, which sometimes slows down his spending. I ask if they are interested in art. “I took them to galleries and museums when they were young and at one point they hated art, but now they love it. We go to Art Basel and exhibitions together, I show them what I’m buying or thinking about buying. It is a great privilege to have this in common with them.

'Striped Eye Lamp' (2005) by Olafur Eliasson will be exhibited at the Vincent van Gogh Foundation in Arles as part of 'My Cartography'
‘Striped Eye Lamp’ (2005) by Olafur Eliasson will be exhibited at the Vincent van Gogh Foundation in Arles as part of ‘My Cartography’ © Olafur Eliasson, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Andrés Valentín

“I don’t like to sell,” he says, “but I did sell a painting of a nurse by Richard Prince. It had grown 100 times in value, and I ended up loving money more than work! The painting, bought for $ 50,000, sold for $ 5 million; with the money he took his daughters on safari and spent the rest on art.

His book, as the title suggests, is aimed at the “poor collector,” but, I say, art is expensive for most people. He disagrees: “I chose the title because it’s catchy,” he replies, “but I think that with a pretty good income, you can buy art. I just bought a beautiful edition of the American artist Nicole Eisenman for around 400-500 €. If you go to the Artists’ Space in New York, they have portfolios for around $ 1,500. You can purchase editions from the Serpentine. . . you can get the work of some of the best artists in the world for not too much money. The framing costs almost as much!

“Financial Times (Frozen Spinach)” (2017) by Kirsten Pieroth

‘Financial Times (Frozen Spinach)’ (2017) by Kirsten Pieroth © Courtesy of the artist and Erling Kagge

So, I ask, what is the future of such a large collection? “Right now I’m not spending my time wondering what to do with it, but I think when the time comes, I’ll give a lot. He certainly does not envision a private museum, preferring to devote his money to the art itself.

We’re coming to the end of our presentation, but he makes a final plea on the environment: “One of the biggest problems we have today is separating ourselves from nature. We no longer listen to nature. We cannot sit in a chair all day. And, with that, he announces that he is soon on his way to Bolzano where, as he later tells me via email, “I just hiked the hills”.

“My cartography”, from October 3 to March 28 foundation-vincentvangogh-arles.org

‘Market. Movements north of Bolzano ‘, on February 14, museion.it

Norma D. Ross