“The hangover really ought to be over at some point.”
The Rhineland is – depending on the individual mood – either the beginning of things or the end of it. When Cologne advanced to a world capital of the arts during the 1980s, the museum Ludwig received a spectacular new building in the immediate vicinity of the Cologne Cathedral for its tenth anniversary. Contemporary art had made its way into the heart of the city. Roughly at that time, a young man in the neighbouring city of Bonn decided to study art history. While Cologne is mentioned in the same breath as New York, brings forth several sustained artistic careers and in its bars negotiates the co-existence of art and theory, said young man by the name of Yilmaz Dziewior emerges himself into Mies van der Rohe’s architecture.
Cologne loses the majority of its galleries and soon after that also its vibrant arts scene to Berlin. Meanwhile Yilmaz Dziewior writes about new art, curates his very first exhibitions and becomes director of Hamburg’s Kunstverein in 2001, as well as professor of art history at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg. From 2009 on he directs the Kunsthaus Bregenz, until he is called back to the Rhineland as he takes over the vacant position as art director at Museum Ludwig in February this year. Caught between his work at the museum, the opening of the Austrian pavillion at the Venice Biennale and several other obligations to do with Art Cologne, he talks to Kaput about his personal background and professional career, which has not always been without any problems, about the retrospective on Sigmar Polke which was opened in March and, of course, about the Rhineland.
When did you fall in love with art?
During my senior classes. I am from, as they say, a rather uneducated milieu. My parents didn’t have anything to do with what would in the broadest sense be referred to as culture. But then we had a good art teacher at school who taught a little bit of art history, at least the different styles of the 20th century. I noticed how fascinated I was by that, while my fellow classmates were mostly amused by it. I was interested in it, even though I didn’t really understand it. I wouldn’t take it as literally, but I think it was Diedrich Diederichsen who once said that the more fascinating people were to be found in the arts. I soon realized that these kinds of, let’s say “stranger” people, were of a certain interest to me. Maybe also because I didn’t understand them.
Even though the world of pop as a place for kooky people would have suggested itself much more obviously for a teenager at the beginning of the 1980s.
Exactly, but I am completely free from talent in that regard. I tried very briefly to sing in a band and realised that it was not for me. The role of the supporter of a band would have appealed much more to me.
At the same time there were connections between pop and contemporary art back then.
I didn’t quite realize that back then. In my classes we talked about Kricke or Beuys. Personally, I was rather interested in 20th century art, above all post-war.
Did you not have to think about what kind of legendary openings you may have missed out on in Cologne back in those days?
I was born in 1964, but I was very much a late bloomer. Graduated late from school, then, absurdly enough, joined the armed forces for a year and opted out again during that year. I was always extremely late with things. When I started studying art history I was already 21 or 22. And during my studies I went through the whole repertoire, starting in the Middle Ages, on to the Renaissance, up until Max Beckmann and Mies van der Rohe. In 1989 I spent one year of my studies in London. Now you could of course say, that London obviously had a fantastic arts scene – Frieze, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and the whole movement originated during that time. I didn’t notice anything of that at all. I went to my classes and read about Van Dyck in the library at Courtauld Institute – which was simply fantastic. The English university system is a lot like being at school in the beginning. I got back in 1990 and a friend of mine, Christiane Meixner, wrote pieces for the Bonner Rundschau Magazine and I thought that I also wanted to be more involved, more active. So I started writing for that newspaper as well and for the city magazine Schnüss. Soon after that came the magazine “Texte zur Kunst” and all of a sudden I found myself at the centre of contemporaneity. But it really did take a while, probably until my late twenties, until I really started engaging with my contemporaries on a serious level.
So writing was actually what got you involved with the arts scene.
I wanted to study, take in information, but I also wanted to produce things. At the institute of art history we had a so-called “exhibition-group” and we put on exhibitions about the design of the 1930s or exhibitions featuring the art of contemporary female artist. I was involved in that and realised that that was what I wanted to do: put on exhibitions and write texts. In comparison to other CVs that realisation took place quite late in my life.
Was it in a way a similar realisation as the one I had concerning pop music, transferred to the arts – the moment when you realized that that was as close as you wanted to get, not be an artist yourself, but remain in an oberserving position?
I had already noticed that in school. The fact that it was easier for me to talk about art than produce it myself.
Have you ever tried to find a way out of the arts scene again?
I really wouldn’t know where that way out would lead me. For starters it’s really the only thing that I am qualified to do. I have defined the area of arts for myself in a very broad way. I am interested in theatre, music, film and architecture – my PhD, for example, was about Mies van der Rohe. Since I engage with both male and female artists whose work is not strictly limited to one of these genres, my main interest might still be contemporary art and 20th centure art, but since my interests go beyond that into other areas, I don’t feel the need to give up fine arts, since I feel very much connected to all these other domains.
I was also referring to the lamentations concerning the present situation in the arts, which seem to have increased over recent years.
