"Photography is like a house with many rooms"
He is the first photographic art expert to curate the German pavilion in Venice: Florian Ebner. In the interview, the native of Regensburg talks about his passion for photography, his work as a curator and his idea of a pavilion as a factory.
Interview by Juliane Pfordte
Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa): Mr Ebner, you studied photography, currently lead the Photographic Collection at the Folkwang Museum in Essen and you curated the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Which is the greater passion – the photography or curation?
Florian Ebner (laughs): My time as a photographer is behind me. I worked in photography until 2006, but then realised that there are so many good people who have something to say with photography that the art form does not even need my contribution. But that photographer’s eye is always awake inside me. That’s why I understand photographers better today, I can better empathise with them. It is good to have this experience. But for a curator, it is also nice to trade the contemporary to the historical, and to deal with what generations have done before us. By exploring photography and its history you can learn a lot about the contemporary. The photograph has accepted its place as a well-behaved, legitimate museum piece in recent decades, but it was always very wild. The great challenge is to bring the wild and popular to the museum.
ifa: Is that also the aim of your work in Essen?
Ebner: Yes, I ask myself – of course with respect for the history – how to exhibit history today with the contemporaneity that it had in its own time. This is a goal that any curator should have – especially in photography and especially in this day and age of changing photojournalism and the seductive power of advertising.
ifa: The journalistic image appears in your work again and again, not only in Venice, and most recently in the exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography at the Folkwang Museum, an acquisition from the Tate Modern London.
Ebner: Yes, my interest is a type of photography that looks at the world and the event. In Essen, we have a beautiful collection of experimental photography, for example, the photograms by László Moholy-Nagy. Photography is such a multi-faceted media. There are so many places, visual cultures and points of view to work with. It is like a house in which one can live each day in a different room, as Gustav Seibt once said.
Ifa: In 2014, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier officially appointed you as the curator of the German pavilion. Was that a kind accolade for you as a photography expert?
Ebner: Firstly, it was a personal challenge. Firstly a concept had to be devised for the building for the German Pavilion – a building to display a great deal of outstanding art. On the other hand, it was a brave decision by the panel to select someone like me who is interested in technical pictures and has a specific focus on the production of art. That they chose a photography specialist probably also shows that the areas of technical photos and media public are currently perceived as being very exciting.
ifa: How did you actually find out about the appointment?
Ebner (laughs): In a text message from the chairman of the selection committee. In the very first instance, I thought it was an art student playing a joke on me and testing the reactions of curators. But it turned out to be quite serious afterwards.
ifa: Now one might have expected more photographic works in Venice from a photograph specialist. Tobias Zielony is the only a photographic perspective to be represented. What was decisive for the selection of artists?
Ebner: The basic idea was to start from the present state of the images. We live in a time in which the photograph plays a very big role, but always in conjunction with other digital, circulating media, images and information. My idea was to find artists who deal with the circulation of images of people, goods and information in very different ways. I wanted to create a pavilion in front of the digital horizon, which does not mean that only digital images should be shown.
ifa: So it is a kind of conceptual model of photography?
Ebner: Yes, I wanted to keep open the possibility right from the start of not just exhibiting traditionally framed photographs, but also works that are inspired by what defines photography today. It's about participation and witness. Today we must ask ourselves: What pictures do we actually see? What do we report? Who speaks and who sees these pictures that invite us to supposedly participate in the life of others and which often do little more than tell us about where the Germans spend their holidays. We live in a time in which artists invite us to consider this flood of images and to deal with it differently.
ifa: Has it also became more difficult through the flood of images to recognise art photography?
Ebner: I think there are a lot of forms of art that are created with and about photography. I really want to emphasise this because I've been asked why I have not opted for this or that photographer again. The autonomous author creating images still exists, but there are so many other interesting artists who do not create images primarily, but who react to the presence of images and work from that point analytically. And that's exciting because they allow us to have quite a different approach to images – because they make inroads in this sprawling forest of images.
ifa: Let's go through the corridor in the German Pavilion in Venice. How do the works approach the subject of participation in the world?
Ebner: The work of Hito Steyerl for example, has taken up the question of participation in the digital world. Tobias Zielony has provided his camera to African "refugees" and asked African authors what they think of the refugees and of the Western interest in them, the photographer’s interest. Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk have interpreted the term very differently, namely by asking Egyptian working people to re-enact the balance of power in Egypt in a kind of chamber play.
"We believe that we can participate in everything that happens in the networked world, but basically we are just puppets in a game."
ifa: Participation also plays a role in the work of Olaf Nicolai. His work is a performance on the roof of the pavilion, which you were the first curator to include. Should the roof reveal the visitor's own voyeurism, the illusion of participation?
