In any moment, it’s nearly impossible to locate or isolate shifts, changes in tendencies, whether social, aesthetic, or otherwise—banal critical statement of the year, certainly. But, for Berlin’s (and the art world’s at large) current state of flux, of non-identity and non-identification, perhaps such a naming is needed. For Robin van den Akker, Timotheus Vermeulen, and gallerist Tanja Wagner, that name is Metamodernism.
So, in the exhibiton you are “Discussing Metamodernism,” but what is Metamodernism?
Timotheus Vermeulen: It’s mainly an attempt to continue language for what’s happening. Everyone realizes, I think, that something is happening, all the magazines are realizing it, but people do not really have the (? immaculacy 00.01.30) to speak about it, they don’t know how to name or how to label things that are happening. Like Ragnar Kjartansson, I think, for example, Šejla’s work, which is infused with what we might call postmodernism, but it isn’t postmodern at all, so something was happening, something was emerging from this postmodern sensibility. Damien Hirst, Cindy Sherman and all those people, you know, who now seem to an extent anachronistic almost, so there’s something very odd going on there, and metamodernism was made as an attempt to come to terms with this. And so because Tanja was working with similar sensibilities, we were talking quite quickly about making an exhibition with the artists that we thought would exemplify these discourses but also take them further.
Tanja Wagner: We’ve been talking about trend tendencies for a long time and what our generation is about, what we feel is important, or what we want to get across. I had the feeling when I was looking for artists for my program, that artists really want to have a dialogue again. They want to engage again, but not in a dry conceptual way. These artists want affect again, they want to talk about love, which I thought was almost not possible, to talk about love, and in a very serious way. We don’t know yet in which direction this is going to go, or is there even one answer, or does there have to be one answer, but still we’re trying to take sides here, so it’s not just open, and you can do whatever, you know.
What do you both see as the turning point for Metamodernism, or is there a turning point that can you peg down?
TV: I think it emerges partly from the variety of crises that were in: the ecological crisis and the geopolitical crises, and the economical crisis. People from my generation, we always thought that we’d have better lives than our parents, and now we are realizing that it’s possible that we won’t. So it’s both a reaction to all sorts of things happening around us in the world and to the generation above us, a generation of baby boomers and post baby boomers for whom life was great and easy, and they could do whatever they wanted, which is a simplification of course, but I think there was this sensibility, and I think it was this generation saying, “All right parents, that’s okay, but we need to do something, we need to find a way in order to get ahead, to get better, to do something new.” It is very much a generation thing. I think it’s fair to say that somewhere in the early 2000’s, things were changing.
So, is part of the movement Metamodernism to reclaim the soul or autonomy of art rather than it’s object life?
TV: Yeah, I think so. Postmosdernism is engrained in our souls. We don’t have a soul, but it’s engrained in a fragmentary thing that we might call a soul. There’s so much irony that we would always laugh at everything we do so that we would say “I love you”, but we would laugh about it; we would say “I am a subject, I am a real person”, and we would laugh about it. Postmodernism is completely engrained in us, yet it doesn’t mean that we cannot try to reclaim or claim anew some territory, some space for art as something that might get us somewhere else. So they’re trying to claim a new soul for the arts whilst knowing that to do that is almost impossible. I think what we see now is a movement between these modernist ideals of unity and utopia and the postmodern knowledge that these things are impossible, without really giving in to either one. It’s a constant tension and a “trying in spite of”. We need to try, although we know it’s very likely that we’ll fail. Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst would just say well let’s fail, you know they’re actually going to celebrate failure or celebrate the state that we’re in now or alternatively completely deconstruct that state. And these artists are deconstructing the state that we’re in but at the same time constructing a new thing, which then of course is also impossible.
In some sense is it a negation or temporary suspension of ironic modes of communication?
TV: I think irony is still very much there; I think it’s impossible for us to not be ironic. But what happens with these artists is that for a moment, they put on this sort of sincerity or earnestness, and it’s just suspending irony, they know it’s there, but for a moment they say “I love you”, or for a moment they will say “this is real”. Furthermore, I think we shouldn’t go without irony, because it’s so important as a sort of holding in check keeping us from becoming modern fanatics.
TW: Let’s say two years ago, when you saw the artists and the statements there, they would decide maybe that they would just be funny or ironic, or that they would try to make very clean, cold, conceptual pieces, that were very earnest, Now they’re trying to mix both, to enjoy the art works again and laugh.
So there’s kind of a performative ambiguity present?
TV: Yes, I think so very much, I think that’s really what most of this work is about, to do something although you can’t do it or you shouldn’t do it. You’re constantly putting on a performance to stay sincere or honest as long as you can, although you’re constantly aware that you can’t really. It’s a constant struggle.
How did you go about picking the artists for the show?
TW: I mean, we could have had 150 or just three. I feel very close to the concept, so I’m showing the artists of the gallery, and then additionally eight or nine more positions, which we chose these artists because we felt very close with them, and also because they were very happy to engage in this show.
TV: But it’s difficult, because I mean we came up with the concept of metamodernism because we saw it everywhere, in all the galleries and young galleries and fairs we saw art that was suddenly something different but not grouped, I think what Tanja has done is that she’s really grouped some of these artists that we would find metamodern together, but we saw it emerging everywhere, I’m sure you also.
And nobody knows what to call it but you feel it. It’s a felt, more affective stance.
TV: Exactly. And we came up with the concept of metamodernism and we know it’s a ridiculously grand gesture, especially in postmodern times I think many people think, “Ahh well, what arrogant pricks who think that they can come up with something else.” But I think it’s necessary that we all do this and that we try to make these enormous gestures again of saying we’re seeing this, we don’t have a word for it, try to map out what’s happening. It’s very much like an open source project, where we can all chip in and try to find what is it that’s going on. As you say, everyone feels it, people are feeling that something is changing and they’re always too late to get a hold of it.
How does the theoretical aspect interface with practice? Do you see your job as purely picking up ideas out of what you’re seeing, or is it also an authoritarian stance pushing on artists and their praxes?
TV: I don’t know how it is for Tanja, but for Robin and me it was very much a description of what we saw happening. One of our contributors in the show was Luke Turner; he made a manifesto of the Metamodern disposition. But for us it’s not a manifesto; it’s not a blueprint for how to achieve things. We just want to describe what we think is going on and try to categorize or to get a hold of it or to try to understand what’s going on, but for us it’s a description rather than a blueprint.
TW: For me it actually all started for me when I said that I’ll open my own gallery, showing what am I personally interested in, what I want to talk about, what is different now. We are the new generation of gallerists. We are showing new artists, young artists. I really wanted to work with artists who really engaged again and who told a story. I wanted to open up a dialogue. I wanted to not have a clean space in a very 90s sense, white cube kind of thing.
It’s an interesting thing also for a gallery to do. Is that something that you feel is important for the galleries now, for the commercial market to engage in a deeper discussion as well?
TW: That was my personal idea, but why should it only be the artist that asks questions? Everyone could do this: what do you want to get across working in a bank? I don’t think it’s limited to creative people to get something across. It’s not at all at odds to have a very stimulating program and still be very commercially active. Fortuantely so far this hasn’t proven me wrong. Maybe because of the times collectors are also interested in showing or building up a collection with interested works.
TV: We just really wanted to work with Tanja, actually. We got some offers from other institutions and galleries, but we really wanted to work with someone young and someone we felt was on sort of the same wavelength. We really wanted someone from our generation to do it. It’s not saying that we are discriminating against generations from the past, but we really felt that this should be someone who goes through the same moods and swings as we are going through at this moment.