My interest in Dr Uta’s work has grown over the past few years while I kept a close eye on her curatorial journey, exhibitions, books, etc., generally, her oeuvre. My conversation, this time around, with Dr Uta fueled my artistic endeavours to share her ideas with all those who are usually intimidated by the unknown in the arts. Dr Uta Ruhkamp is, currently, a curator at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg and has been for over a decade now!
Our dialogue began with the genesis of her journey into the art field. She explained, “When I was young, I was a creative spirit and my parents used to take my sister and me to museums, castles etc. and travelled with us. After my A-Levels, I lived in Paris for a year being an au pair, learning French and figuring out what I truly wanted to do with my future. Due to my amateurish drawings and paintings, I was naturally drawn to all the museums and exhibitions happening in Paris. I dived into art history, visited studios of artists like Antoine Bourdelle or Ossip Zadkine and went to all the famous places where ‘the Bohème’ used to meet when Paris was the place to be for artists and intellectuals. This had quite an effect on me and I decided to study art history, languages and cultural anthropology (ethnology). What followed is a long journey into the art world.”
Further, we delved into a conversation about art and her inspiration. Dr Uta mentioned, “I think it was Louise Bourgeois who said that art is her way of coping with life. For Pablo Picasso, art was the best way to understand the culture of the world. Both are very much true for me.
“Art keeps me on my toes and offers a steady change of perspective on life and how to perceive it. With each artist I get to know, each exhibition I see, each project I have the privilege to curate, I am learning. Art offers me constantly new impulses and input. Not at least looking at a good artwork is still extremely pleasing for me.”
AA: Were you always certain about being an art writer and curator? What inspired you to take on these roles?
UR: Honestly, when I decided what I would like to study, I wasn’t sure where my university years would lead me to. Being an art historian is not a job with a proper description, it’s something you study, and at some point, you have to decide which path you want to choose after graduation, what you would like to do with your knowledge and your skills.
Between semesters I tried to get international internships and I worked in different fields of the art world to finance my Master's Degree and PhD. For me, this was a good way to figure out what I wanted to do and to establish a network. I worked at the university, I got an internship at the Musée D’Orsay, I was a travel guide taking groups to Belgium for the weekend to introduce them to cities like Gent with its very famous altarpiece etc.
A decisive step was the internship at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Department in London that made me realize that I would like to concentrate on modern and contemporary art. Having figured this out and having worked for commercial art galleries for many years, I concluded that, for me, it had to be a contemporary art museum or at least one for modern art, favourably both. I enjoyed working with living artists, discovering new ones, seeing how issues of today’s society are mirrored in art and how they cause new forms of artistic expression.
“Not to forget that being a curator, you get the chance to write and publish what I enjoyed.”
AA: What change would you like to bring about in the way art is viewed and discussed? What kind of conversations would you be interested in?
UR: These are two big questions. Well, first, I am a museum curator. From my point of view, it is and it has always been our task to bring artists, artworks, content, research results and new impulses to the attention of a broad public and not only to an intellectual and privileged minority. This is something we are supposed to do in our very best way through well-curated exhibitions, exhibition catalogues and books. Sometimes, I feel that for some curators, as brilliant as they might be, exhibitions have become more about themselves than the other way around.
“So, I am interested in conveying knowledge and I think, sometimes, the best way to guarantee this is dialogue.”
Talking to artists, colleagues, and visitors is very important. It is fine to have an opinion even if you do not come from the art world, and even if you don't have any art education at all. It pleases me when I am able to reach the latter. It is immensely pleasurable when someone tells me at the end of an exhibition visit that he or she is touched somehow and will carry something home!
As for the content, I’m very interested in the whole global art discussion – whatever this highly discussed term might mean – encompassing post-colonialism, gender questions and feminist effects on art production. Most probably due to my anthropological background, I have always been drawn to 'non-western' art positions as well as to female artists in general. I think we must learn that perception and aesthetic standards are linked to cultural contexts. Once a year, I try to explore new parts of the world to get a glimpse of the local art world. This is, for example, how the idea for an exhibition with female artists from India was born; a show that took place in 2018 at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg.
