A Question of Perspective

Portrait Anna Gritz, Photo: Alexander Meyer

Haus am Waldsee has a new director: Anna Gritz. The first exhibition under her aegis will open during Berlin Art Week. We spoke to Gritz in the run-up to the show—about her programme, about the building and its garden, and about (various) questions of perspective.

Anna Gritz, you recently took over as the new director of Haus am Waldsee. Your first exhibition there, a show featuring the artist Leila Hekmat, is set to open during Berlin Art Week. What can we expect to see?

Performance artist Leila Hekmat will turn the venue into a kind of sanatorium for women, run by nuns. Very broadly speaking, it is about illness and divergence, about what is normal and what is healthy. Formally, we wanted to avoid showing documentation of Hekmat’s performances and instead focus on bringing the performative into the exhibition space—and that the building, a former countryside villa that is in any case easy to imagine as a sanatorium, is being transformed.

You’ve worked in New York and London and most recently spent the past few years as a curator at KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Haus am Waldsee is your first post as director. How would you generally describe your approach in this new role?

First and foremost, I’d like to think more in terms of artistic perspectives and positions. And by that I mean to think even beyond exhibitions, relating them to the institution and its infrastructure. What connections can be made to certain works or ways of working? How should the mediation programme be conceived? How do we use the house’s fantastic garden? In what other, different ways might the team be integrated? I’d like to see this artistic perspective become an integral part of the institution itself. One historical source of inspiration is the Artists Placement Group, an artist-run organisation that placed artists with factories and corporations in the 1970s. Of course, you have to be careful that art isn’t instrumentalised in the process. A thing like that has to come about naturally, you can’t force it. And it takes time, not only literally. It also involves taking a closer look at the specific temporalities of an institution like that, looking at its rhythms and processes.

In what sense?

You have to conceive of processes in a more long-term way, allow for overlaps and transitions, and maybe even do away with strictly timed exhibition rhythms. Which soon brings up a number of other questions: what is an art institution? What distinguishes it? What does the art institution of today need and how can it be rethought, at least in part? When I say I want think in terms of the artistic perspective, I also mean I want to make art production itself a point of focus for the institution. That’s not to necessarily say we have someone welding sculptures in a loft under the roof. It’s more about making artwork comprehensible, communicating about it in a way that visitors—also those outside of the field—understand the processes behind it.

Long-term and infrastructure-based projects are often hard to convey to a broader audience. How do you plan to do that?

The key is to take a multi-layered approach and to establish communication and mediation on a number of different levels at once. Professional discourse is legitimate and important. But you always have to work on other, parallel formats as well, specifically those aimed at visitors who aren’t already familiar. Talking only to your peers never works. Haus am Waldsee is in Berlin’s more outlying Zehlendorf district, where questions of communication might be somewhat different to those we considered at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Mitte, where I was before. Perhaps we should be thinking about communication on a different level, in terms of atmosphere or a sensory experience: you first have to make people curious. At the same time, you have to get away from this idea that this is something that can be achieved overnight. It takes a number of little steps to get there.

Speaking of Zehlendorf—how do you plan to engage with the surroundings? It’s a district on the south-western edge of the city …

My second exhibition will feature work by Magaret Raspé, an artist who lives on Mexikoplatz, a square very close to Haus am Waldsee. Raspé is 89 years old and we’re organising a proper retrospective for her. To me she embodies a rather radical art history specific to this area, one that is also not so well known. The home of this single mother and divorcée became a popular meeting place for Fluxus artists and Viennese Actionists in the 1970s. It was around that same time that Raspé also made her so-called camera helmet films—work that brought her a level of acclaim in Great Britain and the United States, less so in Germany. She made them by strapping a Super 8 camera to a construction helmet and documenting whatever she was doing, whether that was cooking or painting. Her work explored the automatisms behind everyday labour. How do mental and manual work differ? What distinguishes the work of a female artist from that of a housewife? Raspé told me the other day that she was one of the first members of the Haus am Waldsee friends association—which makes it all the nicer that we can now put on a major retrospective of this artist’s work. She simply didn’t get the recognition she deserved back then.

The building itself has an eventful history. It’s also one of the oldest contemporary art institutions in Berlin, isn’t it?

Right. The house and its garden were built in 1922, exactly one hundred years ago. It was commissioned by the Jewish textile entrepreneur Hermann Knobloch and designed by the Berlin-based architect Max Werner. Though intended as a residence to some extent, it was also to some degree a real estate investment. I think the latter point is interesting, because it drains a bit of the romanticism from this idea of the unspoilt idyll. The beautiful lake behind the house was human-made—not least to boost its attractiveness as a residential area and to lure investors. It was a matter of hard-core real estate development, even back then. Knobloch ran into financial difficulties and sold the property in 1926. Later on it belonged to Karl Melzer, a high-level Nazi cultural functionary, before it was expropriated in 1945. The first art activities here happened immediately after the war, when it was still occupied by Russian troops and even before the US took charge of it as part of the city’s division into different sectors. Then the institution was founded in 1946. I wouldn’t want to do a dedicated archive programme, but the building’s eventful history and local aspects should certainly be a recurring element.

Does that go for the building’s sprawling garden as well?

Certainly, the garden is a key part of what I’m thinking about in terms of the programme. That said, this classic English landscape garden—a listed monument, just recently renovated—embodies a very different approach to and idea of nature than what we actually need today. Arranged along visual axes and designed for aesthetic effect, it was made to please people. These days, we have to think of nature as more of an equal partner. Thinking of ways to do that—again, from an artistic perspective—is one of my main objectives for the long term.

How do you envision realizing artistic interventions in a listed monument? Surely the protected status complicates things.

I don’t consider stipulations like that to be limitations, I think of them as opportunities. Working with and around things like that can be really productive. I don’t believe in neutrality. And I’m sure artists are often overwhelmed by the ahistorical character of the classical modern art space. That’s not to say everyone I invite has to work site-specifically with the house and garden and its history, but certain questions are inevitable when you’re working in a place where people once lived and where nature—or a certain idea of it—is such a prominent feature.

How do you feel about the venue’s location on the so-called periphery?

I think the periphery in general is a very exciting place. You can think about things differently here. You’re not completely out in the countryside, nor are you at the centre in the conventional sense. There is distance and proximity at the same time. That gives you both freedom and opportunities. Another thing is that venturing out of the city centre also means going on at least a little bit of a journey. My hope is that people will take more time as a result, that they’ll think more about what they see. I’d also have to respond with another question: Who actually defines the periphery in the first place? In terms of institutions, there’s the Brücke Museum here in the neighbourhood, for example, and Fluentum has been here for a few years as well. These are just different points of reference, another set of coordinates. So perhaps what we’re dealing with is less the periphery than a different centre.

Leila Heckmat—Female Remedy
15 SEP—8 JAN 2022

Opening 14 SEP, 7.30pm

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