Somewhere in the middle of Christopher Nolan’s 2020 film, Tenet, is a scene where Dimple Kapadia joins Michael Caine to steal a Goya painting in Norway. The expensive artwork, which Kapadia’s arms trafficker character Priya Singh and Caine’s British spy Sir Michael Crosby want is stored in a facility at the Oslo airport, called a freeport. While it reflects Nolan’s penchant for the mysterious, art freeports across the world are also gaining notoriety as the newest symbol of global capitalism favouring the super rich.
At the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which opened to the public on December 23, Swiss artist Gabriela Löffel puts her creative philosophy built on investigative instincts to analyse the influence art freeports have on the international financial system. Unable to gain entry into a freeport, Löffel builds a virtual freeport herself to question the opacity of the so-called storage depot for art and antiquities.
Titled Inside, Löffel’s video installation at the Aspinwall House, the main seafront venue of the biennale, uses language (at least two, English and Chinese), to aesthetically decipher the ethereal edifice of unlimited wealth. With the help of technology and the traditional tool of communication, the artist lifts the lid on one of the most secretive financial systems in the world — virtually.
Freeports are nothing new. They have existed for over a century-and-half, first surfacing in the early stages of capitalism to stock the basic survival tools like food. The first art freeport was set up in Geneva in 1997 by a Swiss art dealer named Yves Bouvier, who later became embroiled in several financial scandals. Today there are art freeports in places like Luxembourg, Singapore, Shanghai and Beijing.
As it is shown in Nolan’s Tenet, art freeports store paintings with facilities for prospective buyers to view them and even check for their authenticity. Some art freeports also have galleries, auction venues and restoration labs. The artworks in freeports, which are considered in transit, do not attract territorial tax laws or customs duty, therefore giving its owners a free ride. With Switzerland amending its laws to enable automatic exchange of banking information, freeports have today become the old Swiss banks.
“The big shift happened at this moment for freeport investors,” says the Geneva-based Löffel about the new rules that came into effect in Switzerland in 2017. “It is now difficult to hide money in the banking system.” Freeports have, thus, become the new alternative. It was no surprise then that the Geneva freeport was fully functional during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, there is nothing in the laws anywhere in the world that makes freeports illegal.
Rather, it is the emergence of freeports as the darling of the global financial system, “an Alibaba’s cave” within the laws, which got the attention of Löffel. “I am not saying anything inside the freeports is criminal,” explains the artist. “But it is a grey zone. The freeports are even painted grey,” laughs Löffel. On a serious side, she notes that the keepers of the global financial system, the trustees and experts who work for the wealthy, remain outside the laws to ensure the invisibility of grey areas like freeports.
Ever since the 2008-09 global financial meltdown, art has been catapulted to the top of secured commodities for investment. Art now ranks fourth, after oil, arms and coal, on the investment map. “A freeport is a base for doing investment than pursuing its actual function,” says Zian Chen, a Hong Kong-based curator and writer, who was scheduled to talk on freeports at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale with Löffel last week until its opening was postponed from December 12 to December 23.
Inside, which debuted in Switzerland in a solo show at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, focuses on the invisible, inaccessible and non-transparent nature of freeports. The first part of the video is a translation from English to Chinese about the artist’s attempt to gain entry into a new freeport being built in Shanghai. Löffel was in the Chinese city in 2018 for a three-month art residency. “I tried to see if I could go inside the freeport there,” she says.
Löffel’s recorded questions to the chief of construction work and his answers during an unsuccessful attempt to enter the Shanghai freeport go like this: Question: “Can I take a view through the window?” Answer: “No.” More similar questions and answers follow. “I use translation as a performance,” says the artist, a recipient of the Lewis Baltz Research Fund in memory of the American artist this year for her new project on the offshore financial industry.
The next part of the art installation has a series of words linked to freeports and their definitions spoken by experts. The carefully chosen words include “territory”, “offshore”, “cloud” and “economy”. A virtual reality freeport modelled on the Geneva freeport follows the recordings and definitions. “The language of my art practice is to open some questioning space,” says Löffel, whose previous art installation (Performance) was on the international security industry. “We can disturb the rules and narrative as an artist.”
Löffel sees her VR freeport as a “non-space” that mixes her idea of freeport as a “non-identifiable space”. She sent Ti Wang, the same professional Chinese interpreter who translated her recording from the Shanghai freeport, to the VR freeport mounted in a building in front of the original Geneva freeport. “I am not an expert on freeports,” admits the artist. “My work is about time, space and reality. It is a funny way to show that this kind of space (like freeports) exists.”
Experts don’t see any exposure of freeports like the Panama Papers did in 2016 for the offshore financial industry. “It is not a secret the art market has been a way to transport wealth,” says Zian, who expects no changes in the core function, opacity and tax-free structure of freeports in the near future. “I guess it will be interesting to see what will be a unique model of freeport to respond to government pressures and develop its own glossary and unique history.”
On her part, Löffel was motivated by the importance of going into the big buildings where huge collections of art are stored. “The Geneva art freeport is the biggest museum in the world,” she says. “Your fantasy is activated. It creates a mystery. The question is, is this mystery also a way to create value, even money value? It creates capital for its owners if they are not shown for years.”
Interestingly, after Löffel showed Inside in Switzerland, the Swiss state art collection bought the work. It is now kept inside the Geneva art freeport.