Reports and Interviews From: Germany
Artist Katya Gardea Browne Interviews Critic Ludwig Seyfarth
Gardea Browne: By which criteria do you choose the art that interests you and what qualities do you look for in an artist?
Ludwig Seyfarth: It’s difficult to give a general answer to this question. Mainly I like art that is concerned with the real problems of the world, that shows a personal viewpoint and has an emotional impact. I also think all good art has to be convincing in its form and aesthetics. To be honest, my choice of artists, those that I write on or invite to participate in exhibitions, is based more on intuition than on any analytic criteria I could fully verbalize.
Browne: Do you think the driving force behind the practice of art making now is different than the concerns of artists in the past?
Seyfarth: I don’t think so, only if you mean the difference from a past when artists were working for the court, the church, or on private commissions and not for the market. There is no general concern shared by all artists, because different artists work from totally different ideas and backgrounds and are not separate from the world and the reality they live in. If people ask me what direction art will take in the future, I always answer that it will depend on the changes in the world—subsequent art will react to them. So, if you cannot predict what will happen in the world, you cannot predict what will happen in art.
Browne: When I met you, you were writing about a blind collector who wanted to sell a painting that was no longer there; I feel that there is a constant concern in your practice, which has to do with humor. Is this correct?
Seyfarth: For me humor in art is essential. That doesn’t mean I don’t like serious-mindedness. Issues which are serious should be taken seriously, in art as in life, but that shouldn’t exclude humor. In my opinion, humor can be very helpful to avoid a form of “pure moralism,” which often lacks artistic inspiration. I also think irony can be used as a powerful means of social and political criticism, by saying, for example, exactly the contrary of what is meant as a satirical comment on official political speeches that ignore social realities.
But many people, including artists and curators, don’t like irony so much today. Perhaps irony has been overstressed a little in postmodern times, where nearly everything was put in “quotes,” so that it became almost impossible to say something directly and be taken seriously at the same time. To use irony in images is a bit easier than in written or spoken language, because here ironic double-sense immediately faces the limits of translation. I nevertheless like to use irony and play with words in my texts. Fortunately, I can work with very good translators.
Browne: You have been living in Berlin for some time now. Is this still your favorite city?
Seyfarth: I like living in Berlin because the art scene is very international, and you always meet interesting people. Even if you and I first met at Art Cologne about seven years ago, when you were living in Berlin, we then got in touch and you were soon participating in the Kunsthalle Berlin-Lichtenberg project I did with Dorothee Albrecht in 2007, which was our first collaboration. But the fresh atmosphere of Berlin at that time and since the ’90s has already partly vanished, as have the low rents for studios and apartments, which have increased more and more during the last several years. Lately, I find all the big and small art events taking place at the same time a bit exhausting, since so many interesting things don’t gain enough attention.
For an art critic, Berlin is still the best place to live in Germany, but for a curator, other places can be more interesting. For four years now, I have been regularly working as a curator for KAI 10 | Arthena Foundation in Düsseldorf, which is an exhibition space showing international group shows of contemporary art. In the current exhibition Backdoor Fantasies, which I curated together with Julia Höner, we show artists like Aernout Mik, Michael Beutler, Anna K.E., Isa Melsheimer, and Ludger Gerdes.
I like to work in Düsseldorf or Cologne, because despite the large number of artists who abandon both cities to live in Berlin and the lack of internationality compared to Berlin, you still feel a strong tradition of showing and discussing contemporary art being nurtured there. When Germany was still divided, the Rhine area was the international center of contemporary art in West Germany and many American artists made their international career in either Cologne or Düsseldorf.
In Germany today, Berlin is the most international place to be, but sometimes I feel a kind of relief when working in smaller art scenes, where you often find more interesting artists than expected. This is the case in Bremen, where I am the curator of the show for the Bremen Art Spring in May of this year. Bremen has a very good art university with some internationally famous artists teaching there. Just like Hamburg, the city I come from, which is the partner city of this Kunstfruehling event.
Browne: Which other city outside Germany would you choose to live in, if you had the opportunity, and what places are you excited about?
Seyfarth: In Europe, I like Brussels a lot. It is a lively and interesting place for art attracting lots of foreign artists. Looking worldwide, New York might be still one of the most interesting places for art. But to visit Mexico City was even more interesting for me, and I’m not saying that to flatter you. I like places where you can literally experience the big cultural and economic changes and the conflicts of our time. Mexico City is one of them. Also Istanbul, where Europe and the Islamic world meet. Compared to these cities, Berlin is a kind of provincial village. The cultural scene is very international, even global, but as a whole, the city is not.
Browne: How did you decide to become an art critic and what is it like to be a critic in Germany today?
