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by Oliver Rico

Interview with Olaf Kühnemann

Oliver Rico (OR): Olaf, having read interviews and exhibition catalogues, I thought your “nomadic” lifestyle would be a perfect match for our topic of decentralised exhibition-making. Decentralised in this context can firstly mean art that is not created or exhibited at art centres (or in cities) and, secondly, art that questions, displaces, or argues against the centre, or simply puts something on display that cannot be understood in the context of the “centre.” On account of your many different stations in life, you seem to have never had a centre, a proper anchor, that you could use as a reference point. That’s why I would like to know how you make your work and what influences it. I read the following in an interview you gave: “Sometimes I envy people who feel at home in a language and an identity and who create an artwork that tells a clear story. Ambiguity rules my work. Everything I do begins and ends with a question mark, not with a statement.[1] Is that why you turned to family photographs, because you wanted to find an “anchor” or needed a “centre”?

Olaf Kühnemann (OK): At the time, yes, but that was ten years ago. I started with this series of images around the year 2000 and worked intensively on it for ten years. Then I moved from Tel Aviv to Berlin. Zvi Lachman, a professor of art from Israel, was a kind of anchor. He had a strong presence and a huge impact on my artistic identity. No doubt because I was very young—I was ten years old when I first met him, and he was like a father figure. I left Israel and went to New York when I was eighteen. Living in New York was like being in a bubble. I was not a part of the art scene, knew very little about the power structures and the politics prevalent in the world of art. I was very focused on my painting. Predominantly classical painting. That was another important anchor. I had time to engage with art and with painting, but I also felt I had no voice. I was just a student, an apprentice.

Then I went back to Israel and had another identity crisis there. Although I had studied under Lachman and although he is deeply rooted in Israeli art, culture, and identity, he didn’t show us any Israeli art—he showed us Rembrandt, Giacometti, Michelangelo, and the Impressionists. We copied Western art history. I was in Israel, in a country that belongs where? To the West? To the East? Or to both West and East, somehow on the border? Back in Israel, I really asked myself: “Who am I in this whole story?” Then, aged twenty-five and influenced by George Baselitz, I tried out all sorts of stuff, went in many different directions. At the same time, I got a job as a gallery assistant in Israel’s most well-established commercial gallery. Ultimately, I realised that no one could see my paintings; they didn’t exist, so to speak. I gave up my job; I could now concentrate on my art. That was when I discovered my family photographs. I understood, then, that it was personal, my history. I understood for the first time that it could be a subject for my painting. It also enabled me to think about myself and my family and my identity. So I spent ten years painting about the subject. In the meantime, I exhibited my paintings in galleries and museums. Reviews were written, and I was perceived as an artist in Israel. Israel was an important centre for me. But, as we all know, Israel is complicated and a small country. You are inevitably restricted due to its size and geographic location. If you want to get ahead as an artist, you have no choice but to travel.

OR: What motivated you to move to Berlin alongside the professional reasons you mention? You could have stayed in Israel. Or is there something special about these places—Berlin, London or New York—that encourages being an artist?

OK: I am still here in Berlin after ten years. I had never thought I would be here for so long. It was an adventure to start with. My wife and I wanted to get to know something different. A new country where we could go with two children. And, of course, because Berlin is an art centre. But it was more personal. I am German and have a German passport. It was important to me to live in Germany. I was not born in Germany, I had never lived in Germany, and didn’t really have a clue what it means to be German. It was a very good combination, being in an artistic centre and, at the age of thirty-five, finding out more about myself, my German side. However, it has been important to us to remain in touch with Israel to this day. German and Israeli history is also very interesting. These are the reasons why Berlin made the most sense for me.

Olaf Kuehnemann, Birthday, 2006: Oil on Canvas, 95x135 cm. Photo: Ilit Azoulay © Olaf Kuehnemann.

OR: Now, how does being a well-known Israeli artist and recipient of a number of awards who, according to Thames & Hudson, counts among the “100 Painters of Tomorrow,” influence your creative practice? Would you say you were more creative or motivated when you were disconnected from the art scene?

