Art as part of an extreme life adventure

Daiga Rudzāte

An interview with art collector Erling Kagge


On paper, Norwegian art collector Erling Kagge's daily activities are both customary and matter-of-course in this day and age; nonetheless, he is also a legendary and exotic character on today's world stage. He is a lawyer, an author, and a publisher (established in 1996, Kagge Forlag is regarded as one of the most influential publishing houses in Norway). Kagge's true spirit, however, can perhaps best be seen in the author's photograph on the jacket of his book, Under Manhattan: looking out at the reader is a fair-haired man apparently climbing in (or out) of a manhole, with a crowbar in one hand, and a flashlight in the other. In reporting on Kagge's adventures below the streets of the city, The New York Times described him as “[...] a fascinating man. He's a philosophical adventurer or perhaps an adventurous philosopher”. To the public at large, Kagge is known as someone who has travelled to both the North and South Poles, as well as climbed Mt. Everest. In the art world, he is known as a passionate collector. In the spring of 2015, Oslo's Astrup Fernley Museum exhibited Kagge's broad collection of contemporary art together with the release of his book, A Poor Collector's Guide to Buying Great Art, which was published in cooperation with Gestalten. Besides just “poor collectors”, the guide is also a helpful aid to those who have just started out on the road to art collecting, as well as to those who wish to understand a collector's inclination and way of thinking.

I meet with Erling Kaage in his publishing offices, a place with a decidedly Nordic and democratic work environment, in downtown Oslo. Kaage's approximately 700-piece art collection is displayed in his home and in the rooms of Kagge Forlag. “About once a year, I rotate in three or four pieces in my home display,” he says, adding that he isn't planning on creating a public exhibition space because, besides the fact that he is not wealthy enough to do that, that is something that has become so trendy that it's become boring.

Kagge is not one of those collectors who has an affinity for long, in-depth discussions on art, or for analyzing his emotional attachment to it. In fact, it seems that his relationship to art (begun thirty years ago) is an adventure much like his unusual travels – the philosophical point of which is to make life more complex and to discover oneself through hardship. During our conversation, he points out: “If you were born in Norway and wish to live meaningfully, it is essential to search out hardship. And contemporary art also interests me because it is very involved and it's not easy to understand it”.

John Bock. Ohne Titel (130306,1). Courtesy of Klosterfelde, Berlin. From A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art. © Kagge Forlag 2015. Distributed by Gestalten

You are known as one of today's biggest adventurers. Have you come to terms with yourself as to why you need these extreme thrills that eccentric travels bring, as well as what it is that drives you to exotic places and locales?

I think that everyone is born an explorer, and we're all like that. I have three daughters. When they were still under a year old and couldn't yet walk, they tried crawling and climbing everywhere. They were interested in everything that was around the corner, everything that couldn't be seen. That's a natural state for human beings, and the spirit of the explorer lives in everyone. But over time, it is dampened. If you look at children, you can see that up to age five, they simply play; once they reach the age of five, there appear rules as to how one plays. They become increasingly civilized. Nevertheless, I see these yearnings in most people. That's one of my reasons.

The other compulsion, you see, is linked to the meaning of life and the wish to fulfil my potential. Aristotle wrote about this, and I think he's right. Every person must endeavour to make use of their talents – their potential – to the fullest extent. Everyone must go and discover their own “poles of the Earth”.

Perhaps you simply yearn to gain new experiences.

Yes, I completely agree. The greater part of my life is normal enough. As I said, I have three daughters and my day is filled with daily chores like getting them out of bed, making them food, etc. And that repeats day after day.

Nineteen years ago I founded a publishing business, and that takes up a great amount of my time. I have to work hard, and that's what I do.

Do you see art as a new form of experience, one that emotionally fills you as much as your globetrotting does?

Yes. I think that, in a certain sense, art and going off on an expedition are one and the same, and that there are many similarities between the two. In looking for art, there's also this dominating wish to discover, and curiosity is always by your side. Also, in both instances it is important that you are well-prepared – when you are a traveller, and when you are an art collector. Likewise, both instances require you to get up early. I think that both travelling and art collecting are a kind of therapy – curative methods. They are ways of broadening one's thinking. 

Have the expeditions changed you?

Yes. We are all a part of everything that has happened to us and of everyone we have met. Of course, I have changed... But if I hadn't gone on expeditions, I would've done something else. Also something extreme, most likely. One can't know what would have happened if there had been something else in place of the expeditions.

Richard Prince. Untitled (Cowboy). Photo: Vegard Kleven. From A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art. © Kagge Forlag 2015. Distributed by Gestalten

The art collector Harald Falckenberg once told me that art sets him free...

