Kathrin Rhomberg's work often finds her approaching borders. Most of her projects and exhibitions over the last 10 years relate to the boundaries of European identity, where she has been a staunch supporter of reexamining particular European issues of national identity, and particularly in Central Europe. With Maria Hlavajova, she's founding director of Tranzit, a long-term initiative that supports exhibition spaces and projects in Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia, funded primarily by the ERSTE Foundation. Through these and other projects, Rhomberg has advocated for attention to the divisions existing in European identity, and for greater attention to Central European artists and art histories.
After directing and curating the Secession in Vienna from 1990 to 2001, in 2000 Rhombert co-curated the third Manifesta, entitled "Borderline Syndrome: Energies of Defense," in Ljubljana with Ole Bouman, Francesco Bonami, and Mària Hlavajová. From 2002 to 2006, she was co-artistic director with Marion von Osten of the Kulturstiftung des Bundes-initiated project Migration. The program spanned disciplines in multiple cities, including Hamburg, Istanbul, Cologne, and Berlin, with exhibitions and film programs selected by Renée Green, Georg Seeßlen, Olaf Möller, Harun Farocki, Diedrich Diedrichsen, Slavoj Zizek, Jutta Koether, and Thomas Arslan at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, and a theater project, X Wohnungen, at the Hebbel am Ufer Theater in Berlin. Rhomberg was subsequently the director of the Kölnischer Kunstverein from 2002 to 2007.
Most recently, Rhomberg curated one of the most successful national pavilions at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, selecting Roman Ondák, an artist whose work she had exhibited before at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, to represent the Czech and Slovak Pavilion. Set in a national pavilion in the Giardini, the artist succinctly reversed interior and exterior, bringing trees and soft mounds of dirt to dwell inside the architecture.
In June 2008, Rhomberg was named the sole curator of the 6th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, which will open early next month. She is also involved with Former West, a project with Basis voor aktuele Kunst (BAK), in Utrecht, the Netherlands, which is a long-term research, publishing, education, and exhibition initiative that focuses on the cultural changes set in motion by the political, economic, and cultural changes of 1989.
ANNA ALTMAN: Berlin as a cityscape has figured prominently in the content of past iterations of the city's Biennial. In 2006, Of Mice and Men, exhibition spaces spanned the length of Auguststraße, making use of historical sites and the range of emotional registers they provided, such as the Jewish Girl's School, a ballroom, and the cemetery. In 2008, When Things Cast No Shadow spanned the entire city and included nightly programming to complement the standing exhibitions. What is your approach to the city of Berlin, and its specific character of contemporary art? How will you use the available urban space that Berlin has to offer?
KATHRIN RHOMBERG: I noticed at the very beginning of my research that Berlin is characterized by a moment of fugitiveness in the sense of the sociologist Zgymunt Bauman. People live here, but at the same time they work or exhibit in other cities. We see a lot of different forms of migration here, which creates an atmosphere of high mobility and flexibility, but also a certain fragmentation. What was interesting in the research for the venues was to see that the availability of urban space in Berlin has changed profoundly compared to the first years of the Berlin Biennale - and I here refer to the turn of the century. There are fewer vague terrains in the city, the empty buildings are often already under preparation for a later use. Luckily, we were able to find a wonderful venue in the quarter of Kreuzberg, a former warehouse, which we were able to complement with several smaller venues nearby.
ALTMAN: You plan to include a new exhibition space in Oranienplatz, in Kreuzberg, for example. What drew you to this location for this Biennale?
RHOMBERG: Kreuzberg is located in the former western part of the city. I think that today it's much more revealing to look at the western part than at the eastern one. The western part of the city has undergone incredible processes of transformation that you overlook easily. Kreuzberg has a big migrant community that can be said to represent the future of our European society.
ALTMAN: How would you characterize the artistic community in Berlin? Does the Biennale aim to reflect this community?
RHOMBERG: There are many international artists and theorists living in Berlin. With them many gallerists and collectors moved to Berlin as well. At the same time Berlin is also a place of very critical art that doesn't always appreciate the market. In terms of the Biennale, this makes for a very interesting field of tension calling forth questions regarding the role of art in our society.
ALTMAN: You've mentioned that you visited over 1000 artist studios and have selected around 50 artists to create new art works for the exhibition. What distinguished the artists you chose? What conditions or suggestions were given for the artworks and artists were invited to create new works for the Biennale?
RHOMBERG: Around 50 artists will participate and there will be a lot of works that have been especially produced for the 6th Berlin Biennale—nearly half of the projects are new productions. I didn't define any thematic requirements with respect to the new productions but in fact invited them because of the positions the artists already demonstrated. At the Biennale, the works will be shown in different exhibition formats: you will see traditional group exhibitions, solo exhibitions, and one historical exhibition, as well as projects presented both in public space and in the media.
