Why is contemporary art so bad

Contemporary Arts "We have to keep an eye on the world as a whole"

Karin Fischer: The Neue Nationalgalerie, the place for modern art in Berlin, is closed for at least three years. The art itself can still be seen: Right now in the much-visited exhibition "ImEx" in the Alte Nationalgalerie and soon a floor will be set up in the Hamburger Bahnhof for the works from the Nationalgalerie. Classic modernism is becoming mobile and that is what the Opportunity in our series on the Humboldt Forum to take another look at the ensemble as a whole and the role of contemporary art in it. I talked about it with the director of the National Gallery and head of the Hamburger Bahnhof, Udo Kittelmann. How well or how badly do you see modern and contemporary art positioned and presented in Berlin in connection with the Museum Island?

Udo Kittelmann: I don't see them badly positioned at all. I believe that contemporary art, although it would of course also be important to ask what time does the term contemporary art actually include, especially over the last, I would say, a decade and a half, at least made a decisive contribution to other institutions outside the houses of the Nationalgalerie, to which the Hamburger Bahnhof belongs, the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Alte Nationalgalerie, certainly gave answers or was looking for answers. I think that all the institutions in Berlin are well on their way to giving an outlook on this idea of ​​the Humboldt Forum.

Fisherman: What outlook do you think that should be?

Kittelmann: I am now trying to briefly recall some of the exhibitions for which the Nationalgalerie has been responsible over the past few years and which I have always understood to mean that they are an attempt to also show this spectrum that the Humboldt Forum should one day show to think creatively. And I still remember the big exhibition in 2010 with the title "Who knows tomorrow", where we invited five artists to make contributions to several buildings, representative buildings of the National Gallery, which certainly reflected that there is always a dialogue . In other words: It is intercultural things that interest us today, and I think that when we talk about the possible presence of contemporary positions, the Humboldt Forum will play the major role that, of course, today's generation of artists will see the whole of the world in sight and not only act retrospectively or historically.

Fisherman: The whole of the world should of course now also be presented on Museum Island, including the Humboldt Forum. There has long been a dispute about the new palace. But the decision to show the non-European collections from Dahlem there was initially, I believe, not so undisputed. Did you have the idea of ​​showing modern art in the castle and how was this debate conducted?

Kittelmann: Over the past few years there has been this so-called Humboldt Lab, which has already tried to think of a way forward with contemporary artistic positions. Personally, I am far from believing that contemporary art in general will always find an answer to questions that will still exist. This is because it is easy to overestimate the role of contemporary art in this context. Art cannot do everything. She has never been able to do that. And only in her most concise, her best formulations will she succeed in creating a hopefully intelligent dialogue situation in these contexts, which will be revealed in the Humboldt Forum by means of artefacts. I can already imagine that, and that is certainly more of a temporary nature than permanent, as far as contemporary art is concerned, because that is its strength. It can of course act much, much more intensely on a moment and on something shown immediately.

Fisherman: You mentioned the Humboldt Lab, Mr Kittelmann, this experimental facility for the future Humboldt Forum. We hear from a contemporary Chinese artist who wanted to pour wax over an old imperial throne. We know Ai Weiwei's actions with old vases. How do you assess such overrides and the Humboldt-Lab's experiments in the field of contemporary art?

Kittelmann: All these projects have already dealt with the fact that there is an intercultural dialogue in any case today, very topical. But it was always a reference to the fact that this intercultural dialogue had existed since the 19th century at the latest. It is not the case that this global idea that we have today is of course focussed completely differently again today, but it already originated in the late 18th century, but then certainly very concisely in the 19th century, and today we see the consequences of this globalization. And that's what I mean. We must, or the Humboldt Forum will, if it wants to be an institution of today, i.e. to be fully in the present and with a perspective on the future, to keep this world as a whole in mind.

Fisherman: I wanted to talk about what you just mentioned, Udo Kittelmann. You have shown ethnographic drawings from New Zealand in the Alte Nationalgalerie with great success. In other words, there is actually an interest today in these early or past cultures, and of course there is also a very clear connection, as you have just described, between non-European art and classical modernism, because its protagonists, such as Picasso, do all this very much intensely perceived back then.

Kittelmann: Let me correct you a little.

Fisherman: With pleasure!

Kittelmann: It was Gottfried Lindauer, a European painter who went to New Zealand in 1876 and then portrayed the Maori there, very classically, as people imagined it in Europe at the time, painted in oil and very realistic. The interesting thing is that these 19th century images still have a very, very contemporary meaning for the Maori today. They are part of their lives and the memory of their past generations of their forefathers.

Fisherman: That means, they are European paintings, but they are charged with meanings for the Maori?

Kittelmann: Yes. This is exactly what happened on the basis of these pictures by Gottfried Lindauer. This is certainly an example where there are no other examples. This is a big exception. But it shows that there was also an attraction between the different cultures, i.e. in this case the Maori culture and the Western culture, and that is something that has been shown over the last century and a half, in many facets.

Fisherman: Perhaps we will stay a little longer with this connection and you will use an example to explain which channels of transmission non-European art took, how it influenced classical modernism and how it was, so to speak, amalgamated by artists from Europe.

Kittelmann: I think we have to be very clear when we talk about the terminology of art: What we find in these collections in Dahlem is not art in the conventional sense or in our understanding, but above all artefacts that are not just one had an aesthetic value, but above all a ritual value. And from this different perspective of these different cultures too, there was of course this attractive relationship that arose with one another. You just mentioned Picasso, and rightly so, and Picasso takes up African sculpture and works on it painterly for his pictures. But at first he only has a formal interest in it. He is not yet interested in tracing the rites that were associated with these sculptures, objects, and sculptures. That is something that is of course very different today. A Humboldt Forum will certainly have to deal with this, and not just the aesthetic appearance. Of course, a Buddhist figure is extremely attractive, but it is integrated into a ritual of life, into a belief, into something spiritual, and that is something that art, Western art, especially contemporary, is not so integrated like in these artifacts that are in Dahlem. I believe that one recognizes this problem, this difficulty that is connected with making everything present today. This is a very ambitious company and the Humboldt Forum has a great opportunity, which is also the great challenge, of asking exactly these questions. And in my understanding it is very natural that there are always conflicts associated with finding answers. It is not a process that I understand will be completed at this moment with the opening of the Humboldt Forum, but rather it should be a living institution that will then vehemently answer these questions.

Fisherman: Udo Kittelmann was talking about the challenges that ethnological objects pose to modern or contemporary art in our series on the Humboldt Forum.

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