Things are getting crowded under the roof of Tempelhof ’s Hangar II ahead of the Diversity United exhibition, which assembles works by 90 artists representing 45 countries. Ahead of its opening this week, we talk to curator Walter Smerling about what this ambitious show can achieve.
You’re squeezing 90 artists and the whole of Europe into one art exhibition. What’s the motivation here?
The continent of Europe has at least 47 countries, depending how you count, and each one has its own character, its own mentality, its own problems, its own people. Each country is independent from each other in a way but they all belong together. That makes this show very strong.
It’s a hugely impressive list of artists, and it promises to be a blockbuster of a show. What can visitors expect to see?
It’s a broad and timely intercultural dialogue between artists from 34 European countries. When did that last happen?! We’re not focusing on one specific issue. Each artist describes their individual positions, which then shed light on our societies. We want to provoke a dialogue, and you can see that with Lucy and Jorge Orta’s ‘Antarctic Village’, whose tents symbolise a way of living without borders. Then we have Monica Bonvicini taking over a whole room with her neon tubes that bring illumination and truth. Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Winterreise’, a never-before-seen work, shows the dangers hidden in romanticism. It’s a vast list.
The Berlin-based Olafur Eliasson is also present. His work will be the first thing visitors encounter, right?
Yes, at the entrance. It’s quite an experience: a yellow light that wipes away all distinction between people, that neutralises difference and in doing so questions our relationship towards travelling and citizenship and the environment.
The exhibition is by no means limited to Western Europe; Eastern Europe and the Balkans are well represented. Any names to watch there?
In Europe, you don’t need to travel far to be in a totally different world. This is what we see in Shoes for Europe, a film made by Moldovan artist Pavel Brăila, which shows how a train is lifted onto a new base while its passengers wait. For a long time, Moldova was part of the Soviet Union and so it had the wide railway tracks shared by other republics that made up that huge federation. As a result, Moldovan carriages had to be hoisted onto new wheels before they went on to neighbouring Ukraine or Romania or other European countries. The film is a visual description of the competing interests of Europe’s different blocs and the problems we have communicating between them.
You mentioned a new piece by Anselm Kiefer. Are there any other stand-out works debuting at the exhibition?
I think around 30 percent of the works haven’t been shown before. And it’s important to note that the artists decided what came into the show and what didn’t – not the curators. For instance, Chinese painter Yan Pei-Ming had proposed paintings about Napoleon; but then the pandemic started so he decided to add a new piece to the show: an unbelievable painting of a cave from which the viewer looks out into a dangerous world. It’s really an impressive work.
How else have artists responded to challenges faced by Europe today?
One of the strongest works for me is by Fernando Sánchez Castillo. The Spanish artist came across the famous photograph of a crowd of men giving the Nazi salute. Only one man, thought to be the Hamburg labourer August Landmesser, refuses. He stands bravely in the crowd, arms crossed, with a sceptical look on his face, and the artist has built an unusual monument to him. He reproduced 5000 plastic figures of the labourer and lined them up as an army of pacifist resistance.
Where is there a need for moral courage or resistance like that today? The point is that every visitor can take one of the small figures in return for writing their idea of democracy on the wall. Over time, a whole new work of art will emerge from the audience’s comments. That’s fantastic, I think.
So the exhibition sheds light on modern-day authoritarianism. How does that square with criticism you’ve come up against for collaborating with the Russian foreign office to put on the show?
Diversity United is a good basis for bringing people together, because art brings people together. We do not collaborate with the politicians of Russia. We collaborate with the curators of the Tretyakov Gallery. We had a very good experience with them and I think it’s very important to create a basis for communication in this way. Ultimately, art gives us a fantastic chance for dialogue. Of course, art is not the only way to communicate, but it adds something crucial to scientific and economic discourses: it can allow things to be seen differently. Art can help us find solutions – there’s no guarantee, but we might have a chance.
After Berlin and Moscow, the exhibition will show in Paris… Why these cities, and not London, for example?
We wanted the exhibition to be shown at the very heart of Europe’s cultural scene, so Berlin and Paris were obvious choices. They are on the axis of central Europe and connect east and west. By bringing the exhibition to Moscow, we hope to encourage cultural dialogue, especially in light of current political differences. It would also be great for the show to travel to London, a city that will always remain part of the European cultural sphere. The exhibition actually has a wonderful Grayson Perry work, ‘Battle of Britain’, which focuses on Brexit
The pandemic has put Euro-pean solidarity to the test and EU countries seem to be constantly at loggerheads. How does this exhibition address these tensions?
Jean Monnet, one of the founders of the European Union, once said that Europe will always be a work in progress. It is not complete; it is an identity conveyed by fundamental ideas such as respect for people, and embracing diversity. But of course there are problems and we need to talk about them, like for example the fear of foreigners and refugees. This exhibition aims to address these highly complex issues by inspiring debate as well as conveying the freedom and respect that are a part of the European identity.