I have always believed that life must be made a bit more difficult than necessary. Of course, unless you were born in Sudan. If you were born in Norway and wish to live a meaningful life, it is essential to look for hardships. And contemporary art also interests me because it is very complex and it's not easy to understand it. It's also interesting to learn how to discern good art from bad art. All of that gives me joy – to study and buy; then look for where to put it and see how it changes my house. And in a sense, yes – you do feel unfettered and freer. So... I agree with Falckenberg. Art simply makes life richer and more colourful. Just like great literature and good music do.

Do you now know what good art is?

Yes, partly. But no one can tell what good art is one hundred percent of the time. There are people who understand much more than me, and I sometimes trust them. However, I don't think that anyone can proclaim that they are always one hundred percent right. Sometime I simply see that it is absolutely... superb. A fantastic piece of art.

A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art 

In your book, you write that doctors' mistakes are kept in cemeteries, and that lawyers' lost cases end up in prison. It's different with collectors. Their mistakes simply hang on the walls of their homes. How many mistakes do you see on your walls?

On my walls – not a one. But I tend not to look back. You can make mistakes and maybe even make silly purchases for great sums and so on. I sometimes trip up like everyone, except I choose to keep my mistakes and, after a while, I sometimes begin to value them.

Is there a correlation between an artwork's price and its quality?

Very often there is. But I'm not talking about luxury items that rich people buy as status symbols and that are very sought-after. I'm talking about good art. Good art is good art, everything else is, of course, everything else. And most of the art I buy does not have a very good secondary market.

You once sold a piece by Richard Prince – which you had bought for 50,000 – for five million. Do you often do business like this?

No. But sometimes, very seldom, the market becomes a bit ridiculous, the value of a piece goes up 50 or 100 times, and then I consider selling. I don’t like to have expensive art at home. It only makes me worry, so I always take it out of the house.

And what do you do with this money?

I buy art.

I understand you like to make friends with artists...

Yes. But not many of my close friends are artists. After all, I collect art, not artists; but I do stay on friendly terms with some of the artists whose works I buy.

How important is it to you to understand the artistic and technical creative processes, to be able to analyze artworks?

It may not be all that important to me, but it is interesting.

After having actively collected for fifteen years, can you analyze art professionally?

Actually, I could do that even more than fifteen years ago; when I studied philosophy, I also listened in on art lectures for fun. Eventually, I began to understand something of that as well – how to analyze works of art. Of course, compared to those who really are knowledgeable about art, my evaluations wouldn't be all that interesting.

You write in your book about the time you bought your first work of art: a drawing of a young woman reminded you of a girlfriend that had broken up with you and whom you missed. But why did you need a drawing? You could have just put a photo of her up on the wall...

I must have really been in love with her back then (laughs). Actually, this piece really does have artistic worth. At that time I was simply buying a piece of art, and its contents spoke to me.

Hanneline Rogeberg. Balzac IV. Photo: Ina Hagen. From A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art. © Kagge Forlag 2015. Distributed by Gestalten

Have you formed strict guidelines for your collection, a focus?

Yes, there are guidelines.

Could you describe them?

I try to focus on geographic areas that have really good schools. I buy a lot from German-speaking countries. I'm not very interested in British art because, in my opinion, it carries too much “party”- and celebrity-baggage along with it. I'm interested in art that is based on completely different foundations. I buy New York and L.A. art, and, of course, I buy Scandinavian art because I'm Scandinavian myself. And then there's a whole slew of exceptions to the rule – I've bought art that is Mexican, Japanese, and Russian in origin.

If I understand correctly, you have a special interest in conceptual art.


Why is that?

Because it's complex.

For example, the art of Lawrence Weiner; what binds you to it?

I think it's fantastic. And it's not only complex. It's simply... fun.

Which piece from your collection would you say is especially notable?

Of course, there is no democracy in art. Some artists are more notable than others, and some artworks are greater than others. However, this is not my daily way of thinking; although, of course, I do own more-notable and less-notable works. Perhaps [the most notable artwork] would be the group by Raymond Pettibon, which was also exhibited in the Astrup Fernley Museum.

Urs Fischer. Untitled. Photo: Ina Hagen. From A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art. © Kagge Forlag 2015. Distributed by Gestalten

Was the exhibition at the Astrup Fernley Museum important to you personally?

It was important to me, and it brought me joy. I thought of it as an opportunity to show my collection to my children and to my friends. And also to the public at large. And I had the opportunity to see it in a different context. I live alongside many of these pieces on a daily basis, but to see them in a different atmosphere and in a different environment is very interesting.