"I was able to transport a lot of new content and impulses in the form of excellent artworks to Wolfsburg and to broaden the horizon of our visitors – and my own."
Dr Uta Ruhkamp speaks about her experience of an exhibition titled 'Facing India' in 2018.
AA: Talk to us about each of your books - it's genesis, the journey, the learning, the unlearning, the art, the artists, the coming together of all these experiences.
UR: I think it is wise to pick out some examples. All my books have been published on the occasion of my exhibitions apart from one, which is a commemorative volume that I edited in 2013 after the director of the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg sadly passed away. Some ideas come from academic research and you might carry them with you for years and others from travel research, visiting exhibitions, art fairs etc. For example, in 2015, did a solo show called This Way with the Danish artist Jeppe Hein, whose social minimal approach to art is very particular. I watched his development for years. We had shown one of his works before in an exhibition called The Art of deceleration. Motions and Rest in Art from Caspar David Friedrich to Ai Weiwei. I had to wait four years to make a solo exhibition with him happen. It was a very personal project, an early retrospective as well as the story of his burnout and how he transformed his recovery into art. For Jeppe Hein, art is a tool to bring people together, to cause communication and interactions. We transformed our big exhibition hall into a labyrinth, people had to find their way and they had to interact with each other and with the art exhibited. It felt quite revolutionary, people were laughing, were talking, and were touched. This was a change of temper in comparison to the usually much more silent atmosphere in the museum. For the exhibition catalogue, we had a very personal vision and published a long conversation between the two of us. Jeppe Hein talked about his burnout and his art. We added other contributions by authors not coming from the art world like the well-known writer Peter Høeg and all exhibition images included visitors experiencing the show. People could relate to this. It was all about finding your way. He introduced me to a new field of literature and paired with our conversations the entire experience got me to think about my way of life and my choices. I’m deeply grateful for this experience and everything Jeppe Hein shared with me.
One year later, I had the chance to realize a big exhibition on British Pop Art; I always wanted to do it because it was part of the research for my PhD. There was a gap in the exhibition landscape, even in Britain, there had never been a large-scale survey show on the birth and development of British Pop Art in a museum. Only Christie’s organized a remarkable survey. So, all doors were open wherever we presented the idea in London and elsewhere. At the museum, we had recently got a new director and luckily, he liked the idea and came on board. As we have to build a new architecture for each show in our exhibition hall, we created a whole city with artist houses and compiled a massive catalogue, including the few female protagonists like Pauline Boty. Each artist had his or her section and a lot of experts contributed to the publication that – if I may say this – became one of the standard reference books for British Pop Art.
As for travelling as inspiration, I went several times to India to discover the country and to meet female artists in their studios. This is how the exhibition Facing India was conceived, wherein Vibha Galhotra, Bharti Kher, Prajakta Potnis, Reena Saini Kallat, Mithu Sen and Tejal Shah's artistic vision took shape. It was a challenge and I struggled. I had to face a lot of questions. Is it possible for a white German curator to travel to India, to choose some artists and to do a show? I mean, is it politically correct to do this nowadays? In my opinion, the time for country-related survey shows has passed, yet I wanted to bring these artists and their ideas to Germany. I think the only answer is dialogue, involving the artists and experts from India. In the end, I decided to give each artist a generous amount of space, which could function as a solo show space including several artworks, some of them massive in size. We had six single shows that added to one big show and I placed a communication centre in the middle of the exhibition to continue the dialogue that I emphasized during the conception of the exhibition and in the catalogue. For the latter, I applied for travel funding at the Goethe Institute and flew again to India to register long conversations with each artist. I wanted them to speak for themselves. Each artist got a separate section in the catalogue encompassing the conversation, images of the works and a short biography. This might be the most enriching and heartfelt project I ever did.
