BY Vanessa Peterson in Profiles | 26 MAY 21

Andrea Lissoni on How to Keep Museums Alive

Amidst a global pandemic during his first year as Haus der Kunst's artistic director, Lissoni speaks about how the museum communicates with the world at large and what it means to be in dialogue with the past and present 

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BY Vanessa Peterson in Profiles | 26 MAY 21

Vanessa Peterson: I am keen to hear about your first year as director of Haus der Kunst, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. What impact has that had on your programming?

Andrea Lissoni: In all honesty, it hasn’t had a huge impact. I was a little surprised, in fact, that everything I was planning became a reality so quickly: particularly the idea of trying to synchronize the indoor and outdoor lives of the museum – by which I mean our international reach, how the museum speaks to the world. The biggest change for me has been settling into an institution with a complex and nuanced history during a present in which the entire world is in a fragile place.

Photograph of a man stood in a gallery next to red artwork
Andrea Lissoni, 2021. Courtesy: Haus der Kunst, Munich. Photograph: Maximilian Geuter

VP: When your directorship of Haus der Kunst was announced in October 2019, you spoke with journalists about your desire to integrate different forms of artistic knowledge and practice in an ‘open museum’, and how a museum should address the political moment. In the last year, there have been seismic shifts politically and due to the pandemic: how have these changes informed the way you think about institutions and how do they speak to the political present?

AL: When we first went into lockdown in March 2020, there was a clear feeling that it would only last for 40 days. Our initial reaction was to commission Franz Erhard Walther – whose show, ‘Shifting Perspectives’, was affected by the lockdown – to create a text work, Presence (2020), which would appear from sunset to sunrise for 40 days on the external wall of the institution. We tried to break down the boundaries between the inside and the outside of the museum by displaying only Presence – four beautiful sentences about boundaries – on the website for four days as an artwork, connecting the physical to the virtual. There was a key message in that gesture: giving space to an artist to enable him to share his message in real time.

I was also struck by witnessing the unexpected, beautiful moment, during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, of monuments to slavers being taken down in the UK, where I used to live, as well as in the US and thinking: what does a monument mean in this moment? What does it mean to remember? What does it mean, really, to be in dialogue with history in the present? In February this year, we decided to re-install Mel Bochner’s The Joys of Yiddish (2006) – a list of colloquial Yiddish words in yellow font on a black background – on the façade of the Haus der Kunst. The yellow and black colours are a reference to armbands introduced by the National Socialists, and therefore, the work poignantly resonates with the history of the Jewish community in Munich. By re-installing an artwork, we hoped to start a conversation about difficult histories in the present.

German text illuminated on wall of Haus der Kunst
Franz Erhard Walther, Presence, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: Haus der Kunst, Munich. Photograph: Maximilian Geuter 

VP: Your upcoming exhibition, ‘Sweat’, includes the work of more than 25 artists who explore ideas of politics, resistance and postcolonial feminism from the 1980s to the present.

AL: A foundational figure in the show – which was originally meant to open exactly one year ago – is the Angolan artist António Ole, who is an extraordinary painter, sculptor and filmmaker. As a filmmaker he has been engaging with forms of representation of carnival and identity all his life. He made a wonderful film, Carnaval da Vitoria (1978), which acts as the show’s conceptual anchor. Curated by Anna Schneider and Raphael Fonseca, ‘Sweat’ is about bringing together people from different backgrounds, places and generations who are somehow – joyfully, proactively – trying to transform their local state or region. The show has the ambition of a small biennial: it comes as no surprise that both curators previously worked with [former Haus der Kunst director] Okwui Enwezor. It’s a show that moves you, so the title also acts as an invitation to be together: sweating, working, dancing.

VP: As soon as I saw the title, I thought of the ways in which we haven’t been able to congregate recently; it gives a sense of people moving and dancing, occupying space with others.

AL: Exactly. As well as ‘Sweat’, there is also a beautiful show with works by Felix Brenner, Andreas Maus and Kar Hang Mui, who are the winners of the euward8, which is awarded to artists working in the context of learning disabilities. For us, this project is a manifesto: what does it mean to champion diversity? It’s not about saying; it’s about implementing real change and about giving artists an equal platform. My aim is to put ‘liveness’ – sound, performance and dance, but also video and film – at the very heart of the institution: that is my great passion.

Installation view of Franz Erhard Walther at Haus der Kunst
Franz Erhard Walther, installation view, 2020. Courtesy: Haus der Kunst, Munich. Photograph: Maximilian Geuter

VP: What is helping to inform how you think about exhibition-making, artists and the collective spirit you want to foster at Haus der Kunst?

AL: Everything I have been reading passionately over the last 25 years now seems to be central to global thinking. There is so much I’m reconsidering: everything that was at the edges is now at the centre. I believe this is a special moment in history. The most exciting in-conversation about art that I’ve had in the last month was with the musician Lamin Fofana, who shared his incredible thoughts on Fred Moten’s writing.

VP: It feels like things are porous, in terms of art, literature and theory - everything is coming together.

AL: I see artists writing again, in a way they haven’t done since the 1970s. Right now, for instance, Hannah Black is writing in an astonishing way, with an incredible sense of control and knowledge, making important points about art but also writing beautifully.

VP: You mentioned ‘liveness’ being your obsession: is that something you are going to continue to thread through your future plans for Haus der Kunst?

AL: Yes, definitely: I’m aiming for there to be a constant sense of liveness. We are commissioning artist projects, which would have lasted one night normally, that will be stretched out over three weeks. In the spirit of Pan Daijing’s Tissues (2019) at Tate Modern, following a two-day performance or event, documentation of the performance will form the basis of an exhibition, giving a platform to young artists who may not otherwise have the opportunity to show at Haus der Kunst. There will be a continual roster of symposia and festivals – combining live performances and talks – as well as a residency for practitioners deeply engaged with music. All this will give a sense of liveness. It’s important to show that the museum is always alive and waiting for us.

Main image: Mel Bochner, The Joys of Yiddish, 2021. Courtesy: Haus der Kunst, Munich. Photograph: Maximilian Geuter

Thumbnail: Andrea Lissoni, 2020. Courtesy: Haus der Kunst, Munich. Photograph: Maximilian Geuter

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK. 

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