You’re a relatively new arrival to Vienna, having moved there last year to lead the artistic direction of viennacontemporary. What’s your take on the city?
Vienna really is a hidden gem! There’s so much going on in the art scene here right now. The density of off-spaces, institutions, and galleries is incomparable. Add to that the academies, and you have a stomping ground full of creative energy, which makes for a scene that is incredibly active and agile. Both, established galleries and younger ones, many of which were only started in the last five years, are working at the highest international level. All this brings a fantastic energy to the city—one that deserves much more attention than it currently receives.
How will does that reflect on the fair?
The established galleries show at the fair, but the emerging scene is also highly present. This is particularly apparent at the exhibition ZONE1, which Cathrin Mayer has curated this year to present the solo exhibitions of eight young artists with a connection to Austria. It’s a very powerful, pointed format that I am very much looking forward to. For the second time running, our “Explorations” section will shine a spotlight on artists who were working between 1945 and 1990. Beyond the commercial framework of a fair, we want to open up an art-historical perspective on artists—in particular, artists from eastern and central Europe—who have a historical quality to their work, and deserve more attention. For galleries, showing the work of an individual artist often presents a great challenge, but at the same time, viewers respond really well to solo shows.
You are one of the few fairs that will take place physically this year. In these times, how do you view the role and responsibility of an art fair?
It is more important than ever to be there. Very early on, we made the decision to let the fair take place against the background of a strong security concept, precisely because art events and fairs were being postponed and cancelled. Accessing a commercial infrastructure is just as important for artists as it is for galleries. Galleries play a big role in enabling artists to do their work. And as a fair, we wanted to be there for our partners. Together with the galleries, our partner institutions and collaborators, we are securing Vienna’s status as an art destination.
So how do you hold a fair in these times, practically speaking?
The same way that we live our lives in these times. Developments change from one week to the next; sometimes from one day to the next. So you have to be constantly on the lookout, often improvise, work together, and get involved in reflexive, creative solutions. viennacontemporary has a solid foundation and a weighty reputation, for which we’re grateful. On the basis of that foundation, we’re working with a fluid format, which—with respect to hygiene precautions—reacts flexibly to current developments. These new factors have also given rise to new formats and collaborations in the context of the fair, which are great, and can and should be further expanded on in future editions.
viennacontemporary is probably the only trade fair that focuses on eastern, southern and central Europe. What makes these regions particularly interesting?
It would be reductive to lump together the many countries of these diverse regions. Many of the countries within them are still thought of in the completely outdated category of “post-socialism.” That is simply no longer relevant. Many of them have already progressed much further than western European clichés would have you believe, and these developments should be given space without being overshadowed by the very dominant established markets. Additionally, political upheavals in these regions are much more intense than in many other European countries, and this profoundly impacts the art that’s created within these contexts.
Where are you seeing new movements within art and culture?
There are so many places to discover right now. Warsaw has a relatively well-established scene that is both continuous and ever-changing. Prague and Budapest are on the same level, with incredibly good galleries. In Belgrade, on the other hand, there is a younger scene that is just blossoming. Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius are also undergoing radical change, with an incredible number of off-spaces, museums and new initiatives launched by galleries. Tbilisi has already made a name for itself in recent years, but cities like Belgrade and Tirana deserve just as much attention. It would take an extensive tour of Europe just to get an overview.
What kind of contributions do galleries from these countries make to viennacontemporary?
The countries of eastern, southern and central Europe are all distinct from one another, and each has its own history and cultural influences. Nevertheless, they give the fair a characteristic that sharpens our profile. Participating galleries from eastern, southern and central Europe have consistently provided positions that have a historical quality. This for example, is also where the idea for the aforementioned “Explorations” came from. We also want to strengthen these regions through external circumstances. There is so much waiting to be discovered, so much cultural wealth to explore—all of which is arguably not as well-known as it deserves to be. We’re working on changing that with our online initiatives, vc_on and the magazine on central east.
Despite all its challenges, what opportunities does the current situation present?
The restrictions imposed by the current situation are tragic for many artists and institutions. But they have also given us time, and forced us to reflect on what we really need, how we want to live, and how we want to work. Many experimental fields have opened up in the process and many new initiatives have emerged in the digital world. This will continue to accompany us in the future. The art world was somewhat behind, and the pandemic has forced us to catch up technologically. In the future, the physical and the digital will go hand-in-hand. Even at the beginning, you could observe how galleries very quickly came together online. This kind of collaborative spirit remains important. Parts of viennacontemporary are now online, so those who cannot be there in person can get in touch with galleries, and see and buy what they bring to Vienna. We want to use this platform to offer new ideas for future collaborations. On a partnerships level, there is more to be done to achieve a universally tangible presence.
Why is now a particularly good time to invest in art?
The lockdown has taught us that we do, in fact, need art. I don’t even want to question the necessary infrastructure, the so-called systemically relevant areas—but what would we have done within our own four walls without the presence of culture? What would we have done without music, or literature, or art? Once again, we have been reminded why art and culture matter. Not only are they intellectual stimuli, but they can also be fun, and socially enriching. So now is the time to show solidarity with and support for artists, and all those who keep art alive. Now is a good time to start.
What discoveries have you personally made this year?
The online initiative not cancelled, which was started in Vienna at the beginning of the lockdown, is still going, and has—digitally—visited many international places; then there’s www.galleryplatform.la. In real life: How good soft openings can be; the new Haus Wien project that is currently underway; the SUMO initiative in Prague.