Unlike most art collectors, real estate developer Galila Barzilaï-Hollander had a relatively late start, beginning to build her collection at the age of 60. What started as a temporary interest to fill the void left be-hind after her husband’s death, however, soon turned into a passion that enriches every aspect of her life. Rather than looking to the media or art experts to inform her next purchase, she selects art works based on a combination of instinct and a discerning eye honed over the course of decades, earning her a well-deserved reputation as a cultural tastemaker. She’s frequently lent her works for exhibitions focusing around her collection’s various themes, and is particularly well-known for her eclectic collection of artistic chairs. We spoke to her about her upcoming art space, her views on fashion and design, and how she curates her collection.
INTERVIEW: Elise Yau
IMAGES: Courtesy of Galila Barzilaï-Hollander
How do you usually decide to purchase works for your collection?
I am not a curator, neither an art historian. I am first attracted by an art object regardless of the theme. [My decision] to buy a work is not determined by my rational thinking or my intellectual reflection. It is an instant magnetism. Later on, I might buy another work on the same theme due to the same kind of feeling. Then I realize that there are inner connections created in my mind, something that draws me to the subject. The eye is the mirror of the soul. It is a very instinctive approach, not an intellectual one. I am not pretending that I have a good collection, but I think it is meaningful and that is the most important.
After your first interaction with the artwork, do you do any research?
No, I certainly don’t do any research. I prefer not to be influenced by the press or art experts. This is because I want to keep my “innocence” and my judgement “pure”, free of any references. As I generally buy artworks created by young, emerging artists, I notice that many of them are getting well-known and progressing in their artistic careers. Museums ask me to lend works on a regular basis, therefore I suppose that my choices must have a certain relevance.
Does your collection have any particular theme?
My whole collection is a conversation between works of many themes. There is a conversation of different topics that merge into something that expresses me, my preoccupations, concerns and the topics that I react to. I have about 20 different themes, including books, chairs, and money. In my personal life, money has been a very complicated subject. Money also means value. At that purpose I have a series of art works on the theme of “measuring”, which also relates to value.
Globally speaking, it is an interactive, playful collection.
I think that my choices of art works are self-explanatory. I don’t have to talk when I show them. I never make any sophisticated speech about what the artist wanted to do or say. I just let people look, and they understand a lot of things.
It is really like a mirror. My collection is my reflection. Instead of saying who I am and what I think, the objects tell the story. It is my psychoanalysis, in a way.
Do you think you’ll ever change the direction of your collection?
Ten years in a lifetime is not that long. My collection will probably change because, over time, my choices will evolve. It is a progressive approach. I am not a public celebrity, so I don’t feel like having any obligation to explain it. I just live with it. It gives me energy and it gives me joy.
What does your collection mean to you?
Since I lost my husband, my collection has been giving me a second life and a new family. I meet a lot of artists; consequently there is a very emotional, human contact, not only related to the artworks but also on personal topics. Thanks to it, today I have a circle of friends that are very sensitive and with whom I feel good. That’s my way of living with my art. It became like oxygen. I need it to live. I cannot survive a month without being in contact with art.
I am also very sensitive to aesthetics, and living in an aesthetic world is very present, relaxing and comfortable. I need to have this joyful attitude towards life.
How do viewers usually react to your collection?
When artists visit me and see works by different artists that they don’t know yet, they use to say “I have a lot of energy. It gave me some ideas”. It’s the fact that it is a very fresh collection, which is quite international, but not [full of] worldwide names.
I have also seen children reacting to my collection. Sometimes they have remarks which are super intelligent. They see details sometimes quicker than (already informed) adults.
Are there any pieces that are particularly memorable for you?
The concept of recycling is something that I particularly appreciate. I recycled my print cartridges and made beautiful chairs with them. I asked two different artists to work on the same concept. One artist was very pragmatic. He took all the cartridges, screwed them together, and made this chair. The other one tried to make it with glue, but apparently didn’t succeed because of the plastic components that couldn’t be stuck together. So he melted all the cartridges and created a chair from the materials that had been melted. The results were beautiful. It was also amazing to see how different the creativity and artistic approach can be.
You are famous for collecting chairs. Tell us about your interest in design.