I would have to agree with that to a certain extent, for instance concerning the present status of the arts market. I’d also have to agree that there is a strange process of materialisation. You could of course say that for example Tizian had a massive art studio and back then the market and all these things played into it. However, taking into account all these considerations of efficiency which have made their way into the cultural sector, starting off with the degree courses themselves with their modular structure, the whole system of bachelor programmes and master programmes … I concluded my studies before that and it was really nice to be able to take time and engage with things at leisure – which can be extremely productive – and not just get them done and over with in order to pass a course for the sake of passing it. Taken from my personal experience as a teacher, I often got the feeling that a lot of students were not there, because they were genuinely interested, but because they had to be there, since their course of studies required it. In my opinion that is pretty frustrating and not the way it should be – that’s why I would have to agree with the criticism concerning that system. To me personally, the productive potential that is also present in this area prevails eventually, even if I can also tell where ought to be done more.
Would this reproach not only then be justified, if there was a claim to the arts of being avantgarde? If the arts reflected their times, then art as a product of an inevitably efficient and market-oriented environment would actually be an apt representation.
There is still a difference in reflecting given circumstances and confirming them in a way. The problem that I see in some of the present developments, is that confirmation outweighs reflexion. With the things that I am involved in, whether it’s “October”, “Texte zur Kunst” or “Artforum”, the critical approach already determines a certain distance – even though, as we all know, there certainly is no such thing as an outside perspective any more. I am certainly more involved in criticism, but if you look at it percentually, it’s not presumptuous to say that how we deal with the circumstances of our time is mostly very affirmative.
It often seems to me that the way criticism is conducted results in a limitation of its possible audience since a certain level of education is required to be able to partake in discourse.
I wouldn’t say so in general. Even the domain of the arts that I am involved in is so diverse that there are a lot of different options to get involved. At Museum Ludwig, we offer highly specialised lectures by brilliant critics or theorists, and of course, in this instance a certain level of prior knowledge of the subject matter is helpful. But at the same time there is our “Artlab” which offers a whole new kind of mediation for children and young people. On top of that we offer a wide range of tours through our collections.
My question refers to the Polke retrospective which has only recently been opened: it seems to me that the critical element, above all in his earlier works, was much more immediate if compared to current contributions.
Of course, but you have to bear in mind that it was a different time. You mentioned Polke, but also for instance Immendorf’s “Wo stehst Du Kollege?”, it made complete sense at that time and got exactly to the heart of things. But if someone was to work with the same sense of immediacy nowadays, it might well be difficult, since the times have become increasingly complex. It can make sense, as you can see with Polke’s work who has later gone on to create entirely different works of art which are in my opinion in no way less critical, even if their positioning in relation to issues of everyday politics is not as immediate.
Do you think that it is maybe due to a certain cultural environment, certain phases and moments of change maybe, in which such a language of immediacy can work better and go past commonplaces? It appears to me as highly complex criticism on the one hand and on the other hand there is this affirmative side, we already talked about, to it – when things are simply considered “cool”, all reasoning aside.
So you mean, simply “like” and “dislike” things? Yes, I think that there is a parallel in developments. If you look at the artists born in the late 1980s, early 1990s, the so called post-internet-generation, then I notice that there are simplifications on some levels, but at the same time, the things that are being discussed, are of an increasing complexity.
Personally, I don’t think it is a bad thing that there is a break with genealogical knowledge. That it is not an entry requirement to know certain theorists to continue an exisiting discourse.
I agree, it’s not necessarily the case anymore. Even if I have to say that there were complete nerds who seemed to know absolutely everything in my classes at the university in Hamburg and then students who did not seem to be interested in being like that at all. I believe that these drastically different groups have to be able to coexist.
I find that there seems to be a lot of energy in forgetting and also in discovering completely new influences.
Yes, or as you said, among other things, in simplification.
If we apply that to Polke then that would take us to his more colourful side. As someone who was born in 1964 in Bonn, don’t you see this unbelievable bourgeois sadness in his works of the early to mid-seventies?
Absolutely! A lot of his works reflect that in an incredibly way and he manages to accentuate it even more by not only portraying this weird kind of gloomy dreariess with all its claustrophic and conservative aspects, but by topping these scenarios with herons who look like flamingos and all that in the most vibrant colours. This is where he excels. Capturing this sadness and heightening it in such a hysterical manner, I like that a lot.
Did you personally feel that kind of sadness as a child?
I believe I was not that reflective back then. Much to the contrary. But I have to say that I had a very – well, “unconventional” sounds so very positive – so let’s say a childhood that was not overly sheltered, so I had completely different problems than consciously perceiving the dreariness of my surroundings. There were other things: I did not go to school, not because I wanted to rebel, but simply because no one took care of me and so I was not too perceptive when it came to things like that.
Do you think that this kind of mugginess in the way that Polke depicts it can also be related to in London or New York?