OK: Motivated yes, but you have to look at it from different aspects. When I was eighteen and in New York, I thought I was already grown up. I was very lucky to have been able to attend two renowned art schools. I worked a lot to earn money, but at the end of the day to study and make art is always a privilege. You need time and money to indulge in it. I had all the freedom in the world to play around, to experiment, etc. As a student it was simply fantastic. I was really able to focus on joy and creativity. Life, however, became more complex and responsibilities gather over time. Making money with art is difficult, and all the more so when you have a family to feed. Time then becomes very precious. I would say that 70% of my current time is spent networking. Finding the right balance is difficult, not only for me but also for all artists. 

OR: Networking in terms of finding buyers, or also being part of a discourse, an international collective? Do you still work in isolation, or is exchange—now that you are in Berlin—part of your practice?

OK: Working between Berlin and Tel Aviv, which means following up with past and with potential future art buyers, inviting them to my studio in Tel Aviv and Berlin, and to different art exhibitions I take part in, and also inviting curators for studio visits. Taking part in art fairs where I sell my work and going to art fairs as a visitor to meet new people and make new connections and see what is new in general. I am also working on founding a residency program for Israeli artists in Berlin, which is a lot of work, especially with trying to find funding for something like this.

OR: Does this situation influence your work? If yes, is it a positive or negative influence?

OK: Both. For instance, I was in a very good “residence program” at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien here in Berlin. I didn’t have to worry about money for a year and a half. That is a gift. I had a massive studio and five assistants who helped with everything, whether it was documentation, archiving, creating catalogues, etc... I had no financial worries. Someone gave me the scholarship and bought time for me. When I left the program, however, creativity became more difficult. Now, I don’t have any assistants, my studio is smaller, and I have less time. I sometimes cooperate with galleries, dealers, and curators. I have become increasingly less dependent on galleries in recent years; I make sure that I have direct contact with purchasers and collectors. But it distracts from my work in the studio. I have also tried to be both independent and cooperate with galleries.

Olaf Kuehnemann, Sparkler, 2011: Oil on Canvas, 100x140 cm. Photograph by Oswaldo Budet © Olaf Kuehnemann.

OR: You are part of the art world system. Even though the art world may often criticise economic and political circumstances, it is dependent on precisely these circumstances in order to exist. How do you deal with these contradictions?

OK: For me, it has to do with human qualities, not art itself. How you deal with it. Art is really only interesting because of the people, the relationships. Artists have problems if they are shy, or don’t want to get involved in networking, or their time is consumed by these things. It took me a long time to understand that. I found it really hard work. Art also means people. Meeting people and getting to know them. I don’t go to art fairs to look at art, but to meet people—it’s all about discourse, discussion, history, context, etc. You have to learn to play with the other children. Not to think about the future or the past, but simply to play. Art dealers only want to play with you, too. They come to my studio, listen to my story, look at my paintings, etc. I see the whole thing as a playground. But there again, what does “have to” mean here? There are artists for whom that means nothing, who reject the whole art politics thing, who prefer to be on their own. The consequence of that is that nobody notices them. At the end of the day, no one has to play if they don’t want to.

OR: You say that Art is “only” interesting because of the people and the relationships. What do you mean by that? Would you be doing art if it wasn’t because of the people?

OK: What I mean by art is only interesting because of the people and relationships is: interesting in the psychological sense, meaning that it is a social tool for engagement and discussion. Otherwise, if you don't have an audience and are not taking part in a discourse, then it’s a limited narcissistic experience in the studio.

Olaf Kuehnemann, Hilmar on Dune, 2007: Gouache on paper, 35x50 cm. Photo: Ilit Azoulay © Olaf Kuehnemann.

OR: It’s interesting that meeting people, it’s all about discourse, discussion, history, context, etc. What do you think about how this informal discussion influences the broad organism of the art world?

OK: This is a very general broad question so hard to answer; I guess that if you are meeting many people and taking an active role within the discourse and playing the game, by nature it has influence and is interesting.

