Neljapäev, oktoober 17, 2013

To find something in common, not to talk again about differences

Interview with Monika Flacke, the chief curator of the exhibition The Desire for Freedom: Art in Europe since 1945 in Deutsches Historisches Museum (Berlin), Palazzo Reale (Milan) and Muzeum Sztuki Współczesnei MOCAK (Kraków), which is currently on display in Tallinn at Kumu Art Museum under the title Critique and Crisis: Art in Europe since 1945 (28.06.–3.11.2013). Questions asked by Elnara Taidre. Interview originally commissioned by cultural weekly Sirp, Artishok is publishing the full version of the English interview.

Monika Flacke with Figures by Wojciech Fangor on the background 

Elnara Taidre: Thank you for bringing to us such an interesting project! For the start, can you open the background behind the exhibition Critique and Crisis at Kumu Art Museum? It is actually a part of a bigger project, the 30th Council of Europe exhibition The Desire for Freedom: Art in Europe since 1945. In turn, Council of Europe exhibition series has its history and traditions as well. Can you talk about the tradition of the Council of Europe exhibition and then about this particular project?



Monika Flacke: There is a long tradition of the Council of Europe exhibition, it is starting from 1954. In the context of the post-World War II situation, the purpose was to move away from the nationalist ideologies and rebuilt the sense of European cultural identity, which would transcend the national borders. So, the exhibition series took into focus pan-European artistic movements and outstanding cultural periods from Renaissance until 1989 and with only one exception (exhibition Tendencies of the Twentieth Century, 1977) it was keeping a distance to the recent history. Promoting a dialogue between Western and Eastern Europe became even more important after the fall of Berlin Wall, maintaining shared European values like democracy, humanism etc. Our project is the only one focusing on contemporary art – or shall we call it art after 1945 –, and also the first one dealing with such a large scale of non-Western European art (from Estonian and the Russian Federation to Albania and Turkey). I don’t think there was an exhibition farther on the East than in Berlin and Poland. So, Tallinn is the farthest Eastern point in the long career of the Council of Europe exhibition.



ET: As you have mentioned, the present exhibition is rather an exception. How would the Council of Europe exhibition usually look like?


MF: This would be an art exhibitions dealing with the theme of art and politics. I think there was always a topic of the neighbourhood, getting closer to a neighbour, in order to have a broader idea of the neighbour country and its art.

ET: In the light of your project, how do you see a work of art: is it a documentation and reflection of its time – or a comment, critique, proposal, intervention? All of them?

MF: All of them!





Exhibition views. Photo: Art Museum of Estonia

ET: In Deutsches Historisches Museum, you have curated a big exhibition on a European scale Myths of the Nations (1998 and 2004) – can you see some difference between this project and the present one?

MF: Myths of the Nations: 1945. Arena of Memories (2004) was completely different: it was an exhibition about memory in Europe after World War II, dealing with images all over Europe. Estonia wasn’t regretfully included, although I tried hard to get Estonia into the project, but didn’t find anyone who would want to write on this subject. But there were Lithuania and Latvia in the exhibition and in the catalogue. The difference from the present exhibition was in the fact that Myths of the Nations was dealing rather with images, not just art. Art was included too, it was always meant as the turning point in the memory construction. For example, we had Gerhard Richter’s portrait of his uncle Rudi (Uncle Rudi, 1965), who joined the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) and died fighting shortly after that. The story behind that image, painted after the family snapshot in Richter’s typical blurred manner, can be considered as the turning point in the memory construction of the Western Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany. Likewise, the theme of Andrzej Wajdas’s film Kanał (Sewer, 1956) from his War Trilogy – the Warsaw Uprising and escaping of the Polish resistance movement members from the German occupying forces through the city sewer – was the turning point for the Polish memory. I was looking for the turning points, causing paradigm changes. But we had the line of memory through the images: through films, paintings, posters, even stamps – all the things that create images, not only art.

ET: Like visual culture and visual memory in general?

MF: Yes. The stamp was and is a visual memory for millions of people, as we’ve got everyone using stamps on letters.

ET: In Germany there is a new discipline called Bildwissenschaft (the Study of Images), which is interested in visual images as a general phenomenon, not just in visual art.

MF: Yes, this is a very new discipline, but more popular is still Bildgeschichte (History of Images). In Berlin, the Humboldt University has changed the name of the Institute of Art History to show the interest in both art and image history, it’s now the Institut für Kunst- und Bildgeschichte. But it’s a very complicated difference, anyway. I would consider myself belonging to Bildgeschichte instead of Bildwissenschaft. Bildgeschichte’s object of study is cultural history, art history and history of ideas. It’s a quite a new branch, but it comes from the Art History before 1933, from Aby Warburg and Erwin Panofsky. Martin Warnke took up this school and developed interest in the political iconography: every image has a meaning and the methodology you would need to interpret images might be the same as what we have for interpretation of art.