Other projects and books like the one I published on Pieter Hugo accompanying his mid-career-retrospective Between the devil and the deep blue sea develop quite naturally: sixteen series, sixteen chapters. It was again a very horizon-broadening project dealing with the post-apartheid era in South-Africa and beyond. I wrote a long essay on the work of Pieter Hugo pointing out that despite appearances, he is not a documentary photographer, but transforms heavy political and analytical content into staged photography, into art. Pieter Hugo himself wrote a small text on each series and we were quite happy with the outcome of the exhibition catalogue accompanying this show that travelled on to the beautiful Berardo museum in Lisbon.
AA: Have you brought about any changes in the exhibition viewing process at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg as a curator?
UR: Within our team, I see myself as the curator for artistic positions from a transnational context, for political and society related contents and of course, for female artists. Like all European museums, we have to diversify our excellent but predominantly male white collection and I’m glad that works by Gauri Gill, Prajakta Potnis, Mithu Sen and Tejal Shah entered it. In the ten years lying behind me, I worked with three different directors and one year just with a managing director. It was quite a journey, and I am delighted that our current director, Andreas Beitin, is very much interested in my 'global' art interests. I think I delivered some fresh approaches, surveying the contemporary art world, having this special eye on 'non-western' art and being open to new aesthetics. This is a learning process as much for me as for the museum and the visitors. I am certainly not one of those revolutionary curators developing completely new visions on how to make an exhibition, but I think within the frame I am working, I have made some difference.
AA: Which curators of the past, present, and future do you like for their work? And why?
UR: Well, there are so many great art historians and curators. I never really had a role model. My academic training at the curricula did not include seminars on curating or curatorial theory in terms of different approaches which is common in Germany nowadays. It was much more learning by doing. That is why I started working quite intuitively and as we all know art and what we choose to exhibit is to some extent always subjective. Yet, I do think that Harald Szeeman, Germano Celant or Okwui Enwezor have been path-breaking curators like Linda Nochlin has been a great art historian founding feminist art history.
From my point of view, Stephanie Rosenthal, the current director of the Gropius Bau in Berlin, is an excellent curator. She transformed the Gropius Bau focusing on contemporary society and its urging questions. I like the artist she chose for the Biennale in Sydney, her shows at the Hayward Gallery in London or Haus der Kunst in Munich.
Right now, I would like to work with curators from non-European countries like Andrea Giunta and Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, who curated the impressive exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985. Mami Kataoka from the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo conceived some interesting exhibitions. Yet, these are just some names on a very long list of great colleagues. Beyond the usual suspects, for me, it is very enriching to work with researchers from neighbouring disciplines and fields of interest. So, I just conceived an exhibition suggested to me by a professor for cultural history and a dentist: On everyone’s lips. The oral cavity in art and culture. The research results were overwhelming!
AA: What are your experiences with curated exhibitions in other countries, around the world?
UR: This is difficult to answer because after so many years in the art world, a lot of exhibitions stayed in my mind and I wouldn’t do justice to many of them if I picked out one or two. There are a lot of curatorial approaches and the outcome of a show depends on so many factors. Living in Berlin, next to the big museums and institutions hundreds of small project spaces with tiny budgets exist, you can stumble across very well researched exhibitions in off spaces and be disappointed by massive museum shows. I think this is true for most art cities all over the world. The artworld is huge in terms of geographic distances but in the end, most of the exhibitions I have seen are somehow related to each other in terms of exhibition-making. For me, this has always been reassuring.
“Wherever I travel or might be when I enter an exhibition I feel at home.”
AA: Apart from art, what inspires you? What do you look at, read, listen to be inspired?
UR: As mentioned before, I love travelling and discovering cultures. I have always been a 'people's person', which means, I enjoy meeting people from different cultures and talking to them. It is a great way of learning to understand other cultures beyond the usual reading. I spent whole days in nature, which is quite cathartic for me and frees my mind; sometimes, I need this to be receptive again. It goes without saying that I read a lot. For example, I just finished the excellent autobiography of Michele Obama. Currently, I’m reading feminist and queer literature, manifests etc. that are not only art related like Roxanne Gay, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Legacy Russell. Like everyone else, I listen to music, mainstream and jazz, etc. Many years ago, a friend of mine once described himself as 'Homme de Culture' (man of culture), which made me smile. I guess this is also true for me, a cultured person.
