Is Bigger Beautiful? The Rise Of XXL Art

Wider, higher, heavier: A taste for oversized art is spreading around the world, among artists, collectors and the public (at large).

Bernar Venet's "Arcs" in Versailles
Bernar Venet's "Arcs" in Versailles
Roxana Azimi

PARIS — Bernar Venet has big ideas, very big ideas. On July 12, he inaugurated a foundation for his monumental sculptures, notably the impressive 150-ton Effondrement ("Collapse") in Le Muy, in southeastern France.

Venet was also commissioned in 2011 to do an installation of two 72-foot arcs at the Place d’Armes in Versailles. Like the artists Richard Serra or Mark di Suvero, Venet likes art that’s a bit unhinged. “We want to go beyond," he says. "There’s something heroic in it."

The appeal of excess is not new. Just have a look at the large canvases in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The collections at France's Modern Art Museum are teeming with pumped-up works, of which around 20 are deployed in Phares (Lighthouses) at the new Georges Pompidou museum in the northeastern city of Metz.

For a long time, public institutions were typically the only option for this kind of oversized art, but as their budgets shrink, private alternatives are stepping in.

The vice president of the auction house Artcurial, Francis Briest says that “XXL” pieces act as both a spatial and a social marker. “Collectors are now building their houses according to their works,” he notes.

Cyrille Troubetzkoy, coordinator of “Sevres Outdoors” sales exhibition of monumental sculptures, explains that such works have the advantage of often being more "readable" than smaller works. “Outdoor works are the only ones that allow for immediate, spontaneous and uninhibited contact," he says.

The French gallery owner Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand, who in 2015 will open a sculpture garden of large pieces in Le Muy, this taste for the colossal comes from wealthy Americans such as the late Raymond Nasher, whose sculpture center in Dallas is a benchmark.

But it is also spreading around the world, including at the Inhotim Art Center of Brazilian art collector Bernardo Paz, or the expansive fields of Alan Gibbs in New Zealand.

In France, a turning point came 20 years ago, when Florence Cathiard, owner of Chateau Smith Haute Lafitte in Gironde, installed in her vineyard a sculpture of a hare by Barry Flanagan (1949-2001). The response from the public was enthusiastic.

Size, space, vanity

“There were traffic jams on our little road,” says Cathiard. “And we thought we were going to place two or three more pieces on the land.” But since 2002, it’s no longer two but 10 pieces by artists ranging from Wang Du to Jean Dupuy that punctuate the landscape. Others around France have followed.

The effect on the art market is real. The “Art-Unlimited” section of Art Basel, which launched in 1999, helped accelerate the trend. “At first, we had to convince the galleries to participate,” says Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel. “They considered the presence of ‘Art Unlimited’ more of as a marketing stunt. But things have changed.”

Sotheby’s has earned a reputation for the sale of huge sculptures in Florida, and in Chatworth, U.K. since 2007. It’s a lucrative operation because, according to Sotheby’s curator Simon Stock, more than half of the works find buyers.

These colossal pieces certainly come at a cost, but strangely at a smaller cost than some “domestic-sized” art. “The artist knows that they can’t ask the same margin for these monumental pieces,” says Mitterrand.

Still, transport can cost up to $25,000 — and engineering requirements for installation and maintenance can add to that figure. There are constraints that naturally add to the transaction time.

Then there is the question of acquiring or hosting works made explicitly as part of exhibitions.

“It’s hard to find good conditions to re-install them,” says Aude Bodet, head of collections at the National Center for Visual Arts (CNAP) in the Hauts-de-Seine outside of Paris, which has some 200 extra large pieces. A sculpture by Ugo Rondinone, produced by CNAP in 2009 and exhibited at Centquatre in Paris as part of the Fall Festival failed to land at the Museum of Fine Arts in Nancy, which had to retract their offer because they were unable to fit it.

Does this mean that we should imagine a museum constructed explicitly to house large pieces, as former French Culture Minister Jack Lang suggested in the June 26th issue of Le Monde? Maybe not, because size is neither a genre nor a subject.

“Can size really characterize a work?” asks Bernard Blistene, director of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. “What are the similarities between Respirare l’Ombra by Giuseppe Penone — a room lined with leaves protected by a fence — and a huge sculpture by Frank Stella?”

Not much except for the size.

The exhibition “Extra-Large” at the 2012 Grimaldi Forum in Monaco, devoted to large artworks of the Centre Georges Pompidou, demonstrated the limits of a purely formal exercise, forgetting several important factors including scale and space, and the place of the viewer. When such criteria are neglected, the monumental works are reduced to something akin to the vanity of a well-sculpted bodybuilder.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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