Anda Rottenberg: Tulip bulb

Anna Iltnere

Anna Iltnere

I met Anda Rottenberg in Riga shortly before the awards ceremony for the Purvītis Art Prize. Rottenberg has been familiar with Baltic art ever since she organized the exhibit Personal Time (Art from the Baltic States) in 1996 at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw. From 1993 through 2001 Rottenberg was the director of the Zachęta gallery. She is currently working on an extensive historical exhibit entitled Poland-Germany. 1000 Years, which will be on display in Berlin at Martin-Gropius-Bau from September 23.

You were a jury member for this year’s Purvītis Prize, which is one of the most important awards in Latvian art. In sports such as running, for instance, the fastest runner wins. Who wins in art? 

It’s difficult to define criteria to assert that one work of art is better than another. But that’s the only possibility—to develop a benchmark according to which you make an intelligent choice. I’m engaged by art that reveals a special point of view, a new perspective to see the world. An artist places this before my eyes and says, “Did you notice? This could be important.” Forms of expression have primary importance, too. If a work doesn’t catch my gaze, then I walk right past it. There must be a hook that entices you to stay, to look, and to think.

How often is art able to surprise you, a seasoned art historian, critic, and curator?
More and more rarely (smiles). But when art manages to do so, then that’s a remarkable day. Then I linger awhile and think, “Oh! I have never seen anything like that before.” Even the obvious can remain unnoticed. Until an artist opens your eyes.

The Israeli artist Yael Bartana and her work And Europe Will Be Stunned will represent Poland at this year’s Venice Biennale. You were in Poland’s selection jury—how would you comment on this work? Will Europe really be stunned? 

Yael Bartana is an Israeli artist who creates most of her work in Poland. Her two most noteworthy video works, which will also be on display in Venice, were created in Poland. The curators of the pavilion—Polish curator Sebastian Cichoki and Israeli curator Galit Eliat—suggested creating the work in three parts, therefore the third stage is still in the process of being completed [the interview took place in February of this year – A.I.]. The idea behind And Europe Will Be Stunned is to show that a real Jewish community doesn’t exist in Poland. In comparison it is very, very small. People have begun to think of this as a real problem.

Yael Bratana offers instructions for how to become a Jew in Poland; she will explain what needs to be done. The artist and the curators have also asked me to write a personal “recipe.” This is a serious questions in both the Polish and the Israeli communities, because in Israel there are many prejudices toward Poland. I hope that both of these communities will get to know on another more closely through Yael Bartana’s art.

Latvian art, Polish art. An Israeli artist (who studied in New York and lives in Amsterdam) will represent Poland. Does nationality still have a place in art? 

At international exhibitions, a true representation of national art is no longer noticeable. Even at the Venice Biennale, with its national pavilions, more and more often you’ll see foreign curators invited to organize a pavilion, or an artist from another country asked to participate in an exhibit. In art we are seeing internationalism and searches for a universal point of reference. This isn’t easy to achieve, because an author must be able to find a common language and problem, even if he is deeply rooted in local traditions. Is this good? I would sooner say that it is possible to do this well. A successful example of a universal message rooted in a way of life would be the Tate Modern exhibition series The Unilever Series in London. Every year an artist is chosen who offers something new, yet all of them are united by a synthesis between the universal and the specifically local. The Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s sun [The Unilever Series: Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project, October 16, 2003–March 21, 2004 –A.I.] or, more recently, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s seed project [The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei, October 12, 2010–May 2, 2011 –A.I.], or the Polish artist Miroslaw Balka’s black hole [The Unilever Series: Miroslaw Balka: How It Is, October 13, 2009–April 5, 2010 –A.I.]. Languages differ. You never find the same forms. Yet forms of expression are such that they allow an idea to be translated. This is precisely what we expect in art—so that we can understand everything.

Is there anything in contemporary art that annoys you or gets on your nerves?

Overproduction. Following fashions. And the noise that all works of art make—the visual noise. You have to take a step back in order to be able to think and find something of quality. But you can find it. I still believe that art is able to exist and develop independently of the art market, which is incredibly influential today.

Year after year, new fashion names are produced, and this only increases the noise. You must be strong in order not to rush after them. You have to cleanse your mind a bit.

Speaking of the art market, how is it possible that the price for a work of art can be as high as several million, and that there will always be someone who will pay those millions for it? What, to your mind, is the secret? 

That’s just how people are—it’s nothing new. We have historical information about the seventeen century tulip market in Holland. The bulb from a particular strain of tulip interested so many people that, in order to acquire this rare plant, people were ready to part with their riches and lose their properties. In return, they got a bulb whose lifespan was one season. But that’s just human psychology. I think that nobody really knows why.

I’ll ask you this as an art critic—what does it mean to write a good review? What should you express to readers? 

I try to write with simple words, instead of complexly. I try to find that which allowed me to understand the work of art. If the idea behind a work isn’t clear to me, I can’t pass this on to the reader as a message invested in words. That why I never write about art that I don’t understand. I don’t even try. Overall it’s very difficult for me to summarize my method. Each time I choose a different language, different examples. It’s not easy. But I definitely don’t condemn. I don’t work in the daily criticism that evaluates: this is good and that is bad. If I don’t like a work of art, I turn away. It’s not worth my interest.

But when you see a good work of art, what do you feel? 

A surge of emotions. The first thing is always emotions.