Towards sensual curating: An interview with Aneta Rostkowska by Denisa Tomkova

Aneta Rostkowska. Photo by Felix Norberg

Lecture at Temporary Gallery. Photo by Aneta Rostkowska

Public Programme at Temporary Gallery. Photo by Aneta Rostkowska

Bram Demunter’s work at the exhibition ‘Heart of an Old Crocodile Exploding Over a Small Town’. Photo by Simon Vogel

Towards sensual curating: An interview with Aneta Rostkowska by Denisa Tomkova

In her broad practice as a philosopher, writer, curator and since January 2019 also a director of the Centre for Contemporary Art Temporary Gallery in Cologne, Aneta Rostkowska, addresses issues of hospitality, care and ecology. Her first exhibition for the Temporary Gallery ‘Heart of an Old Crocodile Exploding Over a Small Town’took place between 6 April – 30 June 2019. Rostkowska addresses here the sensual aspects of our existence which connect us to each other and expresses the ideas of community and caring for other humans and species. In the interview, she talks also about the challenges of running a contemporary art institution today, about grant applications and about the problem of unpaid labour in the cultural sphere.

D.T: What are your plans for curatorial activities and programming as a director of the Temporary Gallery? What kind of public programs do you plan for the Centre? And what topics do you wish to address with the exhibitions?

A.R: I would like to maintain the intellectual and international profile of the Centre but also balance it with more sensual and local undertakings. Concerning the exhibition program, I really would like to work more with the space itself, its sensuality and atmosphere. I rearranged the lounge area and plan to consciously work on hospitality towards our audience. In terms of local collaborations, the institution worked with Art Initiatives Cologne and Kunsthochschule für Medien and I hope these will continue. Other new elements of the program are a reading group in collaboration with Texte zur Kunst and regular meetings dedicated to curatorial practice. We will continue working with themes like nature, inclusion, future, curating and storytelling. In autumn this year we will present a special program about artists working with TV series.

D.T: Why did you decide to name the exhibition after one of the exhibited paintings by Bram Demunter? And how did you choose Bram’s work?

A.R: I picked up the title for several reasons. Firstly, because the whole exhibition was constructed around the paintings and drawings of Demunter. Secondly, I thought the title expresses very well some important aspects of the show: its semi narrative character, the sense of incoming disaster and a certain emotional intensity present in the design of the space and in the artworks. I saw Bram’s paintings at ExtraCity Konsthall in Antwerp last year and became completely fascinated with them. The artist has a fantastic sensitivity in grasping themes that are currently very important for us: our paradoxical attitude towards nature (simultaneously love and hate that results in a destruction of it), fear that the world we know is coming to an end, longing for care and community etc. These themes are expressed in a meticulously painted images resembling the ones of Hieronimus Bosch.

D.T: Theexhibition is your experiment to curate a show which oscillates between solo and group exhibition. What is the process of curating such an experiment?

A.R: I first selected the works of Bram together with him and then matched them with works of other artists. The matching process was very intuitive, sometimes only after some weeks I understood why I picked up certain artworks. This partly resembled an artistic process. Sometimes the association was more theme-based, sometimes it there were also formal resemblances at play. As the result the exhibition is not centred around one theme but rather around several ones. Concerning the challenges, hmm, I think it’s a specific type of curatorial practice, maybe a bit less academic but more invoking certain emotional qualities. I think it requires the curator to follow her intuitions. In the past I curated more exhibitions that we are “safer” in terms of academic background but maybe less immersive. What I also like about it is that it questions the idea of artist working in isolation. In fact, the work of all of us develops through relation to our environment, through positive and negative influences, many of them happening on unconscious level. This encourages us to question the idea of individual authorship.

D.T: Except Demunter, at the exhibition are presented also works of other artists. You described them in your curatorial text as ‘members of the groups often marginalized in our society’. Can you tell me more about it? How do you see the work of these artists in relation to Demunter’s works within the exhibition?

A.R: This aspect of the show is related to the fact that Bram Demunter for years worked in a psychiatric facility. He became drawn to the way the patients were experiencing and expressing emotions. Some of his works resemble works of so called (I don’t like this name however) ‘outsider art’. This motivated me and the exhibition designer Mateusz Okoński to visit KAT18 – a house with studios of artists with mental disabilities located in Cologne. There we discovered superb artists whose works deserve visibility that goes beyond common exhibitions of ‘outsider art’ that by means of putting artists with disabilities together might reinforce the exclusion experienced by them. One of them was Bärbel Lange whom I later invited to participate in the exhibition. Her compelling drawings of suns are totemic, sexual and scary at the same time allowing us to think about the sun as a source and a possible end of life on Earth. Bärbel also produced a big curtain that will be permanently on view in our institution. It depicts an animal – half snake half crocodile that “protects” Temporary Gallery. Our base funding is secured only until 2021 so I thought it would be great to have such a magical creature in our space, spreading vital energy that could support us (laughing). Bärbel visited us later several times and I hope our collaboration with KAT18 will develop further. Lange’s and work of other presented artists are thematically related to Demunter’s works, for example in the painting “Botanical garden” you see people embracing each other in small groups that are encircled with fire or in “Finding the bird” people stand on arms of other people to reach the sky while some others are exchanging kisses with birds. Another painting depicts a group of people travelling on boats holding paintings with idyllic landscapes. In the background you see a paradise island with Adam and Eve as skeletons. It looks as if the boats carried the island. A black depth underneath holds delicate plants. For me it’s a painting about migration.