ALTMAN: As a precursor to the Berlin Biennale, you planned the Artists Beyond program, which takes place at different cultural institutions throughout Europe and seeks to elucidate the artist's process. What is the importance of the artist's process in the context of the Biennale you're planning?
RHOMBERG: It is one central concern of Artists Beyond to generate synergies on a local level; that is, to bring artists together with art lovers and an interested public from the region. Often you can observe a gap in the sense that the artists who exhibit their works on an international level aren't present in the cities where they live and work. By the means of discussions, studio visits, and cooperations with art academies, Artists Beyond attempts to create a basis for a public discourse and greater attention for local and regional art scenes.
ALTMAN: In addition, Michael Schmidt's photographs will be on display and an exhibition of Adolf Menzel's works will be on view at the Alte Nationalgalerie. What draws you to the work of these two artists? Do you see any relationship between them? What roles do they play in your concept for the Biennale?
RHOMBERG: Adolph Menzel is an important reference for the 6th Berlin Biennale. He created his most important artworks in Berlin in the second half of the 19th century. This historical period had a lot of parallels compared to the present. The social rearrangements that took place in Berlin in the second half of the 19th century were enormous. The number of inhabitants doubled within a very short time; industrialization and growing capitalism led to social changes and differences between classes as well as between the population in the cities and on the countryside. It was when the concept of "alienation" was developed to describe a reality below the visible surface. During this time after the revolution of 1848, Menzel drew a new comparison between art and reality. The experiences of crises can be followed through history and art from that time to the present. With Menzel, we can again ask the question of the relationship of art and reality. But we purposely did not mix Menzel's works from the 19th century with contemporary works. This is the reason for presenting the exhibition, which is curated by Michael Fried, in the Alte Nationalgalerie.
Michael Schmidt, like Adolph Menzel, is an artist from Berlin whose works deal with the city's states of transition. Neither artist withdraws from his present and respective realities; nor does he simply represent or depict the world but make connections to it in different ways. Michael Schmidt is going to show a series of female portraits from the end of the 1990s. We will present these works exclusively in the public space and in the media rather than as part of the exhibition.
ALTMAN: Your introductory text on the exhibition for the Berlin Biennale describes reality as unavoidable, but opens suggestions of different interpretations of reality. What is the importance of addressing contemporary art's relationship to reality?
RHOMBERG: Within the last two decades we faced fundamental social changes. What used to be considered to be safe has ceased to be so. This of course changed the relation between art and the present. As a result contemporary art reflects more or less the fragmentation and confusion that is significant for our globalized world. This is one reason, which raises for me the central question as the one of present-ness and the relationship that art takes to it.
ALTMAN: One of the realities that you have returned to repeatedly in your curatorial work is that of political and cultural boundaries. Manifesta 3 focused on the "borderline syndrome" between Europe and the rest of the world, between Eastern and Western Europe, and between nations. Is Europe, in general, and Berlin, in particular, still suffering from the "Borderline Symptom" leftover from the days of the Cold War?
RHOMBERG: Europe is so diverse and differs so much regionally that I find it difficult to make a generalizing answer to your question. But, after the years of euphoria and confidence that also enveloped Berlin following the events of 1989, what we have experienced since the turn of the century is a growing disillusionment in Europe. If you look at our societies, this underlying mood has supported the emergence of different political and ethical tendencies. In response to global capitalism, neoliberalism, and migratory movements we see growing nationalism and fundamentalism instead of an expansion of democratic ideas. We are also confronted with the topics of racism and xenophobia. In many respects our society is wedged into a structural standstill that was only intensified by the economic and financial crises that began in the fall of 2008.
On the one hand, Berlin is also affected by this underlying situation. But on the other hand the strong influx has made Berlin a very cosmopolitan city-a city in which the collective memory of the former East as well as the former West have been deeply inscribed. This is what makes the city both so unique and productive.
ALTMAN: Another project that you're working on, Former West, also deals with the former division of Europe and the resulting lack of focus on Eastern European art. How does Former West update your approach to similar issues from past exhibitions and projects? What is your interest in this division? Will you have similar issues in mind in your choice of artists and artworks for the Berlin Biennale?
RHOMBERG: I am simultaneously working together with Maria Hlavajova and Charles Esche on the Former West project, which is a critical, emancipatory, and aspirational proposal to rethink our global histories and to speculate upon our global futures through artistic and cultural practice. In contrast to the Former West project, the 6th Berlin Biennale will focus exclusively on our present and the relation that art takes to it. It will not be an exhibition with a historical view. However, I see one clear similarity—both exhibitions will search for a shift of perspectives.
2012, aluminum, wood, sublimation print on polyester and concrete, 71 3/4 by 122 1/2 by 135 inches overall. Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New Yor