An in-depth look at being human – A visit to Galerie Tanja Wagner
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The neon sign does not seem quite sure of its message. A quick glance puts the red letters together to form a statement we’ve often seen in public spaces over the past few years: Refugees Welcome. But this one says “Refugees Willcome,” with the blinking “ill” adding a note of fragility, uncertainty.
That’s “ill” as in the adjective meaning sick, hostile, bad, or the noun meaning “evil.” Šejla Kamerić‘s work Refugees Welcome, which is installed in the display window of Galerie Tanja Wagner, raises the question of what remains of the assertion that “We can do this,” as Chancellor Angela Merkel assured her fellow citizens in 2015 regarding the refugees who were then arriving.
At the same time, “Refugees Willcome” could be interpreted not only as a reference to the challenges and problems around the current drama of people who have fled their homes, but also as a perspective on the future: Refugees will come – due to war, but also due to climate change and therefore as those who suffer from our (bad) lifestyle. Reading it that way points to additional challenges that we will have to face in the near future.
With the questions and references called up by Kamerić‘s work, the viewer finds herself, before even entering the gallery, right in the midst of the subject matter of the exhibition How to human. The works shown here, and the artistic approaches behind them, touch on aspects of human interaction in very different ways and shed light on our existence in this world.
The question of How to human – how does it actually work, being human? – also functions as a bracket that binds together the artistic visions represented by Tanja Wagner. And it runs like a thread through the past ten years of gallery work as much as it points towards what is to come. Tanja Wagner, who opened her gallery when she was only 30, has focused from the beginning on art that points out injustices, questions social conditions, opens up new perspectives, and disrupts old hierarchies and narratives.
The question could not be more topical, because especially now, at a time when the climate crisis, extremely worrying social developments and the pandemic are wrenching us with all their different micro and macro effects, it is important to reflect on this question now and then.
But Wagner’s program is not only about challenging things; she is also concerned with “being held by an aesthetic, by the beauty that can emanate from a work,” she said in our conversation at her gallery. Because of course, that is another thing art can do: give the viewer the feeling of being uplifted, understood, or just lost for a moment in the beauty of the work.
And sometimes even artists need someone to give them that feeling. “When the first lockdown happened in spring, there was a lot of uncertainty and a deep need to stay in contact, to have exchanges,” says Wagner. In response to the situation, she put together an online program with the artists where each was free to choose an individual approach. For example, Annabel Daou carried out the 12-hour performance I will worry for you, which was shown live on Instagram Stories. For the performance, she invited people to send her their personal worries over email. She carried each response around her New York apartment with a rosary for fifteen minutes. Šejla Kamerić decided on a live Q&A on Instagram and Kapwani Kiwanga gave an audio interview.
Wagner also says she experienced the lockdown as something positive. It opened up a space where it suddenly became possible to break existing rules and norms and try out something new in a playful way. “Artists are perfect partners for that, of course,” she adds with a laugh. Working together, they came up with a series of editions that all have the same size, printing batch, and price. The editions can be seen on the homepage tanjawagner-editions.com – including the price. “That’s usually a no-go in the gallery world. But I thought, if I don’t try it out now, when will I?”
The editions, as well as the online program and the viewing room, where the current exhibition can be visited online, are getting a good reception: “We’re receiving all kinds of positive feedback and many people are saying thank you.”
But in spite of all the optimism Tanja Wagner exudes, she wishes politics would offer some support for art and culture that extends beyond the current pandemic situation: “The work space for art producers absolutely has to be maintained and also has to stay affordable. In particular with regard to combining family and work, it’s important for artists not to have long commutes. So it should remain possible to work near the place where you live.”
And affordable space also needs to be secured for the galleries. A program like hers would not have been possible from the very beginning without reasonable rent. “Some visions need time to grow. Some of my artists were still at the very start of their professional career when we began working together, some were fresh from the academy. As a gallerist, I think in the long term: even if an artist isn’t yet established when you start working together, I see his or her approach as significant. With that attitude, you have to be able to make it work financially even if not every exhibition is a big success. But that only works if the rent for gallery spaces isn’t too high.”
Galleries are not only a substantial source of income for art production, they are also places where artistic approaches can mature. They are the place where artists and their public meet, and the role they play for people who are interested in art is becoming particularly clear right now. But they’re also an important factor for the city’s economy: “If art and culture – and galleries are part of that, obviously – don’t have a place in the city anymore, there will also be fewer tourists,” says Wagner.
In order to emphasize the importance of galleries for Berlin as a site for art, the Association of Berlin Retailers and Industrialists (VBKI) decided to expand the VBKI Prize for Berlin Galleries this year. For the first time, all nominees were awarded the distinction and received prize money, including Galerie Tanja Wagner.
There’s no need to see the most up-to-date study of galleries commissioned by the Federal Association of German Galleries and Art Dealers and carried out by the Institute for Strategy Development (IFSE) to know that the art market could hardly be called gender balanced. (Out of all the 14,000 artists who are represented by a German gallery, only 35% are women). With regard to Berlin alone, checking www.indexberlin.com for the list of artists currently exhibiting tells the whole story. In this respect, Galerie Tanja Wagner is a trailblazer: only one of the ten approaches is by a man. Angelika J. Trojnarski and Šejla Kamerić have been there from the beginning, then came Ulf Aminde, Annabel Daou, Nilbar Güreş, Kapwani Kiwanga – who recently won the Duchamp Prize – Laurel Nakadate, Grit Richter, Lina Scheynius and Anna Witt.
When asked what she thinks about a quota for women in the art world, the gallerist answers right away: “I think a lot of it. There absolutely has to be a quota of that kind for public collections. What kind of representation is it when it’s mostly male artists whose work is bought and exhibited? I think a quota is the only way to achieve a gender-balanced representation quickly. If we didn’t need it, we’d already have parity. Sure, it will lead to discussion, but we can have that discussion. It’s always hard and takes effort to break up old, long-established structures. But it would be good for all of us throughout society if we create parity, represent our existing diversity, and listen to all voices, no matter how diverse they are. We would all profit from that.”
Does she believe her colleagues have the same obligations in that area as the public collections? “Everyone can go their own way, of course, but I think it’s important to become aware as a gallerist of why you make certain decisions, why you are interested in this or that approach to art.”
For Tanja Wagner herself, it’s not gender that plays the decisive role in choosing one artist or another, but rather the themes they have chosen and how they have dealt with them. In an interview with the magazine artist, she recently stated: “To change our societal inequalities and power structures, we need qualities that are traditionally attributed to women. We need to be shown the injustices more clearly, we need an open dialogue about them, we need inclusivity and collaborations with a sense of humanity. Many women artists are bringing up this painful subject and pointing towards alternatives.”
One example of that kind of thinking in the current exhibition is Anna Witt’s work Hautfront. In this video, created as a reaction to the first lockdown last spring, the artist inquires into the effects the pandemic is having on women in particular. “Are we going forwards through this crisis? Or backwards? Or are we walking in place?“ asks the work at one point. Talking to Tanja Wagner at her exhibition “How to human” makes the answer to that question clear: we’re going forwards.
HOW TO HUMAN
10 years of Galerie Tanja Wagner
A group exhibition with works by Ulf Aminde, Annabel Daou, Šejla Kamerić, Kapwani Kiwanga, Laurel Nakadate, Grit Richter, Lina Scheynius, Angelika J. Trojnarski and Anna Witt.
Until: February 13, 2021