"Everyone carries creativity within them": Prof. Walter Smerling in an interview about "Diversity United" and the importance of art and culture in society
Prof. Smerling, when did you get the idea for "Diversity United" and what is it about the three stations Berlin Moscow, Berlin and Paris?
With the Foundation for Art and Culture, we had just held the exhibition "Germany 8 - German Art in China" in the Forbidden City in the center of Beijing - a great project and an intercultural dialogue between Asia and Europe. It was an autumnal morning in September 2017, and I was watching the art packers dismantle. At that moment, the thought came to me: what works here should be possible in Europe, too, surely? We showed the German face of art in China, at a time when there were numerous challenges in common understanding in other areas. And we have seen: Art can build bridges here.
Quickly, in terms of Europe, the idea of unity and diversity was born, "Diversity United". As the planning progressed, the question arose: Where do you exhibit this? With Moscow, Berlin and Paris, three locations were chosen that are both relevant today and from a historical perspective. Let's take Moscow: At the moment, there are some communication problems here, such as the Crimea conflict, the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, or the handling of Kremlin critic Alexei Nawalny - but also the rejection of the economic road between China, Mongolia and Russia on our part. I'm convinced that art can communicate beyond these political issues, that artists can bring people together with their works who wouldn't come together without art.
Of course, we didn't want to do it alone, so we brought in experienced curators and art scholars who were behind the idea. We have been working with nine curators for two and a half years. Together, we made the decision to launch the exhibition in Berlin, as we were unable to realize the planned launch last November in Moscow due to the pandemic. I also think it's fantastic how companies take on cultural responsibility, want to be in the conversation about culture and thus also take on social responsibility. As for NEW YORKER, I find it very exciting that artists from the exhibition are invited to advertise themselves on clothing.
The exhibition themes seem very complex: freedom and dignity, dialogue and conflict, political and personal identity, democracy and its erosion, (fear of) the future, solidarity and division, the consequences of the current pandemic. To what extent are these themes reflected in the selection of artists?
One thing is important to know: The artists did not provide artworks with regard to the points mentioned, but we selected the artists. And we analyzed their artworks carefully and were able to determine the correspondence to our themes in the ones we included in the exhibition. For example, how Gilbert & George deal with everyday life, or others with the theme of democracy. The Greek artist Angeli Dakis, for example, creates a space that the audience or the visitor can shape themselves. It consists of large blocks that look like stone blocks, but made of plastic. This can be used to build an amphitheater, for example (like the ancient Greeks used for their referendums, note). And questions arise: How does democracy work? Is it the best form of government we have? What is the current situation in Europe with its particular interests? Aren't there a lot of egoisms right now? How do we deal with digitalization? Some artists create works that the public can find digitally on the wall. Or the juxtaposition of analog and digital photography. The digital world also creates many fears and many communication problems, and the issues of our society are reflected in art, whether in Western, Eastern, Northern, Central or Southern Europe.
How do you explain what art is to those who are not part of the typical gallery audience?
Everyone has creativity within them. One person's creativity is more pronounced, another's less so. Karl Valentin once said, "Art is beautiful, but it takes a lot of work." Art is a form of expression that brings together intellect and emotion, that creates something that takes hold of you and from which you cannot defend yourself emotionally or mentally. You see something, you don't understand it, and you want to deal with it in order to understand it. The concept of beauty is not limited to craftsmanship, rather the intellect must be integrated, and the expression of the extraordinary.
A good example to explain art is the smile of the Mona Lisa. Why? Because we will never know if it expresses laughter or irony. Or the "Black Square" by Kazimir Malevich, which was a revolution in its time (1915): an artist reduces his work to a black square, but it defines space. "Everyone is an artist," said Joseph Beuys, creativity is the people's wealth, and everyone can participate in the overall appearance of the world. Good examples here are his well-known works, such as the Honey Pump, the Fat Corner or the Beuys Bathtub. Everyone asks, "What is this?" Art thus provokes the viewer's imagination; the higher the provocation value of the imagination, the higher the art value.
Especially now in the crisis, the question of the status of art and culture in society is increasingly being asked. Is art relevant to the system?
Obviously, opinions differ on this: for me, art and culture are among the most relevant elements of our lives. Unfortunately, the political decision-makers (in the current pandemic, note) have not acted in such a way that one could assume this in their attitude. Art holds the mirror in front of our eyes, we have to be alert, and our mind deals with it. To a healthy body belongs a healthy mind. Imagine if the entire car industry, or fashion industry, for example, would not have developed the way it did without artistic influence. Art is essential for our everyday life.
What are your personal exhibition highlights?
There are many, and actually all contributions are highlights for me. To name just a few: the simple mirror in the shape of a boat by the Belgian artist Kris Martin alone describes the whole situation with just a few signs. His work "Ship of Fools" shows the outline of a large boat, bow and stern, 6 x 2.50 meters - and what do you see? The boat consists of a mirror, you can see the viewer. We are all sitting in a boat. Will the boat be the ark in which we survive?
Or the artwork by Alicia Kwade, the bed, which is in the exhibition, and into which meteorite-like formations smash: the bed as the place where one finds shelter. There are many associations, but they all show: we are living in an uncertain situation right now. Gerhard Richter, who paints over European landscapes, or Mona Hatoum, who juxtaposes construction and decay and questions the culture of welcome with a doormat made of nails, are also impressive works in the exhibition.
What comes to mind spontaneously about fashion and art?
There is a close relationship. As early as the 1970s, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent was inspired by art for his designs, specifically by Piet Mondrian and his constructive color elements with black strokes to colored squares. Before a structure is created, the drawing usually comes first. This is where artists and fashion designers have a lot in common in creating a piece of art or a dress. The most direct route from the head to the paper is via the arm.
What do you take away from the Corona period as a lesson for the future?
Positive thinking is a very important prerequisite. And to keep thinking new things and planning new things - because if there's one thing we've learned, it's to keep making new attempts, like Sisyphus, but not get frustrated in the process. If you don't plan, you give up on the future. We are not giving up on the future and we will defeat Covid-19.
More information on the project Diversity United. Contemporary European Art. Moscow. Berlin. Paris. can be found at: http://www.stiftungkunst.de/kultur/diversityunited/