Ebner: In a way. Olaf Nicolai's work plays with the dialectic of sudden visibility and self-retracting in response to the general expectation of participation in everything at any time. The concept of participation is now so worn out and in fact often just an illusion, as Hito Steyerl’s work beautifully expresses: We believe that we can participate in everything that happens in the networked world, but basically we are just puppets in a game. Things have gone so far no that it is important not to be present or visible, to uninvite others. Thus, the roof is also a place of freedom for those who are up there. You can retire to do your job – in this case, making boomerangs – and you can choose to be visible by going to the edge of the roof.
ifa: Is that where the challenge lies today in dealing with images?
Ebner: Yes, the artists must rise to the challenge of setting boundaries. You must think about what is actually visible, who makes something visible and what should be visible. The challenge lies in the economics of dealing with pictures and information. We live in an age in which many artists must be good "editors", i.e. the publisher and editors of what is happening around them.
ifa: How has the role of images changed in the last century?
Ebner: I believe that if we look back we will see that we lived in a very mediatised society already in the 20th century. Even the Spanish Civil War was an extremely "broadcast" war in the magazines of the time. We live in a time in which we are more aware of what images show us, where media criticism is growing and also the awareness that we are exposed to the flood of images. This is a very exciting development. But of course, images can change the world, like the images of the Vietnam War and its impact on public opinion. Today we have the propaganda videos from IS, two years ago we looked at Facebook photos from the Arab Spring as positive channels and networks. Now you talk about their seductiveness. All this is part of a large form of visibility of images, a power that has for a long time fed into our lives through our screens.
ifa: You gave the pavilion the name "Factory". How does this idea run through the individual artistic works?
Ebner: This idea is interpreted at various levels. It's about work and economics. In the video of Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk, it is obvious because it concerns a privatised and then liquidated factory. In the work by Hito Steyerl, the term appears in the title "Factory of the Sun". Olaf Nicolai's work in turn is not only a performance of artists on the roof, but a factory where boomerangs are made and then sold. When you enter the room of Tobias Zielony, you are in a kind of industrial architecture that should never be seen and has never existed. At the site there was a kind of gauze, a material which distributed a museum light evenly in a 19th-century style. These joists, with which the building has been raised, should never be seen as such, but they give the pavilion an industrial charm, a studio character. However, the factory term is also a kind of response to the action of Okwui Enwezor of permanently reading "Capital" by Karl Marx in the International Pavilion.
ifa: Even the Biennale every now and then is criticised for being commercial.
Ebner: Yes, it was all over the German newspapers that the Biennale is in the difficult position of pursuing a critique of the late-capitalist system and simultaneously focussing on large galleries to fill the exhibition. This review is a problem if you do not know the financial conditions under which curators must develop the Biennale in the shortest of time frames. This problem could have been portrayed and perceived differently, but criticism is always quick off the mark. On the other hand, you are actually trapped in strange paradox when you walk around Venice and pass the big yachts. But that is part of this world, which has actually only been made visible by this criticism.
ifa: The concepts countries devise for their pavilions vary from country to country: While some countries announce competitions for which curators apply, other countries such as Germany appoint curators who can design the entry freely with the support of intermediary organisations. How free did you feel in the implementation of your ideas?
Ebner: No limits were imposed for me. It was a good experience to collaborate with the ifa and the Foreign Office (AA) – Elke aus dem Moore and Nina Hülsmeier supported my concept and the Foreign Office were also very benevolent partners. I felt supported, although there are some very political works that are critical and invite dialogue on economics. These are things which we have to face. Art may be exactly as Frank-Walter Steinmeier has said himself recently in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: Art had the chance to function in a less ritualised way than politics or journalism.
ifa: The original Biennale idea of national representation has been discussed repeatedly in the past 25 years. What is its significance today?
Ebner: Around the turn of the millennium, the idea seemed indeed almost obsolete, but I believe that it is a productive striking surface to repeatedly ask the question: What has this place, which bears the Italian word "Germania", got to do with Germany? What have we got to do with the other? What is the relationship between the art scene in Venice and Germany? Each generation of artists, each curator, has their own answer to that.
ifa: Launching an exhibition in Venice is an appearance before the world public, but also before international critics. How do you deal with criticism?
Ebner: I am grateful for criticism, it is important because it enables you to develop further, that is how debates arise. Criticism already begins with the choice of artists, before anything can even be seen. Criticism would be particularly fruitful if it took a differentiated look at what is at stake in the pavilion: What is addressed here? Is the art dealing with something that reflects the spirit of our time? How is it realised?
ifa: A final question: When and what did you photograph last?
Ebner: The last time was in the Giardini, there were lizards around the German Pavilion. They are picture puzzles, highly abstracted images for my daughter, where you can only see the lizards if you look carefully. The photos are good, though nothing that will revolutionise photography.
ifa: Mr Ebner, thank you for the interview.