Do you feel the urge to share what you own?

Yes, even though I don't buy in order to share; I buy to quench something in myself. It is a privilege that I can afford. And that's why after acquiring it, I have to be ready to show it to other people as well.

You assert that you're not afraid of buying artworks online.

That's right.

You don't need to feel a physical energy between yourself and the work of art?

Sometimes I don't. Usually I do look (at the art in question) in person, and I talk about it with gallerists whom I trust, or with one of my friends. It is important for me to see the piece over a period of time, and several times. And in this one- or two-week period, I decide whether or not I want to purchase it or not. But I can't buy an artwork if I haven't seen it. Online, I buy art made by artists I know; so, it's partially known already.

Nevertheless, what takes priority in your case – emotions or pragmatism?

I'd say a balance of these two aspects. Of course, in most cases it ends up a choice based on emotions.

How influential of a person is a collector in today's art world?

I believe I don't have much influence. But if you look at the big collectors, they influence not only galleries, but the museum scene as well.

Are today's processes in art dictated by money?

Money doesn't have a one-hundred-percent ability to dictate something, but its power is strong. When you look at a lot of exhibitions, you see how the money circulates. It's a very small group of people that make the big decisions. And often times it is big art, but these decisions are not made due to the big art; it just happens to be the loudest part of the art world. The greater part of the art world lives outside all of that. And that also creates big art. But it is something else; it's not meant for the big market.

Has Norwegian art become a part of this?

Norway has, maybe, some twenty or twenty-five artists who participate in these big processes. I don't think that's bad. When I was growing up, very few were interested in contemporary art. And then 10 or 15 years ago, things began to move in a cardinally different way. Several excellent galleries appeared; the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art was built. Everything happened at the same time. And suddenly, Norway is an interesting place to see contemporary art.

Richard Prince. Untitled, Edition: 1/5. Photo: Vegard Kleven. From A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art. © Kagge Forlag 2015. Distributed by Gestalten

In your book, you advise people to build their own taste. How would you describe your own taste?

I won't be able to describe my taste because... I don't have one, definite taste. Nevertheless, refining and developing one's taste is a very important precondition for collecting. I try to speak about this to my children, for whom everything is very simple: “I like this and I don't like that...” I tell them that it is an unending developmental process. With art, it's a bit different than with a little kitten that always is, and will be, your most beloved pet. Things change. You have favourites, but after some time, your favourites could be something completely different.

Could you describe one of the rooms holding your collection – for instance, your bedroom?

In there I have four beautiful drawings by Trisha Donnely; a photograph by Catherine Opie – of an ocean sunrise on a foggy morning; and a Richard Prince photograph from his swimming pool series.

Have you ever thought of opening your own art space?

No, because I don't have enough money. If I could, I might think about it. However... so many people have done something like that, that it is no longer interesting.

Do you dream of artworks that, for some reason or another, haven't found their way into your collection?

Those probably couldn't be called dreams. Because actually, I've bought most of the pieces that I want. I'd like to buy more pieces by artists whose works I already have in my collection. Not only their future works, but several of their older works.

Klara Liden. Self Portrait with Keys to the City, Edition: 3/10 + 1 AP. Photo: Ina Hagen. From A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art. © Kagge Forlag 2015. Distributed by Gestalten

When you bought 6 Adaptives for Rolls Royce Silver Shadow by Franz West [six alternative hood ornaments, one for each work day], you were surprised to discover that the piece also included the plinth – which was the Rolls Royce car itself. Do you take the car out often?

Yes; in the summers, often.

Do you switch around the hood ornaments?

I usually drive with the “feces” statuette. Actually – a copy of it. I used to drive around with the originals and switched them around, but people may vandalize them or simply steal them.

Is the feeling different than driving any other car?

It's great fun. People look and laugh. I do become a bit self-conscious at red lights when people point at me. But overall, it's quite wonderful.

Are your teenage daughters interested in art?

Yes. But when you look at auction catalogs, you can see what's happening to art collections.

You give lectures on silence. In one of them, you assert that silence is the key to a new way of thinking. In her essay The Aesthetics of Silence, Susan Sontag writes that “[...] an efficacious artwork leaves silence in its wake [...]”.

This is interesting. I'm writing a piece on silence right now. Yes, sometimes you're at a loss for words; after coming into contact with a great work of art or music, you fall silent.

(Fragment) Urs Fischer. Fuck you thank you. Edition AP 1/1 + 2. Courtesy of Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich. From A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art. © Kagge Forlag 2015. Distributed by Gestalten