As curators, you have been organizing the Art Collection Telekom, with a focus on contemporary art from Eastern and Southern Europe, since its foundation in 2010. How did this come about?
Rainald Schumacher (RS): We had already been working intensively in the context of exhibition work and the art market. When the opportunity arose to present Deutsche Telekom with a concept for a collection of contemporary art, we asked ourselves what could be particularly interesting from a curatorial point of view. It struck us that one half of Europe was completely underrepresented—not only on the art market, but also in discourse, and in the opportunities given to artists. It was exciting to get involved in an area that we ourselves did not know well, but that is extremely important for understanding Europe’s past and present.
Nathalie Hoyos (NH): In the beginning, there was also the idea of representing the company. of course. But art is a means of accompanying social processes, building bridges, and mirroring Europe’s the diversity. This is particularly evident here—the Art Collection Telekom does not collect works by world-famous artists to adorn itself with, but rather positions from underrepresented regions that comment on developments in their countries, show new perspectives, and use them as a tool for communication, which in turn suits Deutsche Telekom as a corporation.
What did you notice when you started to involve yourselves with eastern and southern European art?
NH: There was always an exchange between eastern and western Europe. But it was striking how little people in the West knew about the East today. We wanted to get in touch with the respective scenes on location and see what was happening there. That provides an insight that is not easy to summarize, because the conditions of production and the infrastructure are so different in each country.
RS: I grew up in a time when conflict between communism and capitalism divided Germany in two. And even if existing communism had its shortcomings, there was a very open discussion about which was the better system, and which could possibly give better answers to really urgent questions. After all, the capitalist system also had its faults. In the ‘80s there were people who believed in socialist ideas, and were convinced that they just hadn’t been implemented properly so far. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, these discussions were stifled and the capitalist system was extended all over Europe without considering which ideas from the East could be useful at all. It seemed to me incredible that this could simply be swept aside, given that an entire generation had been socialized under communism for decades. This ideological discourse and its disappearance are a subliminal theme of the collection.
Which contemporary developments that evidence history do you find interesting in artistic discourses? How do they contribute to an understanding of European integration?
NH: Even if it would be reductionist to summarize such a diverse and extensive region, there is one theme that runs through the whole of the East: it’s dealing with the transition from communism to capitalism, the consequences of which can still be felt today. There are also always biographies of artists who worked underground under the censorship of the communist systems, and who are only gradually being “rediscovered,” in part through the reception of younger artists.
RS: Under the term “Eastern Bloc,” the former control area of the Soviet Union is often seen as a coherent conglomerate. This does absolutely no justice to the reality of its individual countries, because the countries of eastern and southern Europe are extremely different. They have gone through individual histories and developments. In art history, too, there is an incredible range of influences and stylistic expressions. Perhaps the Art Collection Telekom can help to illustrate this, at least in part. In the West, most people know little about the historical background and current developments taking place on the other side of the former Iron Curtain, although they are extremely important for integration in a larger European context. The transformation processes from communist power structures to a sometimes-uncontrolled capitalism, the attempts to establish democracies that sometimes threaten to fail and contort into undemocratic structures—these developments are accompanied by art.
Would you say that art from these transition countries is more authentic in its political expression than Western art?
RS: You can see social reality is being taken up artistically in one form or another. Because the artists in these countries are moving in societies that are undergoing major upheavals, their work is political—and not bold, but subtle and challenging. Its quality is characterized by the fact that the artists directly experience their subjects and comment on them, reflect on them. This is an artistic practice that is close to life and more honest.
How do you select works for the collection?
NH: The narrative quality and content are important to us. A work must be gripping, whether it is disturbing or interesting or beautiful. But we also support local gallery systems, because it is important to give artists an infrastructure and opportunities to produce works. We regularly travel to eastern countries and get in direct contact with the scenes there, otherwise it would not be possible to build up the collection authentically. And in doing so, we also get to know new artists and themes.
You also get to see artists of different generations. Do you see a change between the generations in terms of the transformation in the countries of the East? Do you need a certain distance to be able to discuss them at all?
RS: That depends a little on the generations, of course. In the Art Collection Telekom there are some artists who worked in the ‘70s and ‘80s—half tolerated, a little bit off the beaten track. Then there are those who were just starting out in the time of the revolution, and then those people who were born into the new era and know the communist situation more from parents and grandparents. In the first years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, in some places a really uncontrolled capitalism developed, and new questions were raised about its power structures. All this is slowly being worked through, and many people are only gradually becoming aware of the political and social processes that took place after the collapse of communism.
NH: I think that this reflection is taking place very, very slowly and the reception of art is perhaps a driving force behind it. You can see that museums in many eastern European countries have enormous difficulties in documenting the last 60 years in any way at all.
So, the historical dimension of the transition experience in art is yet to come?
RS: I sometimes have the impression that it’s only the next generation that is looking at what has happened. Nobody likes to deal with their past; people prefer to enjoy the present or look into the future. Especially in difficult stories, there are probably few who say, “What kind of mistakes did we make?” or “What kind of dreams did we once have?” It’s more children who do are doing that, looking at the generation of their parents.
NH: And that can be an extremely painful process within families under certain circumstances. Apart from that, many scenes are still dominated by old artists’ unions that have an insanely conservative understanding of art, and operate in total contrast to the young contemporary artists.
Which regions are you particularly looking into at the moment? Which institutions do you find particularly interesting?
RS: Georgia remains exciting because it is incredibly dynamic. For example, there is a temporary art gallery in Tbilisi. And, of course, Belarus with its political protests at the moment. There is a completely petrified situation there, which can no longer be sustained. Ukraine is also exciting for us. The international community has given many of these countries an ultimatum to either go in one direction or the other—a western European or Russian one. This has torn some of these countries apart, because they were at the beginning of a search for identity, but the world political fabric is forcing them to make an immediate decision.
NH: The Sandwich Gallery is a great place in Bucharest. The National Museum in Tirana is currently re-hanging its fantastic socialist-realist collection by Adam Szymczyk. The Ў Gallery of Contemporary Art in Minsk is also great. These are all exciting projects that really deserve much more attention in the European context.
How important is it to you that works from the Art Collection Telekom are shown in the eastern region?
NH: Many museums in eastern European countries have a very small or no acquisition budget, and are nationally oriented. The special thing about the Art Collection Telekom is that it has a variety that is interesting for museums there. It is important to us that many people can see the works. That’s why we work intensively with eastern European institutions and regularly show exhibitions in the region.
Isn’t it a bit colonialist that a large German company buys works in countries that cannot afford them themselves, and have hardly any collection structure?
RS: From the beginning, we thought about how problematic it is that a work of art is made, seen and discussed on site, and then it is simply bought and taken away. That’s why, from the very beginning, we had the intention to show the works from the collection in eastern European countries again. At the same time, we are also interested in showing the works in other countries, so that we can break out of national borders and create a certain interaction. The Art Collection Telekom enables a view and dialogue beyond national borders, because despite all the differences there is a shared modern history.
The Art Collection Telekom is currently on display in Budapest at the Ludwig Muzeúm. What is on show there?
RS: Keeping the Balance is a very extensive exhibition that shows a third of the works from the Art Collection Telekom. There are many works by women artists who deal with the issue of women’s rights and minorities. What is beauty, how is beauty defined, how is physicality defined, what about domestic violence against women? At first glance, many of the works are aesthetically convincing, and if you engage with them, you will notice that, beyond beauty, they tell relevant stories from the society in which we live.