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MODERN ART COLLECTOR RETUNE A DEFUNT RADIO STATION
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SOUND SURROUNDS
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A defunt World War I radio station on the Autrian/Slovakian border might not signal « home » and « workplace « to many, but Sébastien de Ganay and his wife, Katharina, love to transform ugly things into beauty. With the help of architect Nina Safainia, the couple have designed stimulating interior vistas for their contemporary art collection. Michael Huey tunes in to their wavelength.
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It’s awful. It is scheusslich, says Sébastien de Ganay, slipping into the present tense as though reliving the experience, pouncing mischievously on a German word to describe his first impression, years ago, of the defunt radio station he and his family now inhabit near the Austrian/Slovakian border.
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At the time it was “ a long- chicken – house -looking – building” few people would ever have imagined as a potential dwelling, let alone known how to turn it into one. Originally built around the time of World War I as a station for commercial long – and shortwave radio, it had been altered and expanded over the years before falling into extravagant disrepair. Notwithstanding this verdict, Sébastien and his wife, Katharina, were over the moon that day in 2006; they understood, somehow, that the radio station would become - must become ! - their home and workplace. “We love to transform ugly things into beauty.”
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Still, when the architecte Nina Safainia’s more conceptual than comfortable first plans arrived, Katharina burst into tears. She ahd grown up down the road where 17 generations of antecedents had inhabited mighty Schloss Petronell, near the excavated Roman settlement of Carnuntum. Sébastien, a cerebral and wide –ranging artist – his work includes paintings, sculpture and furniture, as well as the art publisher onestar press (Katharina calls him ‘flexible’ ) – instinctively embraces the drawings. All was ‘fluidity, communication and dialogue with nature’. Lovely, vast, empty volumes. But what of tangible matters ?
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A refugee from other châteaux, or quartiers de noblesse, other continents – je grew up in South America – Sébastien was dreaming of something like a Casa Malaparte (‘Let’s play big!’): bold, generous, inaccessible. (Today his sprawling, laboratory – like 2000 sq m studio is on-site as well. A curator friend affectionately refers to it as “Willie Wanda’s factory’). Katharina, on the other hand, who studied comparative literature at the Sorbonne and requires ‘clear structure’ in her daily life, had envisioned an enfilade of cosy little rooms; possible she was thinking of something like her mother’s tasteful gardener’s cottage adjacent to the Schloss. Both wanted something eclectic.
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Early on, as neo-castaways headed for this desert island where they would have to survive, aesthetically, on their own wits, they began to gather all manner of architectural salvage from the world they were leaving : traditional Kelheim limestone slabs; 1880s Neoclassical encaustic tils; panelled interior doors and old – fashioned hardware; a sea-green 19th century glazed ceramic fireplace. During the building phase, they both spent their days at the construction site; mentally however, they were something at two entirely different locations. While Sébastien sought to ensure that they stayed on task in terms of global vision (what is the grand gesture?), Katharina concerned herself with details (what will it feel like to sit at the kitchen table?). Subsequent adjustements allowed the two to live in large – the central stairway, rudimentary in the original plan, became a generous amphitheatre, widening at its base to form an invitation place to congregate - and still get their four children to school in the morning.
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Some of Austria’s flattest, least sentimental terrain, held together at its frings by long, undramatic hills, is the backdrop for the 930sq m house. It is not, as Sébastien observes, ‘a landscape that delivers itself easily to you’. To the north, near the town of Bad Deutsch – Altenburg, the Danube, with its ship traffic, rocky banks and quiet floodplain forests, flows swiftly off toward Hungary. Austria’s largest limestone quarry is just out of sight to the northeast, a kind of Herculean sculpture- in – process. Colossal wind farms – peculiary paired with occasional ancient Roman arches – extend towards every horizon. The newest additions to the plains are industrial glasshouses for tomato cultivation: sequential readymade structures that run parallel to the distant hills. In its expanse and curious variety (reminiscient, somehow, of the studio), this landscape helps Katharina and Sébastien to ‘step beyond things and not to be mentally lazy’.
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Much the same could be said about the home itself. In our age, great refinement seldom issues in a straight line from pure luxe. Challenging surroundings stimulate; excellent proportions are the new lavish. The most gracious interiors are usually ingenious solutions to some unseen limitation that must be accepted with grace. (What is more preposterous than the house where money is no object?). As everybody who goes to the gym knows, the subordination of one’s ease to discipline is its own reward. To be in rigorous environs that remind one daily to look for and discover beauty can be a kind a privilege.
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In the radio station today, not all windows look out: some of its best views are introspective, these vistas, too, are grand without being easy. From one side, Katharina’s study, with its southwest – facing window, looks on to a corner of the wide inner courtyard enclosed by the pink and grey façades – the colours came from a Japanese woodcut – of the home and studio. Four mature, arthritic, weeping birch trees, a mirror sculpture by Gerold Tagwerker and an austere Lawrence Weiner wall text installation equally furnish and unsettle this space.
From the other side, the study opens through Japanese – screen – like sliding oak – and glass doors on to a panoramic black, white and yellow diptych of Red Square by the Austrian artist Gelitin, as though it were an extraordinary cityscape seen through another window.
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Part of a diverse collection that include pieces by Franz West, Richard Artschwager, Gary Kuehn, Chuck Close and Stephan Balkenhol, the art is often in dialogue with Sébastien’s work, frequently illustrating, as he points out, a chaîne d’amitié. The effect is both personal and didactic: throughout the radio station, works are placed like ravishing sticky notes – daily reminders that our outlook, as much as our immediate interior surroundings, is something we ourselves create. What we get is what we see.

Michael Huey, Wien 2014

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