Oscar van Gelderen – Fish Air: on Servaas and the art of doing business

Recently, I have started collecting works by Servaas Schoone, better known as ‘Servaas’ or, more specific, the founder of “Int. Fi$h-handel SERVAAS & Zn. Holland”.

In the eighties, several artists created art that became known as ‘business art’: the art of doing business, became the artwork itself.
Res Ingold founded Ingold Airlines in 1982: not only did he create a complete corporate identity (logo, stationary, business plans, office merchandise, promotional videos), he actually started an airline: during the 1992 Documenta (Kassel), an Ingold Airline plane flew VIP’s between Berlin and the Documenta. Besides an Airline, a bank saw the light (Banca di Oklahoma, founded in Milano, Italy) and a fish company – which Servaas founded in 1986, and resembled in many ways Ingold Airlines: an actual fish company, logo, promotional posters and, most famously: fish air.

Art became business in the eighties – literally. Jeff Koons worked as a Wall Street commodities broker at First Investors Corporation, and created works of art (vacuum cleaners, floating basketballs) which are all about ‘selling’, presentation and gloss: The New, a series of vacuum-cleaners, often selected for brand names that appealed to the artist, were mounted in illuminated Perspex boxes.

Another aspect is the upcoming influence of auction houses: art became a commodity, an investment, a business.

There are direct traces from Koons to Business Art, just as there are traces from Servaas’ Fish Air back to Pierro Manzoni’s famous Merde d’Artista from 1961 (‘Your work is shit’ – the Italian artist Piero Manzoni was allegedly told by his father. In response to this slur, he came up with the idea of canning his own excrement as a work of art. Merda d’artista was made into an edition of 90.The work consists of 90 tin cans, filled with faeces, each 30 grams and measuring 4.8×6.5 cm, with a label in Italian, English, French, and German stating: Artist’s Shit, contents 30 gr net, freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961).

Another major influence is Rob Scholte, who always had a knack for the ‘unpersonal’: putting out magazines called Dossier (File) and Magazijn (Storage), painting stacks of shirts (Unsuccesful Camouflage in Nature), exploring the possibilities of reproduction, and loving Zero art, Nieuwe Stijl literature and journalism and – not unimportant – connecting art to marketing (reproduction as way of reaching a big audience).

Another connection: the (mechanic) production of art with assistants, within a factory setting – Warhol, Koons, Scholte.

And the ultimate business: the copyright sign (and claiming it).

Servaas sold ‘fish air’ in cans in an open edition – for small prices, but still, money was made.

The cans (in different formats) were displayed in big stacks.

Quantity, serialization, reproduction, mass production, anonimity: the beauty of unpersonal art, mechanically made and stacked in piles or in crates – it also reminds us of the ‘unpersonal’ zero art (of which Manzoni was also a representative), which took non-representative art to a next level, but also glorified a business-like approach to writing and journalism (preferring objectivity over subjectivity, cool facts over interpretation, distance over involvement) and towards a form of art where the artist is more and more invisible (no signature style of painting, no personal statement) or even disappearing under the umbrella of a ‘business’.
In 1967 Cornelis Bastiaan Vaandrager published a poem, entitled ‘Invoice’:

The thought                        ƒ
The idea                              ƒ
The elaboration of idea    ƒ
The formulation                ƒ
VAT                                     ƒ
Total                                   ƒ

Note that the ƒ sign refers to the florin as the first guilder was called: guilder refers to golden – the first coins were made of gold, back in 1252 – and florin to Florence and Florentine lily.
And was part of the Servaas Fish logo.
The invoice (the business) became poetry.
The poetry became business.

Servaas founded his Fish Company in Hoorn, a small city near the IJsselmeer, famous for its fish and harbour. He sold ‘spring water’ (in crates with 10 plastic bottles) at the Documenta in 1987, and in 1995 he participated at Art Cologne, ‘displaying’ a mobile stand in which he sold fresh herring. In 1991 Frans Haks, then director of the Groninger Museum, staged a ‘Business Art’ exhibition, and Servaas’ work was prominently displayed.

In 2001 Servaas ended his life, leaving behind a fascinating oeuvre of work.

June 01, 2015