ET: Do you personally find the method of Bildgeschichte useful?

MF: Yes, I use it, I come from the Warburg school. I’ve studied both Warburg and Martin Warnke, I was at the university when Martin Warnke was teaching and I made my PhD by him. But the main methodology is Art History. Iconography comes from Warburg and Panofsky, who were really art historians. So the methodology hasn’t really changed; it was developed, of course, and political iconography is a very important branch of the Art History. You see it when you are looking at a poster or a stamp: you see an image and you have to analyse it. You have to say what it means to have a pictorial memory in your mind, remember that you recognise a man with a cudgel on a poster, so you might have already the idea of Hercules.

ET: Getting back to the present exhibition, you have stressed that although its general theme is the art processes of the Cold War period, your intent is to avoid common post-World War II polarisation and suggest an alternative grounding conception. So, we won’t see here antagonism of the Western and Eastern Europe, but rather a search for their common grounds?

MF: When Irene Weidmann from the Council of Europe asked me to make an exhibition about the Cold War in European art since 1945, then I already saw an exhibition divided into West and East, and thought: “Why? It’s so boring”. Then I started to think how to avoid this, how to choose and manage the material. I found the subject of the Cold War interesting, but I thought that we did it all the time and now we have to do something else. I talked to art historian Horst Bredekamp, who later wrote an article for the catalogue, and we came to the solution that we’ll suggest the Enlightenment as the general base, because the Socialism, for example, is the idea rooted in the Enlightenment. So I didn’t have the line, but I had an idea that might bring these two pieces – Western and Eastern Europe – together and help to avoid the Cold War terminology.

But then I read the dissertation Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (1954) by German historian Reinhardt Koselleck, and that has brought me to the idea that art criticise crises, there is always an idea that something goes wrong and in art they discuss it in a special way, not by writing, but by bringing it out in a painting, a film etc. So I found the conception of Koselleck quite interesting, because he said that it was the Enlightenment from where the idea of critique and crisis came, and that it will never end. That’s why there was an idea to make the exhibition in a form of a circle: we have a never-ending process of critique and crisis since the 17th–18th century – from 1789 the world has changed so much.    

ET: Initially the title of the exhibition project was Critique and Crisis, but later it has changed into The Desire for Freedom. Was it related to some developments in the conception?

MF: No, nothing has changed to the concept, only the title. I thought that it was too close to Koselleck’s thesis, so we discussed it and a group of students came out with the idea of The Desire for Freedom. So we took The Desire for Freedom, although I had some hesitations.

ET: Actually I quite like the idea you have developed, bringing out freedom as an essential category in art life: a freedom of an individual artist in the society, a freedom to reflect on the political and social processes and to criticise them.

MF: Of course, the exhibition deals with the idea of freedom: critique and crisis are only possible in freedom. When you stop criticising things, you have the dictatorship.

ET: Still, our museum preferred to continue with the concept of Critique and Crisis, as the idea of freedom in recent Estonian culture is too bound with the context of the Soviet occupation of the 1944–1992 and this dominating local connotation can prevent from seeing more general meaning of freedom. How do you feel about these “different freedoms”?  

MF: We didn’t discuss the idea of liberation within the project Critique and Crisis/The Desire for Freedom, but I did discuss it in relation to the exhibition Myths of the Nations. Arena of Memories. The liberation was actually one of the most important themes there, as in the Warsaw Pact the Soviet state was claiming that countries of Eastern and Central Europe were liberated from the Nazism by the Red Army and the communist resistance. It has changed after 1989, so the idea of liberation has now turned into the idea of occupation. We discussed these changes in the exhibition, observing how in 1989–1990 the partisans were regarded as collaborators and the collaborators became partisans. It was a big attempt to change the idea how to memorise World War II. So I understand you perfectly and I have nothing against the changed title, I personally like this version even more.  

ET: Is your purpose to create a balance in the post-war European art discourse revising the existing hierarchy with dominating Western Europe – or at first prepare a ground for these reconsideration? What do you think, is it possible to influence the (re)writing of art history via making exhibitions?

