Care and Obligation

Fatima Hellberg, the recently appointed director of the Bonner Kunstverein, on creating a programme with energy, presence and visual intelligence.

Fatima Hellberg was recently appointed director of Bonner Kunstverien in Germany.

Even though Fatima Hellberg has held several curatorial positions in London and Germany over the last decade, her presence is less well known in a Nordic context. She grew up in Sweden, studied at Oxford, and was named Artistic Director of Künstlerhaus Stuttgart in 2015, a position she held until just the other day, when she started her new appointment as director of Bonner Kunstverein, a medium-sized kunsthalle in Bonn, one of Germany’s oldest cities, and the capital of West Germany 1949–1990. Among the alumni of the city’s university are both  Marx and Nietzsche.

With a thoughtfulness that is rarely seen among today’s young curators, Hellberg seems to go against the flow and develop projects over many years. Her bookshelves seem to contain as many spiritual and psychological considerations as they do queer feminist and postcolonial theory. She highlights artists such as David Medalla and Ellen Cantor – as well as psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s object relations theory – as models for her work as a curator. She emphasises the importance of dialogue and care, while at the same time wishing to reflect on the German tradition of the Kunstverein, a cultural-political construct which originated in the 1830s among the bourgeoisie, and was reinforced in postwar Germany. Today, each state controls its own cultural policy with relative autonomy, which has often encouraged an experimental attitude among these comparatively small member-based institutions.

In the midst of moving to Bonn, Hellberg took the time to talk to Kunskritikk via Skype from Stuttgart. Interviewing her turns out to be akin to interval training: her answers are condensed and free of superfluous fillers; she goes straight to the core of the question. Any lapses in concentration, however brief, might mean that you miss an interesting idea.

Can you start by talking a bit about yourself and your background?

I was born in Malmö and went to school in Stockholm and Berlin. I would say that I knew from a relatively early age that I wanted to work with art. I grew up around it, and found myself fascinated by its ways of being a sort of parallel playing field, able to get close to the real, but on somewhat semi-autonomous terms. I also liked the space of the studio, not as a maker per se, but somehow fascinated with this space, with the process and conversation, early impulses which I guess lead me to curating.

I studied art history at Oxford and then Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art. Living in London around 2009, I started working at Electra and thereafter Cubitt, two self-organised institutions with different approaches and histories, and which, I would say, both shaped my work and approach in quite fundamental ways. For the last five years, I’ve been artistic director of Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, where I’ve curated exhibitions with amongst others Ellen Cantor, Ghislaine Leung, Bruce Conner, Gregg Bordowitz, Hildegarde Duane, James Richards and Leslie Thornton, shows which ran in parallel and often in conjunction with a programme of discursive events, performances and publishing projects. Something which fascinated me with Künstlerhaus was both its quality as an institution but also as a house, with workshops, studios and exhibition spaces, connected across four levels, and made me think relatively early on about the linkages between these different functions, and the connection between the inside and outside, thoughts which played an important role in a rebuild in collaboration with Simon Jones Studio and Matheson Whiteley.

This ongoing on-site work and reflection was also coupled with shows and conversations with external collaborators and exchanges, as with Speed 2 at Malmö Konsthall, a show I curated earlier this year with James Richards.

James Richards, Phrasing, 2018. Courtesy of the artist; Cabinet, London; Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin; Rodeo, London/Piraeus. Photo: Frank Kleinbach.

How would you describe your work as a curator?

Many of the institutions I have worked with in the past have been initiated or run by artists. For me, this has been an important framework practically and conceptually and also, to some extent, in terms of an outlook or ethos. I would describe it as an artist-centred and discursive approach. What starts as an exhibition can become a dialogue that you revisit and transform into further collaborations. My work contains a desire for a certain responsiveness to the conditions and evolutions of a practice. This is a process which often starts small, but which then also becomes part of another reflection, of the communicability and presence of the work in relation to a viewer. In these processes, the institutional structures are not just a theoretical or silent framework in the background, but something which shapes both content and form.

Is the size of the institution vital, or can the artistic director bring a certain structure to a new place?