I love design. I am crazy about it. In my day to day profession, we were in real estate. We provided furnished apartments to rent in the 1980s. My husband and I did it alone, and I furnished everything. The furniture that I chose at that time became iconic 20 years later. It was not following the normal aesthetics of the period. People were not used to it. But today, these kind of pieces are in museums. So I think I have a good eye for the design of tomorrow.
What about your own home?
I wanted to change my kitchen floor and I couldn’t find anything that I really liked. So an artist photographed eggs and printed the shots on vinyl. Then we photoshopped some to be hyper-realistic or surrealistic. You can walk on eggshells in my kitchen.
In my living room, I changed the carpets. I shredded magazines and made it in a kind of Jackson Pollock manner. It was very colourful.
Do you have any of your art works in your home?
Yes of course! My home is already like a warehouse. You can’t even walk inside. I think it is disrespectful towards the artists to have their work in the crate all the time, not being seen.
This is why I am preparing a space to let the works breathe and being displayed. It is actually one of my biggest projects for the time being.
Do you have any details of your space yet? Where and when will it open?
The space, about 1,500 square meters, is located in Brussels near an art centre called Wiels. The construction works will finish by the end of March this year, and the first partial exhibition of my collection will probably start in September 2018. I don’t want it to be a white cube or a museum. I intend it to be as if it was my mess at home. Very organic.
I have another building across the street, as one would not be enough to host the whole collection, but I don’t have yet the financial means to renovate it. Hopefully, in two years’ time there will be another exhibition space.
I dreamed of doing this project, and I definitely don’t want to leave this world before realizing something that is significant for me and likely to bring joy to others.
You have a very strong sense of aesthetics. I also heard you’re a fan of Issey Miyake.
I bought my first piece by Issey Miyake in the ‘80s in New York. I was there with my late husband, and I saw [the Issey Miyake piece] in a shop on Fifth Avenue. I tried it on and it was a very bizarre, sensual feeling. I felt as if I was walking naked. That I had nothing on and I was just myself. It was a very spiritual experience. Miraculously, Issey Miyake was in the store at that time, with his attaché de presse from Paris. They introduced Mr Miyake to me and I said hello. I didn’t realize who he was. I had never heard of him before.
Now that I know a little bit more about the Issey Miyake phenomena, I think that he is the only fashion designer who has the deepest respect for women. His clothes are designed in a way that it is the woman who gives the outfit the look, the energy and the impression. You are the star, not what you are wearing. When you wear Chanel or anything else, you have to fit into that look, but with Issey Miyake, you could be small, tall, or fat. The woman’s personality gives the aura to his piece. He gives the woman the possibility to be creative. He doesn’t tell you: “This goes together”. You assemble the pieces that you want upon your feelings. Not like all of these women’s magazines where they show you how you have to look, what is “the current fashion”. For me, there is no fashion. I’m not interested in fashion. I think it is very important to be casual and relaxed in all situations.
You started your collection after your husband passed away.
I worked with my husband and we were always together. I never went to the cinema or to a restaurant alone. I never went anywhere alone. Then, all of a sudden, [when he passed away] I had to take over the business and do things I didn’t do before. I had to cope with the financial issues, to make decisions and to realize that any mistake has to be paid for.
The ARCO Foundation in Madrid gives a prize or award to a collector every year, and I received it in 2017. [During my acceptance speech,] I mentioned briefly about how my husband died and how art helped me to move on. At the end of my speech, a lot of widows came to talk to me. They said that I gave them hope to continue, instead of considering that they had no right to go on because their husbands had passed away.
Do you have any words of advice for budding collectors?
Try to see as much art as you can. Go to exhibitions, go to museums, go to art fairs, go to artists’ studios and build your own aesthetics. All you have to do is to open your eyes and listen to your heart. As simple as that.
Elise YAU (Senior Editor of CoBo)
Elise YAU is an editor and writer specialises in design, lifestyle and luxury topics. She has written extensively for Ming Pao Weekly, City Magazine and HK01, and she is the author of book projects regarding design, architecture and Hong Kong culture. Currently based in Hong Kong, Elise is immersing the art world after joining CoBo, the first Asia community platform for collectors.