MF: Yes, of course. My first thought was if not to change the idea of art of the Eastern European countries, but at least show some alternatives. In 1995, I did an exhibition about commissioned art, which was dealing with the subject of “Auftragskunst” (state-sanctioned art) in the German Democratic Republic. I wanted to know what has happened in those 40 years of the GDR, in the period 1949–1990. So we took one piece from each year and found out that there was a development in a completely different direction than the West has thought. Thus, I had already an experience with the ignoring of the West in a way, ignorance from the West. We did a research on each art piece: how it became commissioned, what the artist had to do, how it was discussed and so on. But in the end it turned out that the artists at the end of the Stalinist Era, at least in the 1960-ies could do what they wanted to do. We did not discussed the material  in the terms of good or bad art, but we considered that after a certain time there was no discussion about the art piece – they were artists, they were paid and they could do what they wanted to do. Artworks were commissioned and it was the system that artists were paid, nothing else. Since the 1970-ies, there was no political background anymore: compared to the 1950-ies, everything has changed.

So, for the present project, I just wanted to know about the art in the Eastern Europe, as I knew nothing about it. I was in a way naïve, I just wanted to say that we need art that criticises – whatever happens, not only the system, but surrounding, just being aware of things. So another curator, Henry Meyric Hughes and I travelled around Europe and found quite a lot of art which criticised things that needed to be criticised. It was really easy to find the material for the exhibition and we found out that there was no difference in the quality, which was really good. And then I discovered the incredible arrogance of some Western historians. So I was asking questions like: do you know this artist? but are you sure that this art is better than this? There is a certain communication problem with Western European art historians and Eastern European art.

I think that, while going to this exhibition, it might be quite good not to make a difference in the chronology and not to say from which nation the artist is. We just have this context, we have this topic, we have this thematic relevance, so let’s just think about it in the room where you are and get all the different aspects about the problem, that’s all. So, I hope, there might be reconsiderations about the art history. I think there is actually no national problem. Sometimes there are really national or regional problems related to the Eastern Europe, like in Raul Meel’s series Under the (Estonian) Sky (1973) or Kaljo Põllu’s work Listener (Silence, 1968), which are now on the exhibition in Kumu. I hope we have showed different aspects on this exhibition. But some problems are very common. We have an artwork Untitled (1964) by Raymond Hains touching upon a demonstration attacked by the French police in the 1960-ies while protesting against the French colonial policy, in Algeria. Or the bomb in Wolf Vostell’s Lipstick Bomber (1968), referring to the Vietnam war. There were serious political conflicts and art took the advantage to talk about them.

I think we shouldn’t make such a big difference between the Western and Eastern art, but maybe rather think about the new history with the new values and new aspects, not only the national ones. I would like to make a conference about these issues during this term of European Union commissioned project in Berlin in 2014. We’ll discuss it again after I see that people don’t see any difference in the quality of the pieces in this exhibition. Do you see a difference in the quality, which piece comes from the Western and which from the Eastern Europe, which is from the North, which is from the South of Europe?

ET: Sometimes I do. But I agree with you that the quality is quite the same, as often do the topics. And it’s very interesting to see an imaginary dialogue you have established between different works and images, like the ear of Kaljo Põllu’s Listener and a very similar motif in the installation Approximation (1985/1987) by Franz West in the catalogue, though the latter is regretfully not exhibited in Kumu show. This is not only a conceptual dialogue, it works also on the visual parallels – you can really see the connections, grasp them visually.


  Franz West. Approximation. 1985/1987. Photo: MUMOK Art Museum


  Kaljo Põllu. Listener (Silence). 1968. Photo: Art Museum of Estonia

MF: I hope that the pieces are getting in touch via dialogue, like Absalon’s Solution (1992) and Tjebbe Beekman’s Palace (2005), Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Heil Marat (1989) and Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled (1962) etc. And you have Raul Meel’s Under the Sky in connection to Lucio Fontana’s Space Concept (1951), which is quite interesting too, I think. 


 Raul Meel. Form the series Under the (Estonian) Sky. 1973. Photo: Raul Meel


Lucio Fontana. Space Concept. 1951. Photo: Palazzo Reale, Milano

ET: Could you generally introduce the most important thematic sections of the exhibition? How were they formed?

MF: As I already mentioned before, Henry Meyric Hughes and I were travelling a lot in Europe, making our research, and we found all the topics from the art: it was a process. We were proceeding from what were the artists criticising: they have ideas about utopia, nature, the future – about everything, really. The only exception was the very first topic: while talking about the Enlightenment you have to deal with the category of reason, and this is also an important theme in the idea of revolution. The rest came out by looking at the art pieces, because artists were dealing with a wide range of problems: environment, nature, hope, how do we live, how do we want to live, what do we want (to do), what do we think, how do I feel, how do we deal with places where we live etc. So it was very easy to find those 12 topics.




Exhibition views. Photo: Art Museum of Estonia

ET: As this is a travelling exhibition, is it somehow adjustable to the context of every country where it takes place? Did you made something differently in Tallinn?

