Kerry van der Jagt samples the gentle art of a South Pacific cruise.
My career as an art buyer was as unexpected as it was brief. On the auctioneer's "third and final call" my arm shoots up, the hammer comes down and I become the owner of a painting I didn't need, by an artist I'd never heard of, for a price I can ill afford.
And I couldn't be happier.
A dark void near the emergency doors is brought to life by Night Solstice.
All onion domes and bruised sky, I noticed the Doctor Zhivago-like scene the moment I entered the gallery, the snowflakes and shivering trees seeming out of place on such a sunny afternoon. Delicate as a Christmas bauble and mounted in a gold frame, Yellow Evening is a classic Russian beauty. When the auctioneer explained that the Ukraine-American artist, Anatole Krasnyansky, was forced by the KGB to flee Russia in the mid-'70s, I knew I had to have it.
It's day two of my eight-day cruise to Noumea, Isle of Pines and Lifou Island on Celebrity Solstice, a 16-storey luxury super-liner that is part of the Celebrity fleet run by Royal Caribbean cruises. Art was the last thing I expected to find.
Surrounded by a bevy of holidaymakers the "Live champagne art auction" is as far removed from a Sotheby's auction as you can get. Like an informal garden party, the room is wall-to-wall kaftans and sundresses, shorts and sandals. The artworks are equally colourful.
The trick is to sharpen your skills before flashing your credit card. While my beautifully framed, limited-edition serigraph cost $290, an original by master sculpture Nano Lopez sold for almost $9870, while a Peter Max commenced bidding at $17,200. Other well-known names include Tarkay, Agam and Kinkade.
To help guests separate their Max's from their Moes, Celebrity Solstice offers a range of enrichment activities through its Celebrity Life program. During a "Get smart about art" class I learn the difference between serigraphs and lithographs (and more importantly how much I should pay for one).
Art on board Celebrity Solstice is not restricted to auctions and talks; in fact, the ship is a floating contemporary art gallery. Curated by International Corporate Art (ICArt) Celebrity Solstice has a collection of 4600 pieces displayed throughout the ship.
On one of the "at sea" days, while other passengers are learning to salsa or make sushi, I sign up for the interactive, self-guided "iPad art tour" to learn more about the Solstice Art Collection.
After collecting the iPad from Guest Relations (free) I start my tour at the aft stairs, or Stair of Light, a soaring space that seeks to investigate both perception and the effect of light. Winding my way from top to bottom I pass Christopher Bucklow's Tetrarch (2005), a glowing image produced by a giant pinhole camera exposed directly on to photographic paper, and video-artist Marie-Jo Lafontaine's Banana Kisses and Frozen Margaritas (2008), a haunting portrait of a young woman.
While all the artworks are well sign-posted the iPad gives detailed information about the artist and their works. I learn that each piece was chosen for its merit and also for its contribution to the overall impact and balance of the collection. Everywhere I look there's an object for the eye. A dark void near the emergency doors is brought to life by Night Solstice (2008) a commissioned piece by Colombian artist Nancy Friedemann. Friedemann uses the walls, ceilings and floor as her canvas, painting flowers, leaves and beetles to evoke the warm nights of midsummer. A soundtrack of chirping crickets adds to the mood.
The Stair of Water is another utilitarian space dedicated to contemporary art, this time, reflecting the element of water. From photographer Steve McCurry's Two Monks on Causeway (1997) taken at Angkor Wat in Cambodia to Astrid Kruse Jensen's photographs of ethereal glaciers in Untitled 2 (Iceland) (2004), water is displayed in a symbolic or stylised way.
On the days after my iPad tour I refuse to take the lifts again, preferring the stairways, always finding a piece I'd missed previously or simply another way of looking at each. Even a walk along my corridor becomes an artistic stroll, brightened by Norwegian photographer Espen Tollefsen's photos reflecting his love of the sea.
The treats continue by the pool, where mosaic artist Maria Angquist Klyvare uses eight shades of grey between black and white to create Sun Gift (2008) a mural of an enormous hand delicately holding a tiny marble. In the dark and moody Michael's Club I find a Henri Matisse lithograph, Dancer Seated on Wooden Armchair (1925) and a Pablo Picasso etching, Squat Model, Sculpture Seen from the Back, Bearded Head (1933), while in the library I'm dwarfed by an oversized oil painting of a stack of books, titled Books, by Cornelius Volker (2008).
Shore excursions also provide opportunities for art appreciation. From the Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea, which was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano to explore and promote Kanak culture, to the traditional woodcarvings at St Maurice Bay on the Isle of Pines, art is a part of the Pacific landscape. During visits to villages and markets, I buy hand-threaded shell necklaces and painted silk scarves.
One evening, with the sun setting across the Pacific and a frothy white tail swishing in our wake, I make my way to the Lawn Club, a 2000-square-metre patch of fresh lawn on deck 15. Here, through collaboration with the Corning Museum of Glass, Celebrity offers a Hot Glass Show where skilled artisans demonstrate the ancient art of glassblowing. With the glass glowing as fiery as the sinking sun, I watch as the artist turns what is basically sand (silicon dioxide) into a one-off piece of contemporary art.
That night, for an art experience of a different kind I head to the Molecular Bar, a funky space that serves up 23 handcrafted cocktails, all developed by The Liquid Chef, Junior Merino. Merino is the New York-based master mixologist who coined the slogan "Taste the art. Drink with all your senses". I settle on a Black Cat, a blend of ginger liquor, aloe vera juice, pineapple juice, lime juice, raspberries and Russian vodka. The cold of the glass against my warm hands, the tinkle of ice, the taste of vodka all combines to remind me of my little Russian masterpiece. If it's true, as Pablo Picasso once said, "The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls" then enjoying art at sea can only be that much better.
The writer was a guest of Celebrity Cruises.
Five things you need to know when buying art on cruise ships
1. Read the fine print when you register for the auction. While all sales at auction are final, Park West offers a "40-40" customer satisfaction guarantee, which means a client can apply for a refund up to 40 days after purchase or an exchange up to 40 months (less cancelation fee).
2. Buy what speaks to you (and is within your budget). In the end you should simply bid on art you fall in love with and will be a reminder of your trip.
3. Check authenticity – The auction house will provide a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) which should describe the work in detail. The limitation of buying at sea means you cannot get a third-party appraisal.
4. Factor in delivery costs. Most of the artworks are unframed and will be shipped to your home address at a cost ($65). This can take up to six weeks.
5. Brush up on your art knowledge. Know the difference between an original painting and a serigraph, learn about techniques and have some idea of artists' prices.
Fares start from $1399 for a standard balcony stateroom on board Celebrity Solstice's eight-night South Pacific sailing, departing Sydney on March 14. A drinks package, including premium coffee and teas, soft drink, beer, wine by the glass, cocktails and spirits, starts from $55.86 a person a night.
Activities are offered across four categories – taste, revive, play and learn. Some of the most popular include: Wine enrichment, galley tours, understanding the night sky, crepe making, martini tasting, hip-hop dancing, benefits of acupuncture, language lessons and hands-on art classes.