Seyfarth: Like nearly all of my colleagues, maybe not only in Germany, I didn’t leave school for university with my mind set on becoming an art critic. You cannot study “Art Criticism” like art history, which I studied at Hamburg University. As a student in the 1980s, I was already interested in being in touch with artists, and at the University of the Fine Arts of Hamburg, I met the art student Bernd Skupin, who knew many other artists and brought me into contact with them. He was also a writer and when he had the opportunity to be the art critic for a monthly city magazine in Hamburg, he asked me to do the job together with him. He later became a full time journalist and has had a permanent job at Vogue magazine in Munich for a long time now. Also, I have continued writing reviews and other texts for newspapers and art magazines, although less so in the past 10 years. The focus of my writing is now more on essays for catalogues and other book publications. In recent years, my curatorial practice has taken priority.
Most of the about 200 members of AICA Germany don’t make their living primarily by working as art critics. Many are museum curators, or teachers at art schools, for example. Only a handful of writers have fixed jobs for magazines or newspapers, and very few freelance art critics can make a living only from writing. For me it’s still a miracle that I more or less did for many years. I think, nevertheless, that the conditions for art criticism in Germany are better than in most other countries. But also due to the difficulties newspapers face trying to survive in the digital age, there is a global situation of increasing stagnation and the future of Internet publication doesn’t look easy, either. The leading Internet art magazine in Germany, artnet.de, to which I have contributed regularly for some years was suddenly closed down in 2012 for economic reasons, even though it had many more readers than most of the German-language printed art magazines. I always got a lot of feedback on my articles.
Browne: What advice do you have for artists, art writers, or curators who are just starting out?
Seyfarth: The only advice I can give is, as for all young people interested in the art world, that you have to be really dedicated to becoming an artist, art historian, curator, or art critic. You should love what you are doing, instead of looking for fame, economic success, etc. If success comes up, you are lucky, but you better not expect it.
Browne: What book are you reading at the moment?
Seyfarth: I am reading Kafka’s Creatures by Jochen Thermann as part of the preparation for my next show in Düsseldorf, which, like other shows I’ve done at KAI 10, will be a collaboration with the fantastic and very experienced curator, Zdenek Felix, former director of Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. The show Lost Paradise, opening in October 2014, will focus on the relationships between humans, animals and nature.
Browne: As a curator, do you recognize a gender preference in the art world, or do you even think about this? How do you see female artists in their long-term career practice and is there a difference you recognize in their male counterparts?
Seyfarth: If I count the male and female artists I recently have written about or shown in exhibitions, there is a larger number of women. I don’t really think about it, and, in principle, I think that’s the right way to deal with the gender problem. You do, of course, still have to think about the gender problem as long as female artists are confronted with disadvantages, especially in the art market. Sometimes I am astonished that sexist opinions which should be entirely obsolete—for example, that successful painters have to be men—still persist in our times. Also, many of my favorite male artists are not in the top ranks of economic success. I am sure that if quality alone decided, even more women artists than men would be on top, particularly in the younger generation.
In the National Galerie in Berlin last year, Udo Kittelmann presented what was, in my opinion, a curatorial nonsense show with four male painters: Martin Eder, Michael Kunze, Anselm Reyle, and Thomas Scheibitz, none of them aesthetically suited to the other. This inspired me to do a show, which I have not yet been able to realize, consisting of four female painters I like very much, who would be presented together as a “girls gang,” a kind of ironic comment on the post-pubescent “boyish” attitude of many male artists that is supported by many curators.Arnold Schoenberg once said Johannes Brahms wrote music for adult people. I like art for adult people.
ContributorsKatya Gardea Browne
Katya Gardea Browne is a Mexico City-based artist with a BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and an MFA from Yale University. Her practice incorporates a vocabulary of video installation, sculpture, and painting, raising questions of positioning and materiality as well as a constant concern with the body, architecture, and cross-cultural contexts. She has shown at Museo Experimental el Eco in Mexico City, SAFI Santa Fe Art Institute, Kunsthalle Berlin-Lichtenberg, Architecture for Art Gallery, Museo de la Ciudad de México, and Dumbo Arts Center, among others. Her recent show at Art Laboratory Berlin was part of her socially concerned practice and research. She is currently living between Mexico City and Berlin.Ludwig Seyfarth
Ludwig Seyfarth is a freelance author and curator based in Berlin who has written extensively both for exhibition catalogues and the art press. Seyfarth was a visiting professor from 2000 - 01 at the HBK Braunschweig, at the University of the Fine Arts of Hamburg from 2002 - 04 and at the Academy of Fine Arts Münster from 2010 - 12. In 2007 he received the ADKV-Art Cologne prize for art criticism. He has curated numerous exhibitions at venues ranging from Kunsthaus Hamburg and Villa Merkel in Esslingen am Neckar to ZKM in Karlsruhe. Since 2010 he has been a curator for KAI 10 | Arthena Foundation in Düsseldorf. He is a member of the board of AICA Germany.
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