MF: No, it just depended from the lender, who would give the art piece or not. We didn’t want to change anything and wanted to bring the whole exhibition to Milan and Tallinn, and in 90 % it worked. Of course, the design has changed, so the exhibition looked completely different in Tallinn, Milan and Berlin, which is wonderful.

ET: Basically it is a certain material you would like to show equally, to test at the places with different backgrounds?

MF: Yes. It’s an international European exhibition with international European artists and the context doesn’t change that radically. In a way, we want to bring together all these countries. We want to think on the European scale, so it wasn’t necessary to change something. So far no one told me that we should or shouldn’t do it, so I suppose it works as good for Tallinn as for Milan and Berlin.

ET: It’s very democratic – everyone gets the equal message.

MF: Yes, the most important message is that European ideals are coming from the Enlightenment and that all of us are dealing with these ideals, even if we are from different regions and countries. Of course, we have the right for our national interest, but we should also relate to the European community. Just to sit on the table together with people form Estonia, Great Britain, Poland, Norway, France and Austria was impossible 20 years ago. In Tallinn, Milan and Berlin, while constructing the exhibition, so many nations sat around the table, which is really wonderful. So it’s not only a European exhibition, it’s a European project with people from everywhere. It’s a project of people, of an idea with people, let’s say it like this.   

ET: In every country you had experts who have recommended local artists to you – to what extend did you follow their advice and how much decisions did you do by yourself? You said you were travelling and researching a lot.

MF: Henry Meyric Hughes and I have travelled to different countries. We talked with all the researchers, authors, and art critics (some of them became writers). Mostly we followed their advice, but sometimes it didn’t work, because some work would not fit in the topics, and sometimes we didn’t like it, I think everyone has the right to say “no”. But it didn’t happen very often. Sometimes there were too many art pieces from one country, so we had to make a smaller selection. Mostly everything was discussed with the experts. They sent us their ideas and we discussed them, then we made the final selection with the curators Henry Meyric Hughes and Ulrike Schmiegelt. I had the last vote. I think we did it quite well, all of us, no one is really annoyed with the selection, at least I haven’t heard about it.

ET: It must be a challenge to keep this balance – no one is annoyed, neither offended.

MF: It was a lot of work. You need to have a lot of time to talk to each other – in all 36 countries.

ET: Talking about the numbers, I can imagine it was a great amount of work – can you give some more “statistics” just to understand the scale of your research?   

MF: We have now 180 artists in the catalogue. We had a trouble with one artist, so we decided not to include his work. But it was only one artist, the rest were quite happy. If it was possible, we visited some of them on our way. Still, we didn’t want that artists would write the essay: we wanted a research by art historian, not an artistic statement. In the end, with the museums, researchers, authors of the essays and artists we had, I think, a network with more than 1000 people. You have 36 countries and if you have 10 artworks from each one, which is not much, you already have the scale around 400. Then you have all the transporters, all the curators and workers in different museums. With 6 main participants – Estonia, Poland, Germany, Italy, Greek, Czech – you already have 100 people you have to deal with all the time. But, of course, I wasn’t alone – no one could do it just by himself, we had a team. And there was Ragne Nukk, who looked after the exhibition in Tallinn and organised everything, as well as in Milan there was Christina Schenk, coordinator of Palazzo Reale.

ET: How relevant do you find the exhibition to present political processes – in the context of European Union, but also in the world? How does the pan-European attitude you were talking about interact with the so-called post-European condition?

MF: I don’t know really how important that exhibition is, but I see that in Germany the idea of the exhibition is very relevant right now. Thought our project wasn’t mentioned, a really big weekly magazine Zeit made a supplement with a special edition dedicated to the things we need like freedom, light – all the topics we were dealing at the exhibition. A common idea about the freedom acquired via revolution is now actual in Egypt, for example – nothing new hasn’t yet been invented. The idea of the exhibition is quite important, but I cannot predict the impact. Nevertheless, the European Council has supported the exhibition and there have been already three venues, the fourth one will be in Kraków. Also, there will be another exhibition in Thessaloniki and Prague. We have so many people involved, and so many people put their energies in the project, so I hope the idea of it will have some success.

ET: This exhibition might become a milestone, suggesting another perspective for the Art History writing, at least in Europe. Also, while talking about the contemporary art, you probably won’t think that often how many roots it has in the Enlightenment and its ideas.

MF: Yes, but the democracy, revolution are the ideas of the Enlightenment. Ideal of equality and the idea of the happiness on the earth, not in heaven, have inspired Socialism.

ET: It must have been very interesting to go back to the roots of the idea and trace its later developments.

MF: It was an opportunity to deal with the topic of Cold War – to find something in common, not to talk again about differences.

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