Whitehot Magazine

February 2010, Conversation Pieces: A Discussion with Jens Hoffmann

Conversation Pieces
A Chamber Play
Johnen Galerie 
Marienstrasse 10
10117 Berlin
January 9 through April 17, 2010

Curated by Jens Hoffmann

Jens Hoffmann has never been one for making safe choices. As the curator of well over two dozen international exhibitions since the late 1990s, Hoffmann is often accused of assuming an overbearingly authorial stance over his exhibition projects, despite the fact that he himself famously instigated a critical investigation of both curator-as-artist and artist-as-curator modalities in his 2004 project, The Next Documenta Should Be Curated By an Artist. At the same time, there is an understated grace – even modesty – to his practice that often evades his critics. This is particularly evident in the latest of Hoffmann’s ever-ambitious projects, a three-part exhibition called Conversation Pieces, which is meant to replicate the three-act structure of traditional chamber plays. I recently spoke with Hoffmann shortly after the opening of the first act of Conversation Pieces, which is on through the 6th of February at Johnen Galerie in Berlin. On February 13th, the second act, subtitled “Confrontation,” opens, while the third act, “Climax,” will open on March 20th.

Travis Jeppesen:
Until fairly recently—and arguably up to the present—most artists would feel insulted if you called their work “theatrical.” Do you think this still holds true? Is there an inherent theatricality to the works you’ve selected in this exhibition, or are you invoking theatricality merely as a curatorial framing device?

Jens Hoffmann: I think it is hard to distinguish between the object and the way it is displayed; it goes hand-in-hand. I would argue that there is something inherently theatrical about a display and the medium “exhibition” is all display. Don't forget that theatre means “a place for seeing.” The way that artists stage their own exhibition, thinking, for example, about the recent Thomas Demand show at the National Gallery in Berlin, has also contributed to the idea of artworks being theatrical.

TJ: This traditional refutation of theatricality, especially as it plays out in the work of Michael Fried for instance, seems to implicitly enforce the bourgeois myth of the alienation of modern man, and the need for its reflection in the way that art is presented (by the curator) and contemplated (by the viewer.) The theatre, however, has always been a collective experience—one is always part of a large audience, following a group ritual, such as applauding at curtain call, etc. Were you thinking of this dichotomy when planning the exhibition? Do you think that there’s a concrete means of resolving it?

JH: I think one could argue about the different experiences audiences have when seeing theatre and when seeing an exhibition. I am fully aware of what you are describing and it is in many ways a classic argument, I am just not sure if it always has to be the case. I suggested to the gallery that the show would only be open for 90 minutes a day, 7 - 8.30PM. In many ways I have always thought about exhibitions as being a theatre play, the gallery space being simultaneously the seating area as well as the stage. The analogies can go a long way but they do not always fit. Yes, there is a similar way I as a curator collaborate with the artists and the way a director would work with his or her actors. Yes, I like “staging” the exhibition though the use of classic display devices such as colored walls, pedestals, vitrines, wall texts, etc.

TJ: Your curatorial practice has been characterized as highly reflexive, in your constant need to interrogate the very notion of the curatorial through curating. This current project seems to continue in this vein, albeit via a very different trajectory. Is it safe to consider Conversation Pieces as an “autobiographical” project, in that you are applying your own background and training in the theatre to the exhibition space?

JH: It is no more of an autobiographical project than most of my other exhibitions. All of them are very subjective. Here, it was something that was clearly dealing with my studying directing in Berlin, seeing John Gabriel Borkmann by Castdorf at the Deutsches Theatre when I was a teenager and being very impressed, the proximity of the gallery to the Deutsches Theatre, the idea that the Kammerspiel as a genre was developed during the same time as the building that houses the gallery, always thinking that Berlin was such a great city for theatre with world class venues while there were so few places to see contemporary art.

TJ: There is a feeling of understatement, even restraint, in this first act that gives rise to a wonderful sense of mystery or absence. If the artworks and documents are meant to be characters or narrative events in the play, then the audience is forced to imagine the dialogue/relationships. This certainly challenges conventional notions of theatricality—the audience is not being “spoon-fed” here. I guess the question I’m groping towards deals with intention. Everyone will naturally have his or her own interpretation, but for you, what is happening in the first act?

JH: I tried to think about the classic three-act play in which each act has three scenes and I wanted to follow this concept really clearly and see how I could do this with the artworks. I think that the first scene with Lee and Feldmann is very much the beginning of the play, you see the first two protagonists, and their work offers a precious, personal, intimate yet comical start. The second scene sees us moving towards the first conflict. I liked the idea of also playing with scale here, the larger-than-life photographs and the small little metronomes that manage to disturb him, get him out of his play and role. The final room is the first dramatic peak, we see the audience, become one of them when looking at the tennis player - sport as drama and as staged event, Agassi in particular as tragic character in the theatre of life.

TJ: My final question is related to the notion of authorship. In extending the metaphor of the theatre into a three-part exhibition, do you view yourself as the director or the playwright?

JH: I would view myself as the director. I am very much in favor of a subjective and authorial position as curator and I am specifically concerned with the act of exhibition making: the creation of a display, within a particular sociopolitical context, based on a carefully formulated argument, presented through the meticulous selection and methodical installation of artworks, related objects from the sphere of art, and objects from other areas of visual culture. Michel Foucault in his 1969 essay “What Is an Author?” proposed a redefinition of authorship as “a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses.” In recognition of the set of operations and frameworks for the production and circulation of meaning that Foucault was keen to foreground, I concur that the curatorial process is indeed a selection process, an act of choosing from a number of possibilities, an imposition of order within a field of multiple (and multiplying) artistic concerns. A curator’s role is precisely to create order, limit, exclude, and create meaning using existing signs, codes, and materials.


Tim Lee, Rust never sleeps, Neil Young, 1979, 2010
Istallation View;
Courtesy of the artist and Johnen Galerie

Tim Lee, Rust never sleeps, Neil Young, 1979, 2010
Detail; Courtesy of the artist and Johnen Galerie


Left: Hans-Peter Feldmann, Robert, 2003
Right: Hans-Peter Feldmann, Eiereimer auf Stuhl mit Pappsockel, 2003

Istallation View; Courtesy of the artists and Johnen Galerie


Left, floor: Martin Creed, Work No. 223: Three Metronomes beating time, one quickly, one slow and one neither quickly nor slow, 1999
Right, wall: Rodney Graham, Fantasia For Four Hands, 2002
Istallation View; Courtesy of the artists and Johnen Galerie

Travis Jeppesen

Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio. 

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