– Nobody wants to produce irrelevance

As Director of Bergen Kunsthall, Axel Wieder intends to help art pay its dues to society.

Axel Wieder. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

In February 2018, after five months without a director in place, the Bergen Kunsthall welcomed German curator and art historian Axel Wieder as its new leader. Wieder, previously director of Index: Foundation for Swedish Contemporary Art, launched his programme for the Kunsthall with Andrea Büttner’s solo exhibition, Shepherds and Kings, at the end of August – just six months after joining the institution. It’s been something of a short, steep hike in the rain for Wieder since his relocation to Bergen: six months is an unusually brief lead time for a curator coming into an institution of Bergen Kunsthall’s scale and scope, and in addition to this his arrival has coincided with an intensive period of looking ahead to future of the Kunsthall. On the occasion of the opening of Büttners show, which is flanked by Tony Cokes’s video work Evil, Mediation, and Power, he spoke to Kunstkritikk about specific places and moving on from your heroes.

Since this is the first exhibitions in your programme, people are going to use it as a basis for making all sorts of assumptions about you and where you’re taking Bergen Kunsthall. What I pick up is a kind of modesty in how you’ve orchestrated this. For example, there is no curatorial credit statement in the exhibition handout. It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve read one of these texts and haven’t seen the director’s name on it, at the very least as a co-curator. You’ve come into an institution that’s been very strongly associated with individual personalities, so this really stands out. What is your position on personality-driven institutional identity?

The discussion around curatorial credits is a funny starting point. Working for an organisation as a director or curator, I rely on a lot of other people’s work – doing everything from installation, marketing, administration, and keeping the organisation running, to other forms of content production, the live programme, the learning programme. I value the chance to lead an organisation and shape a programme and its position in the public, but it’s a collaborative approach. Highlighting the curatorial credits without highlighting other people’s work would simply seem wrong to me.

When you speak about modesty, I also come to think of the atmosphere of the two exhibitions that we opened. They are both interested in complexity and less in grand gestures. They are both inviting, in the case of Andrea Büttner’s exhibition quite literally so through the use of furniture that creates a communal situation which could easily be described as “modest”. I think it’s important that shows articulate themselves clearly, and sometimes that might mean that a show is somehow reduced. But in general, I appreciate when there’s a lot to see in an exhibition, at least on the level of content or discussion. The Kunsthall has five exhibition spaces, which are not small, but also not very large, and I think it’s important that people who make the decision to come to see our exhibitions have a lot to see and think about. It doesn’t mean that every show has to be dense, but there should be a level of intensity. So, in a way I would say that these shows aim to set a tone in terms of discourse and engagement.

Tony Cokes, Evil.16 (Torture.Musik), 2009-2011. Digital video, color, stereo. 16:27 minutes. Courtesy: Tony Cokes; Greene Naftali, New York and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York.

How exactly do you work with the different components of the Kunsthall to create a full experience for the audience?

One of the best features of the Kunsthall is the extensive programme of live events that we’re producing alongside our exhibitions: talks, concerts, screenings, performances, and club nights. Many of these are produced in partnership with other organisations in Bergen and abroad. Last year we had around 260 events. With this programme, called Landmark, we fulfil our ambition to produce high-quality and experimental offerings to audiences with different interests, to open the Kunsthall to different audiences. It’s also a place for people to organise themselves. Over the past months we have made a closer connection between Landmark and the exhibition programme, and one way of doing this, besides the programme itself, is to use the building more cohesively, to let the different parts of the programmes connect spatially and let the discussions flow – between Landmark and the learning programme, for example, or the bookshop. Our learning programme is amazing and very busy, but it happens mainly in the education room, the ‘formidlingsrom’, on the first floor, where it is almost invisible to other audiences.

I didn’t even know there was an education room. Apart from the physical spaces though, the Kunsthall also exists online via its website and social media, but also in search algorithms and other kinds of virtual spaces. Do you see online life as an important space for the Kunsthall to develop its public programme, and if so, do you have any plans in this regard?

Social media, as we know it today, is such an ambivalent tool. It’s strictly controlled by some of the most powerful corporations, but at the same time enables decentralised bottom-up communication and self-organisation. Much of what I see on Facebook or Instagram is purely advertorial. What I appreciate on social media platforms is the way they allow us to engage in wider discourses, sharing information, connecting to communities… It’s a very efficient arena for an important part of our work, which is to create a context for our programme, for events or exhibitions; giving people a better chance to realise what these works, sounds or words could mean for them, and encourage them to share with others. In this way, it’s an area where I hope that our interests and perspectives become visible. We do similar things in our physical spaces, with reading materials that are put together for the shows or discussions, and with our young people’s organisation Unge Kunstkjennere, so it’s part of a wide-ranging approach to mediation and the social context. Social media certainly amplify these efforts.