D.T: In relation to marginalized groups in our society. How do you understand this distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’? More specifically, who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ in this exhibition?

A.R: I refer this distinction to the different groups whose works are on view in the exhibition and who are represented in the artworks in the exhibition – these groups are very often excluded from society and this exclusion is based on mental disability, race, religion or – in case of birds and cats from the short story of Coetzee – that it’s a different species. The difference “we/them” is a constructed one based on intellectual categories. I tend to think that if we went beyond intellectual discussions that created these divisions and referred more to the sensual aspects of our existence (the fact that we all have bodies that can suffer, that we all need to eat and want to have a safe shelter etc.) we would find much more in common and the “we/them” construct would be less relevant. At Temporary Gallery we try to provide both: welcoming atmosphere based on sharing food and good discussions.

D.T: In the exhibition you engage the visitors’ senses: sight, touch, but even their smell, with work Smell (2014) by Janek Simon and Laurent-David Garnier. What was your aim with this total sensuous appeal on the viewers

A.R: I think protestant culture is a culture of suppressed and controlled sensuality. You see it well in a protestant church. I’m not very religious, nevertheless I think religion, even if it is not as powerful in Germany as it used to be, created some fascinating cultural differences. I guess as a Polish catholic I’m more for abundance, excess, emotions… (laughing) Protestant religion in connection with the neoliberal culture of a self-disciplined worker can easily lead to repression of emotions. And you know what happens when you repress feelings… they will manifest themselves in an uncontrolled way at some point! (laughing) Another reason for that is of course the political potential of the sensuous that I mentioned before.

D.T: You and I have previously on several occasions discussed our interest in political art and artivisim, but you also mentioned that you have become recently more interested in the relationship between political art and aesthetics in more formal way. Is it why the actual exhibition design was so important for you in this show?

A.R: Yes, but it also became for me an important aspect of art in general. As you know my academic background is philosophy, not art history. This made more interested in art as a vehicle of political or philosophical ideas. I guess now I’m more interested in art that tries to express something for which the language doesn’t exist yet. The main reason for this extensive exhibition is a bit different. First of all, me and artist/curator Mateusz Okoński who designed the exhibition, wanted the paintings to look good. In our opinion traditional white walls can be quite hostile to representational painting. Secondly, since I would like the gallery to present a content that is relevant to current socio-political situation, I wanted to resign from traditional white-cube with its ideology of neutrality and distance towards external environment.The strong green-pink contrast created an interesting effect of destabilizing the viewer, forcing her to reflect on their own position in the exhibition space. Artists participating in this exhibition quite often use a pre-modern perspectivity, distancing themselves from disembodied, disinterested, all-knowing and all-mighty modern subject.

D.T: When speaking about the institutional space of white-cube, let me know return again to your role as a director of the Temporary Gallery. What do you see as the challenges in running a contemporary art institution?

A.R: One of the biggest challenges is the instable funding which makes the institution less independent (you basically depend on the interests of grant givers) and makes long term programs and research less possible. Writing grant applications and reports requires a considerable amount of time which is very demanding especially for small teams. Unfortunately, the instable, short term funding became an obvious element of the artworld, less and less people question it. Looking back however – ex. 50 years – we can easily see that art world used to exist without it or at least the role of grants was much smaller. It’s a pity that this “grant realism” – I would name it in reference to Mark Fisher’s “capitalist realism? (a belief that capitalism is the only possible system we can have) – established itself so strongly.
Another problem I experience is flattening of certain concepts related to art and an expectation that art will be easy and approachable without any prior knowledge. For example, I tried to receive money for a project that you could classify as socially engaged art. What I experienced is that the jury of the grant giver flattened the concept of socially engaged art and they only support very simple projects in which art is basically instrumentalised as a provider of social activities. Projects that have more complicated methodology are not desired. I believe we have to defend the complexity of art, the fact that it presents to us a sensual and intellectual challenge. Art is difficult – like maths or physics. You need some effort to understand it. Why we started to assume that it’s different than other fields? This shows that the system of contemporary art is heavily dependent on the educational system. If there is no knowledge about contemporary art passed on in schools, then the art institutions will have a limited audience. I raise this issue as sometimes the responsibility for limited audiences is put solely on art institutions. In fact, it should be attributed to the whole system.

What I also really dislike is that – contrary to leftist atmosphere of the art scene, it is a very unjust and exploitative field. For example, many people (especially females) – apart from a very small group at the top – are underpaid here and it became a rule. Working in cultural sector you are expected to work either for free or for very little money. If you don’t come from a rich family that supports you (ex. provides you with an apartment which makes your living costs smaller), then your life becomes very precarious – you cannot save any money etc. This means that people from certain classes or social groups don’t choose this path at all which in the long run affects contents of artistic production and of the programs of art institutions (as they are created by people belonging to certain class). And then we are surprised that the programs of art institutions don’t reflect the issues the society is busy with. I personally advise all artists and curators to think about a more profitable side job that is not related to art already at the beginning of their career (laughing).

D.T: What are things, people, books which inspire you in your curatorial practice? How does your creative process look like?

A.R: There are many. I read novels and poetry, I watch TV series, I play computer games, I listen to music etc. Actually, recently I haven’t been reading so much about art. I noticed that whenever I’m into something that has nothing to do with art, it paradoxically becomes the most inspiring for my curatorial process. Currently I have been learning computer programming. Let’s see where this will lead to…