Bonner Kunstverein does not have an artist-run past, but I still want to bring elements of the outlook that come with closely observing and working with the visible and invisible elements of the artistic process. When I worked as a curator at Electra – an organisation with no fixed space and with a long-running dialogue with gender and feminism – it became important to negotiate the conditions on a project by projects basis. We would oscillate between curating and producing projects in large-scale institutions like Tate, and then shift towards small and independent initiatives, a mode of working which led to thoughts about what “fixed structures” signify and involve. Although there are good reasons for the emergence of many institutional structures, I still find it important to question and test other models, also at larger institutions. A long-running concern is how a subject matter can move deeper, rather than being speech acts or surface structures, how strands from feminist thought and practice for instance can expand into the fabric of the institution.

View of Bonner Kunstverein with Banu Cennetoğlus A Problematic Triad: Yellow Red Green (2015). Photo: Simon Vogel.

Expanded how?

I am interested in what happens when a feminist approach is internalised and becomes part of the foundation, so to speak. That is, being a part of the exhibition programme, but also operating as an undercurrent in structures and processes of how you work. An artist who has inspired my thinking on this is Ellen Cantor. Her work has a tendency to move between different scales. Part of the challenge of this method – a challenge that it purposefully courts – is the way it brings together political structures and historical trauma with subjective experience. It may seem absurd, hubristic or even self-pitying to bring these scales together, which Cantor does, and directly insensitive to equate them, which she never does. She works with the personal as the political, without accepting this equation as self-evident: personal experiences are linked to political structures, but they do not produce ready-made political arguments. Cantor’s feature-length film Pinochet Porn [2008–16] activates a friction that complicates clear lines of affinity and ideology, a pursuit of an ethics without moralism. This position is both epic and absolutely everyday, because it remains close to life and at the same time it uses ways of absurdism and abstraction that make the work both intimate and dangerous, in the best sense.

Your approach to the curatorial seems to be one that obliterates the dichotomy between the institutional and the anti-institutional. This relates to decolonisation, which has been a recurring perspective at art schools and conferences in recent years. How does one reconcile these different perspectives in a practice?

I recently had an epiphany in conversation with art historian Sabeth Buchmann. She was talking about how the legacy of the historical avant-garde can be combined with feminist and postcolonial thinking, how deconstruction can be combined with ideals and values which want to redefine and create new structures. Identity politics without this belief risks becoming what the philosopher Achille Mbembe has called an “identity fetishism,” which is subtly rooted in an individualistic and fragmented neoliberal ideology. Mbembe talks about the importance of a way of looking that is humble, and that emphasises care and caring in a kind of “planetary decolonisation.” I think what these thoughts are looking for, and what fascinates me, is the effort to move the conversation forward – to understand power and structures in ways that reflect the globalised and, from an ecological perspective, extremely fragile time we are in.

Ellen Cantor, installation view from Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, 2016. Photo: Frank Kleinbach.

How will this be part of your programme at Bonner Kunstverein?

The programme comprises a combination of generations and contexts, and an exploration of care and obligation. There is a tension there in care and obligation, touching upon our ambivalent, and often troubled, relation with our inherent and inescapable connectedness with each other, with other beings and the environment. The Filipino artist David Medalla belongs to an avant-garde tradition and has a long-running exploration of time, collective structures and co-habitation, but at the same time explores an idiom and an approach that goes beyond canonised forms of Western radical aesthetics. His work is queer, moving between media and forms from social and kinetic sculptures to contemplative works in painting and drawing.

Another artist in the upcoming programme is Lucie Stahl, Stahl’s scanned images tend to layer and combine scenery of production and its excess and waste – a form of contemporary archeology, opening up to views that are at once apocalyptic and sensuously beautiful. There is an ongoing dialogue with the social subconscious that extends between the domestic, the embodied and the infrastructural – moving beyond food packaging and into thinking around the mechanics of society. I’m also working on a book with James Richards and Leslie Thornton entitled Divine Drudgery, which builds on conversations concerned with specific psychic and temporal states, rushes of interconnectedness and scientific wonder, as well as a sense of ecological dread and paranoia. These aspects of the programme are in dialogue with certain more fundamental notions around “critique and affirmation,” an attempt to allow an ambivalence and tension between picking apart and putting together, or mending.

In past projects you have addressed a kind of embodied institutional critique, including the sensual and sensory. Is this something you want to continue developing?

My first exhibition opens in September 2020, and I’m currently developing the programme of exhibitions, events, talks, and publications for the next couple of years. It’s important to me to learn more about Bonn and its cultural life, but also the region, in Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Essen. But as you say, the sensory dimensions of the exhibitions are important to the programme.

