A marble plaque on the outside of La Fabrique – a converted textile mill in Marseille that houses one of the most rarefied private collections of contemporary art in France – commemorates a “conspiracy” between the Swiss artist-activist Gianni Motti and the collector couple Josée and Marc Gensollen, which took place behind its walls on November 15 2013. The exact nature of this act, apparently directed against the contemporary art market, is a secret the Gensollens will not divulge.
To conspire, from the Latin conspirare, literally means “to breathe together” and, for all we know, the private performance may have involved just that. The kind of art the couple of practising psychiatrists find most stimulating – and avidly collect – is often as insubstantial as thin air. It can amount to a mere sentence, a set of instructions to be activated in live art pieces by Tino Sehgal, Roman Ondák or Pierre Joseph, whose pedigree can be traced to the early conceptual works of Stanley Brouwn, Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth, which date to the 1960s and hold pride of place in the collection.
Psychiatrists and psychoanalysts by training, Josée and Marc Gensollen, who now share a practice, met in their early twenties and started collecting art together when they were still students. Their first acquisitions, which go back to 1973-74, consisted of prints by surrealists whose work was familiar to them through their studies. They discovered minimalist and conceptual art by reading Art Press. “The magazine brought together our two main interests – psychoanalysis and contemporary creation,” says Marc. But it was seeing the Marcel Duchamp retrospective in 1977 at the newly inaugurated Centre Pompidou in Paris that led to the “radicalisation” of their collection, he says.
Immaterial and ephemeral artworks may be among the Gensollens’ most cherished possessions but there are enough actual objects from the collection on display for a tour of La Fabrique to last well over three hours. The 1,000 sq metre live-in exhibition space can accommodate about a fifth of the collection’s 500-odd pieces, whose hanging changes yearly, allowing the collectors to make new connections between works.
The Gensollens take visitors around their collection themselves. They work inordinately long hours, hence the nocturnal character of some of these tours, which tend to start around 10pm on a weekday. Visits are by appointment and mainly through word of mouth. “So far,” Marc assures me, “we have not denied a single request.”
My private tour of what has gradually become the collectors’ home since they acquired the ruined building in 2000 and set about renovating it with the aid of Marseille-based architect Harald Sylvander, began shortly after 8pm on a Saturday. The decision to live among their artworks in a former factory – not unlike the Ghent-based collectors Annick and Anton Herbert and Erika Hoffmann in Berlin, whose collections they admire – has certain lifestyle implications. “You could say we have no furniture,” says Josée. “For a long time we made do without even a sofa in the lounge.”
To say the Gensollens have no furniture isn’t quite true. The bed with its black satin spread in the guest bedroom where Tino Sehgal has stayed is an installation by French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, “The Milwaukee Room” (1997). What looks deceptively like a ceiling fan, whirring round in the adjacent corridor, is a mobile sculpture by Gabriel Orozco. The colourful dining room chairs are by Franz West, and the row of lamps hung above it are Liam Gillick’s work.
When asked why they work 15-hour days, they reply: “How else would we feed our artists?” The couple have made a point of supporting young artists, and were among the early collectors of Sehgal, Ondák and Pierre Huyghe, whose 1997 video “Blanche-Neige Lucie”, included in Huyghe’s recent retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, is one of the moving image works projected on the lower-ground level, near Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “Roller: Cinéma de Ville” (1998) installation.
According to Liam Gillick, it is their ability to reconfigure relationships between artworks and create daring juxtapositions that makes the couple interesting as collectors. The Gensollens own several of his works, including one of the platforms designed as potential discussion spaces, currently installed above “The Milwaukee Room”. They started collecting his work in the 1990s, which the artist sees in hindsight as their way of “buying him time”.
In the past, Gillick’s relationship with his patrons has been mediated by Air de Paris, one of several galleries that has helped the collectors spot young talent over the years. (Paris-based Michel Rein and Chantal Crousel, Jan Mot in Brussels and Esther Schipper in Berlin also frequently crop up in conversation.) But, in the past few years, the Gensollens have taken to commissioning site-specific works, made with La Fabrique in mind, directly from artists.
Even before the building works were completed, they invited French-Portuguese artist and architect Didier Faustino to conceive a piece for the basement patio. Faustino came up with an extendable, nodal structure, designed to hold two people facing each other in a foetus-like position. The work is intended as a portrait of the couple as collectors and psychiatrists, sharing everything – their passion, their profession. Called “ZNS (Zentralnervensystem)” (2006) after a song by German band Einstürzende Neubauten, at first glance it resembles the brain with its two hemispheres but, for Faustino, it is also a heart, a nest within the built space.
After we retire to the library, Marc suddenly bends over and makes a sweeping gesture with his arms while uttering an inhuman grunt. He catches me unawares: I can hardly make out the individual words of the title of Sehgal’s 2003 “This is about”. Collecting, as the Gensollens conceive of it, does have its moments.