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Guy Laliberté first came to Ibiza in 1979 as a street performer, entertaining travellers to this idyllic Balearic island with his fire-breathing antics; these days the Cirque du Soleil founder arrives at his paradisal retreat on the island’s west coast in his own boat. Walking towards his cliffside estate, he passes a monolithic, Stonehenge-like installation that dominates the dusty, sun-baked landscape.
The work, named “Time and Space — The Speed of Light”, is by the Australian sculptor Andrew Rogers. “Only Guy could get me to carve 420 tons of solid basalt into 13 columns,” says Rogers. The columns were loaded on to a ship and transported 4,400km from Turkey to Spain last year.
Québec City-born Laliberté launched his stratospherically successful circus franchise in 1984. This year he sold the majority stake to US, Chinese and Canadian investors. Forbes estimates his net worth at $2bn. “The sale liberates me,” he tells me when we meet at his Ibiza residence. “It gives me more time to do creative and management projects.”
Laliberté firmly believes that Ibiza, still better known by many for its package holidays and clubbing scene, can become a prime culture destination. He is not alone in working to raise the island’s artistic profile, but has taken it upon himself to help move things forward. He plans to develop a public sculpture park alongside his residence, with Rogers’s totemic installation as the centrepiece (contingent on permission from local authorities).
The billionaire’s Ibizan home, made up of several discreet villas, was once owned by the German-Swiss collector Friedrich Christian “Mick” Flick. Laliberté has transformed the property, furnishing it with works by Wolfgang Tillmans, Andreas Gursky, Franz West and Jimmie Durham.
“I come from the streets and I came here with no pretensions,” says Laliberté, who has been acquiring contemporary art for about seven years and works with Los Angeles art adviser Kimberly Chang Mathieu. “I started collecting art with a more instinctive approach but now I’m more rigorous.”
Laliberté’s taste is blue chip-based and discerning but quirky, too. Outside, Ugo Rondinone’s sculpted cast aluminium tree (“I feel, you feel, we feel through each other into ourselves”, 2012) towers on a lawn alongside an exquisite depiction of foliage in bronze and gold leaf by Giuseppe Penone (“Thunderstruck Tree”, 2012). Inside, a bust by Sarah Lucas of cigarettes grafted on to cantera stone (“Benito Juárez”, 2012) eyes up guests next to a toilet. Laliberté is also a prodigious collector of ethnographic art, and is also keen on the young French artist Camille Henrot. Her 2014 sculptural piece, “Penny Pinching”, which resembles an elongated water drop, is a standout work in his collection (and a shrewd investment: Henrot’s stock is rising both critically and commercially). A site-specific commission from US artist Jenny Holzer is in the pipeline.
With his tattoos and casual dress, Laliberté is nothing like the usual, well-heeled art world patron. He is wiry, animated and all the more engaging for his unbridled enthusiasm, especially on the subject of Ibiza’s potential.
“Ibiza boomed in 2008 in terms of real estate growth and visitor numbers,” he says. “The financial crisis happened on the mainland while the island remained autonomous in many ways.”
It remains to be seen who will actually come and see these events and exhibitions. Other art patrons have kick-started local scenes and Laliberté is just as driven. But isn’t this yet another privately backed exercise in egotism? “I want to make a great contribution to the environment, and to be a facilitator of change,” he insists. “I have started a dialogue with the city.”
Laliberté has already launched Lune Rouge, an exhibition space in an industrial area near the port that will show works from his collection by both established and emerging artists.
The inaugural show at Lune Rouge (until September 26) is dedicated to the superstar Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who has five works on display, including a 10m-long painting, “69 Arhats Beneath the Bodhi Tree” (2013), a ghoulish piece ruminating on death and decay following 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake. The work, owned by Laliberté, looks glorious flanked by two enormous demon sculptures.
The show sprawls across four sites, and includes 21 works in total. Next door to Lune Rouge, in another space run by Laliberté called Art Projects Ibiza, 10 new works are presented (in partnership with Murakami’s LA dealer Blum & Poe) from the artist’s painting series “Korin” (2015), which melds manga motifs with aspects of abstract expressionism.
At the nearby Ibiza Gran Hotel, tourists are confronted by Murakami’s 6m-tall “Oval Buddha” (2007), comprising a distended head inset with canine teeth. At Heart, an adjacent performance space founded by Laliberté and celebrity chefs Albert and Ferran Adrià (of elBulli fame), a cluster of hellish screaming skulls in bronze (“Nehan”, 2015) greets visitors to the Casino de Ibiza.
Laliberté is the driving force behind this new influx of contemporary art but is drawing on a deep-rooted artistic heritage. Ibiza, just 25 miles long, has been a magnet for cosmopolitan tribes over the centuries, from the Carthaginians in the seventh century BC, to hippies in the 1970s and ravers in the 1980s.
Guillermo Romero Parra, founder of the Madrid gallery Parra & Romero, points out that there was “intellectual tourism” on Ibiza in the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, the philosopher Walter Benjamin, Dadaist Raoul Hausmann and painter Erwin Broner all settled in Ibiza before the war. “These exiles met and drank in an old windmill just outside the walls of Ibiza Town,” writes Stephen Armstrong in 2004’s The White Island.
Romero Parra has set up a gallery here in a former farm building at the end of a winding dirt track in Santa Gertrudis, in the centre of the island. For the past three years, he has shown works by artists such as Robert Barry and Lawrence Weiner in his Ibizan outpost, which is open from June to October.
“We want to change how the island, which is the most international in Europe, is perceived,” he says. Next year, he aims to host a series of seminars at the gallery that will “contextualise the avant-garde history of the island”.
The gallery’s current two-hander show includes pieces made on-site in a hay storage facility by Mexican artist Stefan Brüggemann and Philippe Decrauzat, a Swiss artist. Brüggemann’s main installation, a huge mirror wall entitled “Time Paintings” (2015) has already sold, while a piece comprising 28 mirrored panels from the same wall is priced at €375,000. The exhibition’s launch in June was attended by 150 people, 100 of them from abroad.
Elena Ruiz Sastre, director of the Museu d’Art Contemporani D’Eivissa in Ibiza Town, is counting on the support of Laliberté and Romero Parra to help shore up the island’s cultural infrastructure. “This is an important moment,” says Ruiz Sastre, who has pulled off a coup by organising a show of works at the museum by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon and Germany’s Tobias Rehberger (After the After, until October 4).
The pair will jointly create sculptures, paintings and films focusing on “the after-point that occurs when the excess comes to an end”, says Ruiz Sastre. In a cheeky move, the artists will convert an advertising billboard for the Cocoon club into a poster for the show — proving that even hedonism can be turned into art.
With three decades of showstopping circus shows behind him, Laliberté himself is no stranger to excess but may not be ready to put it behind him just yet. Currently he is working to get his sculpture park off the ground. “Andrew Rogers’s piece has been embraced by the population. The public interaction is a very important component of the mission behind this project,” he says, adding with a smile: “We could have organised chaos in my own backyard.”
Photographs: Jerry Metellus; Gladstone Gallery, New York & Brussels; Michel Zabé
Slideshow photographs: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015; Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co Ltd/Blum & Poe; Michel Zabé/Courtesy of the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City; Courtesy Studio lost but found, Berlin/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn; Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York & Brussels; Courtesy Studio lost but found, Berlin and neugerriemschneider Berlin/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn & Tobias Rehberger; Fabrice Seixas/ADAGP Camille Henrot