In an interview published in Bergens Tidende, you mention that it is important for you that art has social relevance. What do you think “relevance” is in the context of contemporary art?

In a realistic sense it’s a reminder to maintain a certain level of reflection on what we’re doing. It is very important for me that the idea of art we propose relates to political questions, and that we have an idea about the function of art in a wider social arena. Nobody wants to produce irrelevance, but I think it’s more specifically about the role that an institution like the Kunsthall could have in Bergen – especially when comparing our work with the needs and activities of the public in a wider sense, thinking about education or sports, for example. Art has a capacity as a tool for discussions about conflicts that are not easily solved, and as an investigation of how we as a society understand and see ourselves. It’s great to celebrate amazing artists and outstanding ideas, but looking at the role of images today, it’s also an important achievement to doubt.

NKISI at «POEKHALI! Landmark takes off!» 18 August 2018. Photo: Xin Li.

Could you envisage the Kunsthall as creating some kind of community-oriented programme in Bergen?

My wish for the Kunsthall is that it should be an extremely open place. We are in a way already very connected through our multitude of partnerships which reach out into very different areas of cultural production in the city. But there’s more to do in terms of outreach. I’m keen to meet some of the local communities that don’t come to us yet because that would be an opportunity to learn more about different realities in Bergen. We started a collaboration with the International Festival, called Festspillkollektivet, a community engagement programme that arranges concerts and other activities outside of the traditional festival arenas – in prisons, for example. So besides maintaining programmes for various “communities” within our building, we’re also aiming to go out into the city. It’s a complicated process, but we do take steps in that direction. For example, we are planning a show for 2020 that partly takes place in public spaces.

Can you tell us a bit more about that?

It’s still in the very early process, we’re discussing what we need for such a project with partners. But the starting point is a question I often have when visiting a new place, or moving professionally: what makes this place specific, in terms of architecture and urban design, and what kind of social relations exist between its inhabitants and the built environment? Space is always a result of social forces, economy and history, and I’m curious to explore stories and relationships, how a city works, through the built infrastructure. The project we’re planning is a continuation of these forms of exploration, inviting artists and designers to make work responding to the impact of the ocean, trade and the current economy, for example, and connecting perspectives from architects and artists.

What do you think makes Bergen Kunsthall unique on the Bergen art scene, or even in Norway, amongst the huge range of institutions that exist in support of contemporary art?

Historically speaking, the Kunsthall was very early to recognise the need and opportunity to establish an internationally visible platform within the rapidly professionalised field of contemporary art in Norway in the 1990s, and it still has an enormous international reputation. I’ve known and admired the Kunsthall for a long time and followed the programme closely from abroad. It always seemed like a place with a focus on artistic production on all levels, working with artists that really had a relevance in the field. We also host the Festspillutstilling, which is the most prestigious solo exhibition for any living Norwegian artist. It’s been held here every summer since 1953. This has helped to raise awareness about art within a broader public. From a contemporary perspective, the answer to your question is much more about the possibilities that arise from this position – being well connected within the local context, as well as within international discussions – and being able to use these as tools to experiment with the capacity of art for shared debates, to invite complexity into our work with a broader public and vice versa.

The Kunsthall established its currency internationally as an institution that could produce ambitious projects, rather than just receiving them. To maintain this currency, surely you have to be quite strategic about how and with whom you collaborate. How is the “international” identity of the Kunsthall expressed in your programming and collaborations with institutions outside of Norway?

On the level of exhibitions, it makes sense to tour works, especially if they are newly produced. It helps to produce larger commissions and creates more visibility, and it gives an artist more time to spend on a project. The recent exhibition by Torbjørn Rødland that we produced will be shown next year at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm and afterwards at Kiasma in Helsinki. But thinking in the longer term, it’s most exciting to think of partnerships that are research-based, looking for longer-term partners to produce programmes together.

Ulla Wiggen, Magnetiskt Minne, 1968.

In a way, this is a market that you participate in; a market of circulation, visibility and mutually beneficial relationships. Eventually, this involves basic market interests. Under the leadership of previous directors, some criticism was levelled at the Kunsthall for working too closely with certain galleries – Standard (Oslo) is one example – both in terms of selling works directly from the Kunsthall and giving a lot of “airtime” to their artists. What are your views on working with galleries and gallerists in realising projects? How do you establish the appropriate boundaries, and to what extent does the Kunsthall benefit from and differentiate itself from the market?

