Three months ago Christie’s closed its galleries to the public and moved its operations online, switching to streaming services and virtual reality to connect with its clients.
‘As soon as the pandemic began, we realised we had to entirely rethink the way we exhibit work,’ says Vivian Brodie, associate director of Private Sales. ‘It gave us an opportunity to be digitally innovative; the team agreed we needed to curate a totally new viewing experience.’ The advantage of digital is that it’s flexible, she adds: you can go anywhere and see anything. ‘It offers up all sorts of exciting possibilities.’
One such innovation is Dream Big, an immersive, online private selling exhibition featuring more than 50 monumental artworks from across the world, including sculptures by Alexander Calder, Jeff Koons, Niki de Saint Phalle and Fernando Botero.
According to Brodie, it would be impossible to stage the exhibition in reality. ‘The logistics of getting the sculptures to one site would be financially prohibitive and there are very few places that could accommodate so many enormous pieces.’
A case in point is Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipse III, 1996, which comprises two massive steel plates tilted into a circular shape weighing some 180 tons. Another colossus is Iron Tree, 2009, by Ai Weiwei, which is over six metres tall.
‘Clients are often interested in buying large outdoor sculpture,’ says Brodie, ‘but we’ve never created a dedicated sale before because we couldn’t fit the works into our galleries.’
Dream Big brings these sculptures to life, organised under the themes of Nature, Abstraction and The Human Body. Enhanced photography forensically explores the material and the making process. There are interviews and helpful guides to scale, as well as advice from the specialists.
‘Nature also plays its part,’ adds Brodie. ‘There are mood-setting videos that enable audiences to get a real sense of how these sculptures sit in the landscape.’
The settings in question range from Geneva, where Niki de Saint Phalle’s exuberant Oiseau amoureux, 1988, provides a playful diversion on the edge of Lake Geneva, to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the north of England, where Ai Weiwei’s Iron Tree stands amid verdant countryside.
‘It is the largest and most complex example from the artist’s tree series,’ says Brodie of the tree, which was cast in iron from 97 pieces of timber, with the iron having rusted over time to a golden orange. ‘It’s a powerful reminder of the cycles of nature.’
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Not all the works are outdoor sculptures. Executed in 1994 and constructed from fibreglass, wood, metal and fabric, Paul McCarthy’s Tomato Head (below) is intended for an interior setting. ‘It’s a complex work with a lot of components,’ says Brodie. ‘When I first saw it, the world was a very different place, and those dark references to pop culture and consumerism take on a whole new meaning for us today.’
Brodie admits to the growing importance of the digital experience, as a way of expanding an audience beyond the reach of the physical space. ‘Our clients have been incredibly responsive to sales going online,’ she says.
This was made abundantly clear when the team secured Jeff Koons’ Smooth Egg with Bow (Magenta/Violet), 1994-2009, for the present exhibition. ‘It’s a key work by the artist, and it was one of the first to be consigned. It was at that point that we understood this exhibition was going to be something special.’
Dream Big is Christie’s first ever immersive online exhibition and Brodie is keen for there to be more. ‘It has been an extraordinary collaboration between international museums, sculpture parks, collectors and artists,’ she says. ‘It just shows what can be done in isolation.’