Kunstverein St. Pauli Art out of the Box

Since mid-2012, Kunstverein St. Pauli (the St. Pauli art association) has been on tour – its motto being “anyone who stays behind will get left behind”. This is how the association, which is a registered member of the ADKV (the federation of German art associations) intends to avoid its own institutionalization: after all, a rolling stone gathers no moss.

Kunstverein St. Pauli exhibition in Langenhagen; Kunstverein St. Pauli exhibition in Langenhagen; | © Andrea Seifert Strictly speaking, the Kunstverein St. Pauli should set sail by ship. It even has an official pirate logo, a skull composed of interlocking hands. This logo is not emblazoned on a sailing vessel, however, but on an overseas container a good twelve metres in length and otherwise painted entirely black.

With this container in tow – which serves as a combined transport box, event venue and tour archive – the smallest of Hamburg’s three art associations will continue its tour of Germany until 2013. On board are also works by six international artists, namely Shannon Bool, Rahel Bruns, Stef Heidhues, Stefan Marx, Bavo Olbrechts and Daniel Wolff.

Commandeering other art associations?

The concept turns much of what normally defines an art association on its head. First of all, it abandons the idea of having a permanent gathering place for its members – which historically speaking is one key constant of the institution: after all, the early art associations were where the emerging middle classes met at the beginning of the nineteenth century to discuss culture and democracy. It also puts paid to the concept of an exhibition having to be planned long in advance and incorporated into an existing programme.
Postcard from the Hamburger Kunsthalle; Postcard from the Hamburger Kunsthalle; | © Kunstverein St. Pauli In a bid to shake up not only the way they think themselves but also the way their “colleagues” in other associations do things, members of the St. Pauli Kunstverein even came up with the idea of commandeering other art associations, though this proved virtually impossible to achieve in practice. Today, the association – after prior arrangement – travels in every conceivable direction. The conditions it encounters when it arrives at its host institution can vary considerably.

Following a detour to Fitjar in Norway, already with a bar and library installed in the container but without the actual exhibits, its first stop was at the Kunstverein Langenhagen near Hannover. There they were able to use a medium-sized office room for the exhibition – and found to their relief that the works they had chosen to bring with them were appropriate.

Defining space

Besides a spikey sphere designed by Daniel Wolff and a landscape of hollow containers by Rahel Bruns, which defines its own space in different ways at each location, they also brought along a large-format painting by Stefan Marx. On it, “Esthetic Stasis” is daubed in handwritten letters; the text is created by gaps in a surface that is otherwise sprayed black, and the lines are wrapped with scant regard for legibility.

This work also asserts itself largely in its own right. It impacts on its environment afresh every time: as an image, comment or question. There are also smaller installations, however, such as that by the Belgian artist Bavo Olbrechts, whose fragile and open forms demand careful and sensitive positioning. Barrel organ work by the artist Balz Isler; Barrel organ work by the artist Balz Isler; | © Kunstverein St. Pauli

Linked by differences

Deciding which works to take with them on tour was the result of a process, explain the artists Franziska Nast, Axel Loytved and Malte Struck, all of whom are founding members of the art association. One thing was clear: they did not wish to export any thematic exhibition, nor a Hamburg selection.

They thus put together the collection on the basis of specific works, and requested the artists concerned to entrust their works to the Kunstverein for a period of time. Other artists were invited – by dint of their individual style – to design objects especially for the tour. The one thing that all the works have in common is the fact that they differ hugely in every respect.

During a brief “home game”, when the Kunstverein St. Pauli appeared in front of Hamburg’s Kunsthalle, the container served as a cinema for a screening of Vanessa Nica Mueller’s film Half the Night - and as an acoustic amplifier for a short barrel organ work by the artist Balz Isler, which had been added in Norway. At the next stop in Leipzig, however, the entire premises of the local art association will be made available to the exhibition.

It will then be necessary to quickly come up with a new and serviceable concept, though perhaps some other exhibits will also be added spontaneously. Despite certain basic parameters being fixed, there is some degree of freedom to react to the local situation.

Crash course in curating

This means that the project is not only a crash course in curating for those involved, but also an interesting experiment for those on the outside – especially when corresponding documentation is achieved. How do the same works assert themselves and how does the same idea function under different circumstances?

That the seven-member board of the art association is able to take spontaneous collective decisions at all is the result of long years of experience. Three years of sharing a maisonette flat with its own exhibition room in Hamburg have turned the Kunstverein St. Pauli into a tight-knit community – though without any elitist or cliquish traits or daring initiation rituals.

“For years, we have existed as a self-managed production site, living space and exhibition room for artists”, reads the art association’s brochure. “We are not a club, not a salon, not a lounge, not a stable”. Kunstverein St. Pauli creates its logo; Kunstverein St. Pauli creates its logo; | © Kunstverein St. Pauli