Maybe it’s important to explain that there is a tradition of selling works from exhibitions in Norwegian institutions. When the Kunsthall was still Bergen Kunstforening, commission from sold works was one of its main resources of income. Some organizations, such as Kunstnerforbundet in Oslo, still operate with a similar model. In a way, this relates to a different model of support, both for organizations and artists. But we’re in a very different, much better situation today, with a different support system that is mainly based on public grants, and artistic criteria are certainly the most important for our program decisions. We still try to recoup the money spent on production if works from exhibitions are sold. Galleries benefit from our work with artists that are commercially successful, and it seems fair – or almost an ethical obligation – to share costs in order to be able to pay for works that are less likely to find a commercial market.

You mention the relation to Standard (Oslo). There are a few other good commercial galleries in the region that I have an equally good professional relationship with, but Standard was probably the space that did the most for a specific generation of artists that has become important in the past ten to fifteen years in Norway. I really say this with full understanding of the concerns, and I completely share concerns about the way that capital and power impacts on artistic decision. I would always argue for artistic criteria and the need of a context. I find compromises lame. The next festival artist is Mari Slaattelid, who just started working with Standard, after many years of working with Galleri K, another Oslo gallery. But some of the recent Festival Exhibitions presented artists that don’t work with commercial galleries at all but have done extremely interesting work. However, we should not put too much emphasis on the the commercial gallery system. There also exists a market of public support, in academia and research for example. These factors have a huge impact on the production and consumption of culture today. Something like an independence of the market doesn’t really exist today, I would say, we’re working within streams of capital and value.

Can you tell us about your upcoming programme?

After our current shows, we open a larger group exhibition that spans the whole Kunsthall in mid-November, called On Circulation. We noticed a fascination with ideas of circulation, distribution and infrastructure in many artists’ works that we discussed, and the exhibition looks into these. Early next year, we will show a solo exhibition by Peter Wächtler and a new film commission by Beatrice Gibson. The film is a co-production between us, Borealis, Camden Art Centre, KW in Berlin and Mercer Union in Toronto. After that it’s the KMD Masters exhibition, and then it’s the Festspillutstilling, where Mari Slaattelid is the featured artist next year.

Peter Wächtler, Far Out, 2016, HD video with sound. Courtesy of the artist, Lars Friedrich, Berlin, dépendance, Brussels, Cabinet, London and Reena Spaulings, New York.

To ask a teenage-like question, who are some of your favourite artists? What art do you love the most?

That’s such a difficult question! I am strongly influenced by the 1960s and 1970s, by the crossing between art and dance, music, media, by Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, John Cage. When I started seeing exhibitions in the 1990s, I was impressed by Fareed Armaly, Christian Philipp Müller, Andrea Fraser, Philippe Thomas, but also Charline von Heyl. Amy Sillman, Nick Mauss, Stephen Willats have an ongoing impact on me. But I guess I’m really opposed to an idea of heroism in art history. I studied at the Humboldt University in Berlin, at a moment of systemic changes. My most important teacher was Susanne von Falkenhausen, a foundational figure in German feminist art history. One of the most important realisations for me was that it’s not so interesting to research the history of heroes. It’s more enlightening to look at the gaps, what has been left out of history.

Can you give us an example?

Someone like Dan Graham is obviously very important for me, but it is even more important to look at who else was around in his time, working with similar ideas.

The idea of importance is interesting in relation to art and relates perhaps to that of relevance. At the same time, though, art is usually not the most efficient means of addressing issues that are of great social consequence. Art may address these issues obliquely, but something that is unique to art is its capacity to produce aesthetic pleasure. Do you think it’s more important for art to be important or to be pleasurable?

Importance and pleasure, or beauty, go hand in hand, in my experience, but if it’s a choice between the two categories I would say to be important. The Documenta in Athens was one of the few recent big exhibitions that moved me. It comes down to a question of what we understand as pleasurable, and the saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is maybe too general. But even though some things were complicated, unfinished, and hugely problematic, I really appreciated the courage to use public space the way Documenta did, and the generosity towards conflict.

Thinking about the role an institution like the Kunsthall could have in Bergen is crucial for me, especially when one looks at the public arena in a wider sense – there are different social needs and different social services. What is it, specifically, that makes art important if you compare it with language-learning, health, sports and so on? It must be arts’ great capacity for providing a space to discuss politics, how we as subjects relate to morals and ethics in fundamental ways. How can Bergen Kunsthall create opportunities for debate around these areas? How do we relate to others, to politics and to the social?

Sam Lewitt, Stranded Assets, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York, Daniel Buchholz, Cologne / Berlin.