Working with the exhibition space interest me – how it can become a proposal and a temporary world with its own inner logic, linked to the outside world, but which also offers its own possibilities. In this approach, the space is not a neutral container, but material to be processed, staged, and worked through, and understood as a physical and embodied whole. A concept that plays an important role in this thinking is the psychoanalyst and child psychologist Donald Winnicott’s notion of the “holding environment.” Winnicott reflected on the early, and then gradually shifting dependency on being held, using this as a metaphor for how structures and institutions “hold us.” Winnicott begins with that simple relational state to then describe subtle shifts in scale, but also in affect – shifts between care, safety, control, or even violence. It is a method and perspective that also plays a role in an upcoming exhibition in the programme in Bonn.

Adelhyd van Bender, Das Atom ist unbesiegbar, undated, Malmö Konsthall, 2019.

Will you, in the words of Henning Boecker, chairman of the board of the Bonner Kunstverein, “engage and explore anew the identity and topicality of the ‘Kunstverein model’,” and if so, how?

In the German Kunstverein model the members are central to the institution. They appoint the board and have an ongoing supportive function but also agency. This is a model of participation and a responsibility that interests me. Rather than mediation and pedagogy being parallel or separate add-ons, I want to actively work with these concerns across multiple levels of access – from exhibitions, to events to projects without the mediation necessarily being a separate activity. In this pursuit, there is much to learn from curators such as Pontus Hultén, Catherine David and Harald Szeemann in terms of allowing the artistic process to shape form and approach, while also focusing on communication and mediation. This is an approach that I am interested in combining with the opportunities offered by the Kunstverein model.

We are seeing a rise of right-wing politics all over Europe, not least when it comes to culture. Which risks or constraints do you see associated with this, when it comes to experimental programming at the konsthall?

It’s critical to be aware that the freedom and possibility of art institutions to explore the unknown, the margins, and that which does not fully “deliver”, is very vulnerable and precarious. In many ways, these values were formulated and institutionalised in the Kunstverein model as part of the hope of a radical break with fascism during the post-war period. The publicly funded experimental art spaces are ideological structures and from my perspective an element to be actively worked with, which need to be protected, but also updated and negotiated within the present. It also means working with on one’s public responsibility and communicating these values in contact with politicians and other stakeholders.

Hildegarde Duane, Western Woman, exhibition view from Künstlerhaus Stuttgart. Photo: Frank Kleinbach.

As a curator and director of an institution, do you have any specific role models?

Now that the Getty Research Institute has taken over Harald Szeemann’s archive, I’ve been spending time with several of his projects and texts from the early 1960s and 70s. I’m interested in his methodology and outlook on art as a way to understand the world, an approach in which content and method become inseparable. His thinking and writing loops back to a nexus of notions such as visual intelligence, a love of art, and the role of being present in the collaboration with artists. In one of his texts, Szeemann talks about curating as a “ray,” immaterial yet precisely focused. A ray suggests not only a concentrated vision but an illuminating idea or thought, perhaps the geistige (spiritual, intellectual) notion of an agency tied to its own mental space as well as the physical space of the exhibition. For Szeeman the show is an approximation of what can never be, a form of suspended quality, which fascinates me.

Certain collaborations with artists have also had a lasting and ongoing influence. I have been working with James Richards for several years, producing new works, curating exhibitions, putting together film programmes and editing publications. James has an extraordinary ability of bringing together disparate materials and developing multiple registers of expressiveness and communicability. He has a finely attuned sense of the roles energy, mood, and presence play in curatorial processes. Another key collaboration is my ongoing work with artist Annika Eriksson, who is also my mother. In 2016, we curated Hamlet, a group show taking as its point of departure the work of Swedish artist Richard Vogel (1953-2015). Vogel’s feature length film Hamlet, developed over numerous years in collaboration with his students, is both an endeavour to dramatise a tragedy, and a limping reflection on how to organise a life. This was an exhibition where we developed a core and framework, an environment of sculptural objects and structures. In working together, we moved beyond the divide between artist and curator, an exchange where it was important to maintain a sensitivity towards the works hosted and held by the environment. It’s a method based on a series of exchanges that also require a degree of trust – exchanges between work and environment, artist and curator, and in this case also between mother and daughter.

Leslie Thornton, Cut from Liquid to Snake, 2019, as part of SPEED 2, Malmö Konsthall, 2019.