Interview with Tanja Wagner, founder of the gallery Tanja Wagner in Berlin
Tanja Wagner lives in transit. She represents her artists not only at international art fairs, but she travels all over the world to visit their exhibitions, support them on site, and strengthen their network with collectors as well as curators. But at the end, everything converges in her Berlin gallery on the Pohlstraße.
What is your background?
I studied art history. While still at university I started working at Max Hetzler. I spent a semester in Paris where I worked at Nathalie Obadia and at the Centre Pompidou, and later I spent two months in New York where I worked at PS1 and Gagosian.
So you worked both in galleries, and in museums. Why did you choose the gallery?
Around 2001-2004, the gallery scene in Berlin was still small and intimate. We all knew each other from the openings. With time, I realized that I wanted to be a sort of hinge between the artist, the public and the art production. Through the gallery you can work more closely with the artists, and at the same time you work faster than in an institution. After I finished studying, I went to work at Max Hetzler and I collaborated in the organization of large exhibitions, worked at fairs and traveled a lot. I learned a lot and I enjoyed working with established artists. But after a while I started wondering what is interesting in my generation. So I did many studio visits and I developed a different sensibility that I wanted to communicate.
So you opened your gallery…
Yes, in 2010 I opened the gallery with the group exhibition “The door opens inside”, a sort of fil rouge of the gallery program. Because this is what I am interested in: what touches you inside. Irony and sarcasm are not in the foreground for me. Neither is materiality. The work can be humorous, but it must strike a chord, it must trigger something in you. My artists are all different from each other, but for each of them the human being is in the center of their art. The human being is what drives them.
For example I think of Šejla Kamerić, who deals with her history and identity, or Paula Doepfner, who deals with emotions and with the tension between science and poetry in neurophilosophy.
In your gallery program there are mostly women. Is that a deliberate decision?
In the first exhibition I deliberately decided to show five women. It was in reaction to a colleague who had said that she would have liked to see more art by women but she could not find any exciting artists. So I decided to look for them and I found them quite quickly and naturally. Of course I have wondered if I could do it, because it immediately becomes a political statement. Then I thought that if people think of it this way, that is ok. But I would like to communicate it as something natural. I started working with Ulf Aminde 3 years ago and he is a wonderful addition to the program.
Are you planning on expanding your program?
For now I am good with nine artists. We look after them quite intensively and we also take care of their archives, help them with catalogue production, organization of external exhibitions and so on. I am sure the group will grow, but without pressure.
How is your relationship with the other Berlin galleries?
I have a good relationship with my young colleagues, but also with the more established galleries. Each one has their own program, and that is good. We exchange experiences about technical questions and about our programs.
And can you tell us something about the choice of the neighborhood?
In 2010 the neighborhood around Potsdamer Straße was not very established yet. I looked for a space in this area, but also around Mehringplatz. Then, I passed by this shop, it was a lamp shop, but it had been empty for a long time. Its character was very different: there were carpets and low ceilings. But I knew that I wanted a window on the street, something that is not so common anymore. But I like the mood, the different lighting during the day and how it changes the exhibition. Besides, I like the partition of the space: there are three rooms, but they form a unity. There is not a single right angle in the whole gallery, but many interesting points of view.
Do the artists create also site-specific works?
Yes, quite often. For example, Mariechen Danz covered an entire room with wood speech balloons and painted another room completely black. For her current exhibition she covered the windows and all the lights of the gallery with an orange amber transparent foil to create a womb like space for the works. Paula Doepfner hung ice blocks from the ceiling and, as they were melting, the ice blocks watered some carnivore plants on the ground. Grit Richter built a kind of stage with curtains, painting on top of wall paintings to expand the works into the space.
Where do you find your artists?
In the most different ways. I discovered Paula Doepfner during the final exhibition of the students of Berlin’s Arts University. She was the one who pointed out Mariechen Danz’ work to me. And Mariechen was the one who introduced me to Ulf Aminde’s work. I discovered Grit Richter through an article in a magazine. She had an exhibition in Hamburg and I researched her work after reading about it. I met Kapwani Kiwanga in Rio where I attended the fair and she had a residency. We were in the same B&B. Šejla Kamerić had an exhibition at the DAAD Institute, next to Max Hetzler. I discovered Angelika J. Trojnarski at a group show a friend was part of.
Is there someone who influenced you in a particular way?
Yes, many. Max Hetzler certainly is one of them. But also the artists Mona Hatoum, Monica Bonvicini, and Ernesto Neto. My time in Paris and New York also influenced me. All my artists that I currently work with influence me, my friends and family. There is not just one particular person. This is the exciting part of my profession, and the reason why I remain so enthusiastic. All the travels and the people that you meet contribute to the story you share. There is always more than one direction that you can take, you have to find your own, and I try to communicate this through my program.
Which are the challenges for a young gallery?
It is a crazy challenge to open a gallery and to work with artists; each of them has a particular vision, and you have to share it in the long term. Despite all the obstacles, you have to find your way, and you need to trust yourself and your artists, even though sometimes it can be difficult. You have to let yourself go; the difficult times are also the ones you learn from.
How true is the cliché that Berlin has no collectors?
There are collectors in Berlin, but unfortunately galleries cannot live just of what they buy. One has to look also internationally, for the sake of the artists. I try to travel as much as I can, not only to meet collectors, but also to meet the artists and see their exhibitions in other places. This is a way to build relationships outside of the necessary work at art fairs. Also, more and more collectors are coming to Berlin; in the last years there was an increase of young collectors. But there is not yet a long tradition, like in Rhineland for example.
What is the role of the collector?
As a young collector one has to develop the awareness that with every acquisition of art you actively support the artist: you help the work production, with the rent. Patronage might sound old fashioned, but every sale is a sort of mini-scholarship for a young artist to expand their practice. This is not so clear for many people who start being interested in art or forget about it after years of collecting intensively.
How much of working in a gallery is virtual today?
A lot of things are done digitally: one sends portfolios, images, and texts about the works, also to keep the curators updated about the artists’ work. Of course social media is also important, but they are tools, a mean of communication. The personal contact always comes first for me. I like to see in which collection the work goes, in which apartment. And this is also why I like to build long-term relationships.
What are your plans for the future?
Kapwani Kiwanga is the Commissioned Artist of The Armory Show 2016, and we are of course very happy about that. Also, in January, one of our artists, Paula Doepfner, will curate a show in the gallery for the first time. The title of the exhibition will be The Big Other and will include works by Ulf Aminde, Kerstin Brätsch, Annabel Daou, Antje Engelmann, Thomas Helbig, Kapwani Kiwanga, Marinella Senatore. Paula and I have been working together for a long time, and when I asked her if she felt like doing it, she immediately had the idea. It’s still exciting!
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