Interview: Johanna Chromik
viennacontemporary is an international art fair in Vienna, Austria. The fair will be taking place from September 26th to 29th. Their website reads: ”A comprehensive supporting program provides a gateway to the thriving international art scene with focus on the CEE countries, and provides its visitors with an overview of the latest trends and developments in contemporary art. viennacontemporary is a place of art collecting, exchange, and discoveries.” I spoke on the phone with Johanna Chromik, the artistic director of the fair about her approach, the artist community in Vienna, and the photography included in the fair.
Isabella Kazanecki: First of all I’d like to say, congratulations. I know this is your first year as artistic director of Vienna Contemporary. What were some goals you set when you were first appointed? What were the first steps you took?
Johanna Chromik: viennacontemporary of course has a solid foundation which was built over the years and with special characteristics such as the Central Eastern Eurpoean (CEE) focus. It has a very international collector space. Then it has a personal touch in terms of the service. And also the exchange with the exhibitors, institutions, the collectors and so forth. So it’s really a question of OK what do you have and how do you work with it. What are your goals and where do you take it from there. For me it was very important, actually, to emphasize the focus on CEE.
So, one of the first things I did was: I became more familiar with the players in the city. Some of them I’ve known for a few years from my time as a gallery director. Beyond that it was important to get in touch with our network in the region and deepen that. A lot of this is of course about networking. It was important to make the best framework for our clientele which is a lot of young galleries.
This year we added the category “Explorations” which focuses on art from 1945 to 1980 as well as a series of talks and now the fair is running for four days instead of five days which makes it all more concentrated. It adds a different dynamic. We are being very active in thinking about the future for those young galleries and those midsize galleries. This our broader strategy.
Kazanecki: That is a lot of work to do. How amazing.
Chromik: [laughs] Yes so these are the core concepts, you know. And this is all just the beginning!
Kazanecki: Well it’s in a couple days, isn't it, the 26th right?
Chromik: Yes well the preview is on Thursday and the last day is the 29th which is the same day as you know election day in Austria.
Kazanecki: Oh, it is! Oh wow. Do you think that will strengthen the fair or is it a challenge?
Chromik: I do think it can strengthen the fair. Our message this year, our posters and so forth is “Your Vote for Art”. On the other hand is this fantastic project we have called “NSK State in Time.” Every single year the fair showcases a focus country or countries and so this year its Slovenia because this is the base where the NSK movement started. The project itself is about the question of nation state not based on territory but in time. Which is in that sense, I think, a good statement at the right time.
Kazanecki: Absolutely. So in terms of that art-place relationship and...thinking about the city of Vienna. I know it’s changing a lot right now. What is the role of Vienna Contemporary in the burgeoning contemporary art scene of the city? How do you think it will be received?
Chromik: Well there were a few galleries from Berlin that moved to Vienna. Is that what you’re talking about?
Kazanecki: I’m referring to the galleries moving to Vienna and the artists finding studios there. I’ve heard it’s a great artist community in terms of the culture and the cost of living.
Chromik: This is true, yes. When you compare Vienna to other European capitals it’s almost like a hidden treasure. It’s been very under the radar. It’s the tenth consecutive time that Vienna has been selected as the most livable city in the world, for good reason. Really, for good reason. So, how will it be received? We are part of the whole scene. We are not newcomers. I think that viennacontemporary has been growing almost organically. It’s like side by side. We are well perceived we have so many different cooperations on different levels up and running. In particular, as I said in the beginning, with the institutions and also the galleries and so forth. We even have cooperation with the other art fair called Parallel and also the Art Week. Cooperation is very important. It’s a sign of the times. You know putting Vienna’s Contemporary art scene even more to the front. Make it international. Make it more recognizable. If you look at the galleries which have been here for decades and then the new galleries at the same time. They are very visible when it comes to the international art scene and the international market. And so Vienna Contemporary is a very good partner and platform.
And beyond....because we are still here when the fair is over. We are partners throughout the year. We are also here for the beginning of this fall scene and so we are part of this whole choreography of the transition of seasons, I believe.
Kazanecki: That’s a beautiful way to put it: choreography. So I’m interested in this relationship between the new and the established. What do you think the different responses are towards this new scene? I’m talking about those with a longer connection to Vienna, what are their feelings about this new scene?
