INTERVIEW WITH ERIKA HOFFMANN
EHK: Yes, we are still rearranging the collection as we do every July. I do not understand it as an exhibition though but rather as a new set up of my apartment. You are right I usually work around certain works I would like to see again, after they've emerged in my mind, while I was looking at recent exhibitions. A new acquisition may even become a central work, setting the tone or the theme for the next installation. By combining it with works from the storage I try to create a personal context, to visualize the network in the collection. There everything is linked in some way. It just needs a magic code functioning like a magnet, pulled below a chaotic field of iron filings. In contrast to that approach, this year I want to do a homage to Rolf, my husband, who died ten years ago. That means I concentrate on works dating from before 2001, works I haven't shown during the last ten years, works Rolf was particularly fond of. I can't show all his favorites from out of our common purchases – as many of them have performed in my recent installations already. But I became aware that I have preferred less edgy works during the last years, looking more for harmony than for confrontation which, for Rolf, was an essential means to understanding. The current installation’s prevailing question seems to become: What is our life?
EB: When having failed to build a Kunsthalle in Dresden after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, you and your husband moved from Mönchengladbach in West Germany to East Berlin in 1994 and took your entire collection with you to present it to the public for the first time. Can you tell me why you chose Berlin - apparently as a number-two choice after Dresden only - and if and how the city might have influenced your collection and your relation to art since?
EHK: There is an important difference between the concepts for Dresden and Berlin. With the Kunsthalle Dresden we wanted to build an independent institution for showing museum-like exhibitions of 20th century Western art, on loan from a pool to be founded of around 20 international collections of which our own collection would have been just one. We conceived the Kunsthalle as a private/public partnership. In Berlin we were less ambitious. We just looked for a private place to work and live amidst our art works and, at times, share that experience with the public.
However, our mission behind both concepts was the same: to participate in and to even contribute to the dialogue between East and West Germany. For ourselves, in contemporary art, the most meaningful experience had been that of freedom and risk; that experience was what we aimed to offer to our neighbors. Dresden had been our first choice because we imagined this burnt-out city with its amazing collections of old masters to need a signal of a better future – hence we opted for a keen architectural project by Frank Stella. Since we didn’t succeed to convince the leading politicians of our ideas, we turned to Berlin-Mitte, the former Eastern part of the city, as the centre of discussion and dispute between East and West, hoping to be able to realize our ‘own thing’ there.
We did not only bring the objects we collected in the West, but also the conceptions about contemporary art. Their style, I guess, so far prevented a deeper influence of the city of Berlin.
EB: As certainly one of the very first, probably the first private collection to be opened up for visitors in Berlin, do you think your commitment to the city has influenced the development of its artistic context? Do you perceive yourself as an active member of the art community here?
EHK: More important than the opening of the first private collection in Berlin-Mitte was probably the fact that inexpensive studio spaces were abound in run-down buildings. Today the center of the city is so developed that many artists and galleries have moved on to other quarters. Different from those nomads I as a citizen feel responsible for the place we settled in. I try to maintain the private, yet open character of both, the courtyards and the collection, for both, the art community and the broader public.
EB: One of the particularities of your collection is that your private facilities and the rooms for the presentation of your artworks are occupying the very same space - namely the two upper floors of a former sewing-machine factory in Sophie-Gips-Höfe in Berlin Mitte. When describing the conception of your collection and its presentation, you speak about a shift in your relationship to art from a purely private pleasure of living with it to the desire to share this pleasure with others at certain times. Can you tell me how this shift came about and how your experiences have been since you opened your collection for an audience almost 15 years ago?
EHK: When the wall came down we simply felt challenged to do something, even more so as we had given up our profession in 1988 and were free for starting a new life. Of course it still took our heart to step out of anonymity, to publicly show and talk about what we had gathered just for our own pleasure. But today after the feedback from our visitors, after exchanging ideas with people of countless diverse cultural backgrounds, languages, frames of mind and professional knowledge I’ve learned so much about the works I thought I know already that I feel more enriched than I could ever have imagined.
EB: Additional to your exhibition presentations, you regularly organize dialogues with and between artists on specific topics, or you invite guests for joint video watching, amongst other things. You have also emphasized your interest in the conversation on art on a private or more intimate level, for example with your husband, with artists, and also with visitors of the collection. This gives me the impression that your approach to art is oriented towards a possible exchange through art, as much as it is about the artwork itself. Can you describe your relation to the art work, in the double position of being your steady, personal companion and becoming the means by which you reveal your interests, thoughts, conceptions to others? What would you say which role art plays; for you personally, and as a sphere or context in our society?
EHK: Influenced by the disdain of bourgeois greed, cultivated by the younger generation in the 1960s, I used to be more interested in the immaterial ideas, embodied in an art work, than in the material object itself which at first glance often appeared rather bare. In those years therefore my husband and I much enjoyed talking to artists we met at the openings of the Städtische Museum Mönchengladbach. Eventually, we became aware that some of them would even sell their work to us. Once at our home, the art work would enable us to imagine an intellectual and emotional dialogue with the artist at any given moment. Of course, over the years, thoughts, remarks, and all kind of memories accumulate on a given work, so that it may become too loaded to move around freely or to inspire new ideas.
Additional to my personal habit and inclination, there is another reason to encourage the communication about contemporary art: because there are no set criteria or rules how to view or to judge the work, each observation, each comment adds one to the multiple facets of an incomprehensible entity. I am convinced that discussing a work while looking at it stimulates everybody to see with his or her own eyes, to think for his or her own, to make up his or her own mind.