Can ancient materials and their future substitutes from the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology inform our debate around ecological and cultural sustainability? This is the premise behind the latest BMW Art Journey project. Artist Leelee Chan’s “Tokens From Time” involves a journey to meet the artisan families who practice ancient craftsmanship techniques using copper, silver and marble – some of which play a critical role in the artist’s own sculptural practice.
Represented by the Capsule Shanghai Gallery, she will engage in dialogues with scientists and experts to understand how natural materials may be substituted by synthetics in the future. The journey will commence once the current travel restrictions are eased. And the topic couldn’t be more poignant. As we watch the current pandemic disrupt our world in ways we only imagined in the sci-fi sphere, many of us are wondering how climate change will manifest itself if we don’t pay more attention to its urgency.
Launched in 2015, the annual BMW Art Journey initiative sees the Munich carmaker work alongside Art Basel to support international emerging artists, encouraging them to allow their experiences to mold their work. As is the case with all Art Journey winners, Chan’s artwork will be exhibited at the next Art Basel – to be decided when and if the art world re-opens to a global audience.
The Art Journey, by its very nature (and name), involves travel and exploration. I wonder how this will physically work when no one knows how long the global pandemic will last. “There are so many ways of being able to travel even if you don’t leave the room,” BMW’s head of cultural engagement, Thomas Girst, tells me over the phone. Although I cannot physically see him, I can sense his excitement in that even under lockdown, he has managed to keep his company’s cultural program running. “We are taking it one step at a time, literally,” he lets out a sigh.
BMW is deeply engaged with the arts. This means direct sponsorship of art galleries, musical orchestras and festivals. Tate Modern in London, Art Basel, London Symphony Orchestra, Frieze Art, Paris Photo, Art D’Égypte – all benefit greatly from this patronage. BMW directly nourishes individual artists too through programs such as the Art Journey. Why engage with the arts, I ask Girst, after all there is no direct transactional profit for the company. I mean, it doesn’t translate to car sales.
“We would always like to find ourselves on the side where we are creating things that really matter and where we can make a difference,” he replies. “And while it is about the image of the brand and the reputation, it is also about corporate citizenship. It would be obscene to measure this with car sales. With our cultural engagement we want to open up to a much broader audience.”
There has always been a mutually seductive rapport between art and money – and BMW, of course, isn’t the only car company to work with the art world. Yet, not all sponsorships and patronages feel genuine. Some happen to be so off the rail you do wonder who signed the check. Girst’s work is different though. His choices are relevant to the brand and are often daring – be it exploring the virtual real, the seducing powers of technology, or the plight of the refugee and now the climate crisis.
Girst admits there isn’t a manual on corporate cultural management – a global guidance for companies to get involved in the arts. He says: “You need to define the corners in which you can engage and find some guidelines, so it isn’t throwing money at an institution and them singing your song. The strategy must be based on your company’s values. You cannot fake authenticity. It needs to be something meaningful. This is what I’m after. It has to be a sustainable cultural engagement. Don’t expect too much in the early years. These are long-term investments.” Girst makes sure all the artists he works with are paid properly for their work. “We consider this part of the partnership.”
The pandemic may have temporarily put a halt on live art shows, yet there are arguably even more cultural activities happening on the digital sphere with galleries and organizations, such as Art Basel, rapidly adapting their systems to create virtual showrooms and live streamed discussions with artists. In this time of global crisis, with the world in lockdown isolation for the most part of the Spring, art is physically reaching a higher mass of people than ever before. Yet, all this art is free. Moreover, there is the danger that many corporations, who have financially lost out due to the crisis, will drop their arts funding. Art galleries and cultural institutions mostly rely hugely on such grants.
Girst interjects sounding urgent. “Institutions will suffer if there is less corporate involvement in the arts. Then there is the notion that everything that happens on social media and online is cost free. Of course, artists are jumping onto the platform to get their work out and create more visibility. They are making use of the technology. But what it does is make that challenge for artists even tougher because people don’t expect to pay for anything when they see a free concert, a free reading, a free installation online.”
The global pandemic has prompted many of us to re-evaluate life – rethink what is important. And like some other historical episodes, the crisis shows that radical change is possible. COVID-19 offers the spur we need to imagine a new world, a new social contract. “Absolutely. Many have been harmed, have lost loved ones and have lost their businesses,” Girst responds. “I’d love for people to take what offered meaning in those few months – be it walking in the park or taking time to speak with friends – save these memories and take them into the future and make them part of who they are.”
But what about the arts, I ask? “We may move away from the champagne-clinking side of it,” he replies cheerfully. Warming up to the ideas he continues, “maybe we will see a shift towards education-based engagements.” There is much discussion that the creative industries, the creative class, may suffer the most in a likely world economic depression following the pandemic. Girst is worried about this and the bigger picture. “I’ve been concerned that with the pandemic, countries are breaking down into nation states. But culture is about crossing boundaries.”
He pauses for a second, then continues: “But I’m an optimist by nature. For thousands and thousands of years, art has been created under all circumstances, under all kinds of regimes and with no budget. Whatever shape the arts take, it will always be there. Less shows will certainly hurt the galleries and the artists. And we won’t be able to experience the beauty of art. But we will get through this. Let’s take this moment as inspiration and think and act a little bolder. Why say we’ll go back to normal when so much bothered many of us in that ‘normal’. If we look at this episode as a rupture, then it can turn us into better human beings – into more reasonable and sustainable people who treat one another and this planet with more empathy.”
See the winner of the 2019 BMW Art Journey Zac Langdon-Pole discuss his project which is informed by the ancient art of mapping stars. Watch the powerful work of BMW Paris Photo’s Émeric Lhuisset who maps the displacement of people and the disappearance of civilizations. Read about French artist Camille Blatrix’s artwork for BMW Open Work by Frieze which taps into the power of technology to seduce.