Chromik: I think they are very happy and glad about it. I used to live in Berlin and work for KOW Berlin and they had a strong relationship with Vienna because Nikolaus Oberhuber was Viennese and so I got to visit Vienna quite frequently and there was always this question of who is going to be the next generation? Vienna has these strong institutions and the academies and Emanuel Layr and Andreas Huber ran these great galleries. But...it was very...you could count it on one hand. And so what we have now means maybe that there is some competition but it’s very fruitful. It’s very nurturing for the people to have these young galleries, and young artists, and young artist run spaces. It’s almost a necessity for the guarantee of survival. Because we can not live only based on the institutions and the academy. You have to have the other side. It’s this whole ecosystem. There are artists being shown apart from a museum show. Because first of all, you have to build them. In terms of the artist run spaces it’s almost like self help. Like creating your own stage. The galleries are doing a really great job now because it’s not only about selling. It’s a lot about PR. It’s about creating a market for this particular artist and so forth. It’s a very very good moment. There’s a good energy and a good spirit all over. That was a very long answer [haha].
Kazanecki: No it’s good. That’s very exciting, actually. So good to hear.
Chromik: It’s an exciting time, really really really. At the same time, you know, it’s not exploding but it’s growing at a very good pace as you can see. So I’m very happy about this.
Kazanecki: Just in the essence of time. I want to get down to photography. I want to ask what Austrian photography can do that is unique to the medium. Why is it important that it be included in the art fair?
Chromic: When you say Austrian photographers, would this be an artist with an Austrian passport?
Kazanecki: Well I know that the description for Zone 1 explained that it would include artists with a relationship to Austria . Whether they studied, lived, or worked there. I’m wondering how that relationship would impact their photography. And furthermore, why is it important to include photography at all in this category?
Chromik: We would have to define Austrian photography. There are ten presentations of photography this year which was made possible by some new funding. We had less last year. So, we had the chance to include ten. And in this zone, most of the artists work with different media. Sophie Thun is a photographer, mainly. And then you also have Marina Sula but she also works in various media. Eva Kot’áková is an artist working with collages, drawings, and installations. She was born in Prague and she studied here but she lives now in Czech Republic. If you look at all of them, though, they have very different backgrounds and work internationally. Austria is just one part of their background. It’s so amazing, actually, that you can’t tell, if there is an Ausrian school. I think it’s tricky because it relates to nationality, or what nationality is. When you look at the Becher school from Düsseldorf, for example, there was this one class and then it was very clear what it was about. In this case, Austria and art, it’s such a vast and complex thing. Titania Seidl, Stefan Reiterer, Thomas Geiger are in Zone 1 as well but they work across disciplines. The photography at Vienna Contemporary is very international. We have photography that ranges from the 70’s to 2019. In our new section, the Explorations section, there is J acqueline Mesmaeker . She is an amazing photographer who works with scanning and collaging. And it’s almost like a direct thread through the section of Explorations. We have this fantastic gallery from Ljubljana, Slovenia called Galerija Fotografija. They bring photography only.
Zone 1 is really about presenting artists under the age of 40 with this connection to Austria. It’s really about presenting the next generation. They have the freedom to work with the medium of their choice. Your readers should check out Sophie Thun. It’s very intense. If you look at the Austrian tradition and body art, Hermann Nitsch for example and all the performance art, here. The very risky art, actually. Then you can probably find similarities. With Sophie Thun, it’s the female body so that goes much further. One could see it under a certain angle.
Kazanecki: I was looking at Thomas Geiger who is included in Zone 1 and I noticed that his photographs in Some Great Europeans were staged and taken in Chandigarh. It seems this work fits the bill in terms of its conversation with the history of performance art as well as that international approach you mentioned. With the young photographers in Zone 1 and the more established ones in Explorations as well as the artists Galerija Fotografija is bringing to the general section it seems like this all will be very exciting. Moving forward, I know that in 2018 Vienna Contemporary secured a ten year lease at the venue Marx Halle. Having made it clear that its here to stay, what do you see in the future for the fair?
Chromik: Well, we would strengthen our external cooperations and our digital strategy to reach the younger generation. There’s really so much to do.
Kazanecki: I think that’s all the time we have. Thanks for your time Johanna!