I think the people there draw a different kind of experience from it. They recognize Baader, if you make it accessible to them, they recognise the politics referring to that specific era, which manifests itself in the works of art. The impact politics had was not at all limited to Germany. You can tell that from Polke’s films of that time, featuring English and American talkshows, when it comes to the limitations of NS-crimes. It might be something that gets more attention, even if the society in the US and the UK both were certainly antiquated in their own right, too. But this specific touch of West Germany that exactly is one of the reasons why I consider it so important to put on this exhibition in Germany and then above all in Cologne. All the collaborations with other artists, the community in Willich, there is a whole different level of connectivity to it.
Do you have a favourite piece within the exhibition?
I wouldn’t be able to name just one, there are so many great pieces like “Wurstesser”, who is very much to the point. Or the head which is part of our collection, but was not part of the first two stops. I really like that one because it holds forms of abstraction and figuration in suspense and renders them very productive. If you look at it for the first time, you think that it is merely a versicolour display of colours allover, but when you look closely and your eyes have managed to adjust themselves after a while, then all of a sudden this head inside of it all emerges. And then there is this phase of “toxic” colours. But all in all it’s more of a favourite approach. What I appreciate most about Polke is the unpredictability. That you simply wouldn’t know how he’d react. You can detect these radical changes in his oeuvre as well. He had made a name for himself with his works with screen dots and all of a sudden, after he had travelled the world, he returns with these immense abstract paintings for the Venice Biennial. That was something that caused quite a stir and everybody wondered what kind of formal exercise that must have been and then just a little later or around the same time Polke does these dots, like “Polizeischwein”, which rightfully is placed there, too. Being unpredictable and escaping the comprehensible that’s an attitude that I admire very much and not just that one work of art, even if some of them are very powerful in their own right.
You already mentioned that when you referred to “toxic”colours …
Well, yes, but I did not mean it in the sense of those colours being toxic, but simply colours that are glaring and loud.
But there are pieces with these toxic colours, like Polke’s arsenic green.
When I look at these massive pieces of art, it seems to me to be a stylistic anticipation of current trends.
Nowadays plurality in style is a given, as well as the transcension of just one medium, which, back then, was still unusual. It becomes unusual to refer to artists as merely “painter” or “sculptor”. Even if I don’t see as many younger artists referring to these big works of art. But I can tell how extremely influential Polke was for my personal favourites Kai Althoff or Cosima von Bonin. You can see Polke everywhere, but also Kippenberger, Oehlen, the generation prior to that. An inspiration for great people, not as much for imitators.
Speaking of imitators, I thought that of the currently debated US-American abstract painters, who simply adopt a few technical aspects.
You mean just like in the exhibition “Painting for Ever” who yet also features very talented artists. Yes, you might in fact find those kinds of reminiscences of Polke there.
How about the “here and now” at the museum?
Well, we are a museum of the 20th and 21st century and my first exhibition deals with what is “here and now”. Danh Võ and then the second one that I have already been working on for three years is Joan Mitchell – certainly from nowadays’ perspective historical, even if I consider her extremely relevant, above all her attitude. It is indeed very suitable for me to be working in this museum. My expertise is the 20th and 21st century, so it’s ideal.
Talking about the museum, how would you define its position on an international level? Which international museums would you compare it with?
It’s not surprising that we are cooperating with the MoMa and the Tate for the Polke exhibition. Centre Pompidou as well. These are museums with similar collections, even if the MoMa is of course bigger in every possible way. But these are museums that we work with.
My question was also aimed at the general perspective on Cologne. It seems that for the young generation it’s not as heavily determined by a never-ending mood of depression and resignation towards Berlin, but yet, seen with a little distance, it seems that their identity has not yet completely been defined.
Above all with the opening of the Polke exhibition, I thought that the variety of people who were there was fantastic: Thomas Schütte, Andreas Gurski, Georg Herold, Michael Krebber, Cosima von Bonin, Alex Bircken – to only name a few. You could really tell how much potential the Rhineland has. There was this euphoric spirit of optimism. So I really think that this blues should be over at some point.
When we first had a conversation at some boring party you immediately asked me who my favourite artist was.
Ha, my favourite question! (laughs) Well: my favourite trick question. It is such a seemingly undifferentiated question that reveals so much and requires taking a stance. Of course I am very glad if the answer unexpectedly involves favourite artists of mine, which is always a good opportunity for discussion. Or if you find yourself confronted with someone rather unlikeable and it turns out that they have the very same favourite artists as you do. It’s just a means of getting to know the person opposite you and to a certain extent the joy of simplifying things, which can be very productive. I certainly said “Kai Althoff”, I mostly do.
As far as I remember you did not give a specific name.
I usually do that immediately. It’s not my intention to simply push other people for an answer, I also want to expose myself to a certain extent.
Yilmaz, thank you very much for this conversation.
Translation by Tanita Sauf.