Hereafter, our conversation took a meaningfully interesting turn, where we spoke about being a curator and the responsibilities that come with it.
AA: According to you, what makes a successful curator?
UR: The question is how you define success! What is a successful curator? Is it somebody who climbed the career ladder? Is it somebody who has visionary curatorial ideas or somebody who has intellectual influence or somebody who above all is a good networker or somebody who works for many years on an exhibition to present new research results? It all has its right to be!
“For me, it is as simple as that: A good curator should be extremely open-minded and dedicated to the artists; respectively, the art he or she chooses to exhibit should be displayed keeping in mind that the show is meant to convey something to different kinds of people.”
AA: What is your message to young curators, art writers, students of art, and viewers?
UR: Well, I don’t know if I have the wisdom to share that is not already known. It is common knowledge that the art world is small and good jobs are rare. The working hours are long and pay is in comparison to other professional fields much poorer. You must have a passion for it. I can recommend early internships and work experiences to figure out which career path you would like to pursue and to immediately start establishing a network. In my experience, an academic with very good results who never worked in the art world before applying for a job at an art institution is much less interesting for the employer than somebody who might have slightly less impressive results but some experience.
Most art institutions have a lot of work to cope with but a small budget for staff. Therefore, it is an advantage to be able to offer something more than mere academic knowledge. I must say; however, this is just my German experience.
“As for the viewers: Don’t have 'threshold fear'!
Art is for all of us.”
AA: What are the next exhibitions that you're working on? Especially amidst a pandemic, what changes have been made to the viewing processes?
UR: I just opened a show called On everyone’s lips. The oral cavity in art and culture, which might be the biggest show I ever did. It explores the representation of the oral cavity including its inventory (teeth, tongue, uvula...) and all its functions (breathing, breastfeeding, kissing, spitting, vomiting, shouting, speaking etc.) in art and culture. The exhibition encompasses more than 250 artworks and artefacts and covers 2500 years of art and cultural history. The more I regret that we directly went into the second lockdown after the opening. As you might imagine, it was a challenge to realize the show during the pandemic. Worldwide colleagues were working from home and did not get or could discuss loan requests, no board meetings, authors didn’t have access to literature to write their essays for the publication, transports couldn’t happen or were expensive, there were many obstacles and everything happened considerably delayed. I developed a show according to the hygienic requirements of the pandemic, nothing to be touched, an open architecture, time frames for the visitors and still we had to close right after the opening. Up to now, only 1000 visitors have seen the exhibition. We are trying to make it digitally accessible.
I’m now working on a show on art and feminisms together with our director and a guest curator which traces the multiple forms of feminism on a global level. Therefore, we established a global network by using existing contacts and by getting in touch with Goethe Institutes all over the world. The exhibition will cover a period that begins in the early 20th century and ends in the present. Feminism developed many shades in art and society and has, for younger generations, become a popular tool or statement. South America is at the forefront at the moment with activist collectives like Las Tesis. A historic achievement has just recently been accomplished in Argentina where on December 30th, 2020 abortion was legalized; women celebrated this victory all over the streets. It was very touching to see them celebrate their victory. There are still so many battles to fight and it will be our curatorial task to analyze how this is reflected in art. In cooperation with the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung, bpb), we are preparing a comprehensive publication, which will accompany our thematic exhibition. On about 500 pages, the publication will provide a transnational overview of the developments of feminisms in art and society in the 20th and 21st century.
I hope that the worst part of the pandemic will lie behind us when we open the exhibition in 2022.
At the end of my conversation with Dr Uta, I realised that this exchange was more than just another dialogue, her words and direction of thought compel me to think in several different ways of making art not only accessible but approachable.
Dr Uta lives and works in Germany.