OR: You mentioned that there are artists who reject “the politics of the art world.” You don’t think that here exactly art is cutting itself off from the “world”? 

OK: What I mean by this is that if an artist is working mainly in isolation, there is a price they pay for this isolation, the price of not being part of a discourse. There are very good and interesting artists who do work in relative isolation but have other people or dealers or galleries to do the networking for them, where things aren't mixed so much, but this is quite rare; the way the market works today is that most of the time you always have to be doing both.

OR: Who or what is influencing the politics of the art world? 

OK: Many things and people are influencing the politics of the art world: globalisation, very powerful collectors, very powerful artists, curators, dealers, strong galleries, art fairs, museum directors, biennials, journalists, influential art media outlets, etc.

OR: Could it be that that playing the game makes your work less authentic?

OK: When I’m alone in the studio, I try not to submit to the art market or its offers. I try to be authentic. At the same time, however, I try to sell this “realness” in the world of art. For instance, I once exhibited a small installation at a gallery.  When I had it back in my studio again and a dealer came to visit me, he was totally smitten. He said I should do a series, and it was a great success in Israel. At that moment, it was like somehow tapping into honest, playful creativity. At the time, I thought I was maybe compromising, but I realised at the same time that it was a responsible thing to do. Responsible because, as I said earlier, I have a family. That is reality, and life is no different.

Olaf Kuehnemann, Hornby Island, Hertzelya Pituach Living Room, 2009: Oil on Wood. Solo Exhibition, (Schichten/Layers, Exhibition view at Alexander Baumgarte Gallerie – Bielefeld Germany). Photo: Olaf Kuhnemann © Olaf Kuehnemann.

Olaf Kuehnemann, Paintings, 2015: A4 and some things, (Exhibition view at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien - Berlin). Photo: Boaz Arad © Olaf Kuehnemann.

OR: What does your work now relate to? What are your current influences? (to explain what authentic means, because it is a woolly word)

OK: At this point in time, my work relates to issues like free association and identity. My current influences are very varied and from different sources, for example, music, bicycles, other painting, nature, themes like day and night, sun and moon.

OR: What is gained if you are noticed (beyond being able to pay the rent, of course)?

OK: This is a very general question—gained in which way? This is very personal and subjective for each person; what I may feel as gaining, another person may feel as losing, so it’s hard to answer. For me, very subjectively, is that if I am noticed as an artist and as a person it gives a sense of meaning and purpose, it is also nice for the ego.

Olaf Kühnemann (b. 1972 in Basel, Switzerland), lives and works between Tel Aviv and Berlin. His artistic training began quite early, at the age of ten, when he started working as an apprentice with the Israeli artist Zvi Lachman. Later on, he continued his education at the New York Studio School (NY, 1990-1992) and completed his master’s degree at Parsons School of Design (NY, 1992-1994). Kühnemann is a recipient of the Istracard and Tel Aviv Museum Art Prize for an Israeli Artist. In recent years, he has actively exhibited in various galleries in Germany, such as Samuelis Baumgarte Galerie (Bielefeld), Alexander Ochs Galerie (Berlin), and Pavillon Am Milchhof (Berlin), while at the same time he has had a strong presence in Israel with several shows in institutions such as Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art (Herzliya), The Israel Museum (Jerusalem), and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Tel Aviv). His works can be found in public and private collections in England, Switzerland, Israel, Austria, the US, Germany, and Italy.

Oliver Rico (b. 1980 in Zurich) studied sociology and law in Zurich and Lucerne, after which he completed a Master’s degree in communication and organisation sociology in Lucerne. He was a visiting lecturer at the Department of Design/Cast/Audio-Visual Media at Zurich University of the Arts during the 2011/12 semester. In 2017/18 he gained the CAS Curating qualification, again at Zurich University of the Arts. He has worked in Switzerland and Spain as a recording manager and script consultant for short films. Other posts include work as a producer and dramatic advisor for the Actaeon Production Theatre Group and the theatrical association Hengst & Hitzkopf.

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Issue 41

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by Ronald Kolb, Camille Regli, Dorothee Richter

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