An Paenhuysen, Berlin. Photo by Justin Lépany: http://www.lepany.com

Q&A: An Paenhuysen, Art Blogger and Curator (Belgium/Berlin)

by Melanie Trojkovic

Belgium-born but Berlin-based, An Paenhuysen contributes and reflects on one of Europe’s most dynamic art scenes through her work as a freelance writer, curator and art educator. Author of The New World: The Wonder Years of the Belgian Avant-Garde (Merlenhoff-Manteau, 2010), An’s work has been published in various art magazines and exhibition catalogues, and in 2009 and 2012 An guest curated exhibitions at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof- Museum of Contemporary Art. Embracing the online platform as a fervent art blogger, An has much to say about the various influences that impact her own practices, and provides insight into the colourful and sometimes problematic role of an art writer in contemporary Berlin.

PS: Living and working in Berlin, how would you define the role of an art blogger/critic and its contribution to the existing vibrant art scene?

AP: I started my blog in Iceland in 2011. I wanted to write something about the art scene there but the German newspaper I wrote for, told me that they were not interested. This was not that bad because also this paper payed me almost next to nothing. And I didn’t have to worry anymore about what they call in Germany “Verschlimmbesserungen” (editing that tries to improve things but actually makes them worse). So I decided to start a blog to do my own thing.

Berlin has a very dynamic art scene, but art bloggers/critics have, in my opinion, no impact whatsoever—at least, not yet… But that’s a worldwide phenomenon. It goes together with the economic crisis and the way journalists are no longer paid a normal fee. It makes people write about everything that’s on the list just to please the artists, the gallerists and the museum directors. Leafing through Berlin art magazines and newspapers I’m so bored most of the time because it seems based on bluffing.

One of my favourite writers, Ursula Usakowska-Wolf, publishes her reviews in the Straßenfeger, a Berlin journal for the homeless. I think that’s a good way to subvert the stuck-up world of art criticism here in Berlin.

PS: Could you name any particular writers or perhaps fellow critics that influence and inspire your own voice?

AP: I go through phases. Like, last year I had such a crush on Gertrude Stein’s writing. Stein could claim the most absurd things, while speaking the truth at the same time (my favourite is her Picasso book). I’m inspired a lot by the art writing of the 1920s. Siegfried Kracauer knew how to bring art criticism to the level of phenomenology. And Kurt Schwitters’ sarcastic letters to the art critics of his time are pieces of art criticism in themselves.

Then there are the 1950s and 60s with Lillian Ross film journalism (her use of dialogue!), Dorothy Parker’s theatre criticism (sharpest wit ever!) and of course Truman Capote’s non-fiction novels. My 1970s are still empty at the moment… but I just discovered the 1980s with Cookie Mueller (“plastic art writing”!) and Eileen Myles (poetic and queer).

At the moment I’m teaching art criticism for Node Center and in my classes I come upon so much great art writing from students all over the world. So, beware, there is this whole new tribe of art critics on the rise!

In Berlin, I’m a fan of Catherine Nichols, who makes the most beautiful art catalogues ever and she knows how to write with both the eye and the ear. Craig Shuftan masters an associative thinking that brings together things that didn’t belong together before (like Ke$ha and Caravaggio). And the Berlin artist Wolfgang Müller brings the punk attitude into art criticism and he does so mostly on Facebook (vernacular art criticism!).

PS: Having curated various shows, including exhibitions at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum of Contemporary Art, Berlin, does your curatorial practice overlap with your writing interests?

AP: Lately I have been thinking a lot about how to combine art writing and curating. In Berlin there’s this art project space called Insitu that wants to push experimental curating and I was invited to collaborate on a project. If everything works out well, it will be my first try in “literary curating.” The show opens March 12, 2015. But my curatorial practice and writing interests are different in the sense that I also write about art that I don’t like (anger makes me fill the page so quickly!). And as a blogger I like thinking and writing fast, whereas as a curator I prefer slowness—one curatorial project a year is fine to me!

PS: What is one piece of solid advice you would give to aspiring writers? What was your biggest learning curve?

AP: I’m still aspiring too! But I would say it’s good to have writing pals. I meet up with mine every Monday.

PS: You’ve published a book on the Belgian avant garde. How do you feel the online arena versus the traditional publishing method contrast and compare? What impact do you feel the digital environment has on critical writing and reception?

AP: Since I’m teaching online for Node Center, I’m a fan of everything online. I even bought a Kindle!  And I would love to publish an e-book myself. But I also love artist books that are published in small editions. Together with Wolfgang Müller, I published a source book about the 1920s Berlin proto-performer Valeska Gert at Hybriden Verlag in Berlin, and its rarity makes it quite treasurable. The advantage of writing art criticism online is that a hybrid form of art criticism can come about—for instance, by using vernacular language or by approaching the art review in a diaristic, personal way. I think that’s the big problem at the moment in art criticism – there’s a lack of positioning—and art blogging might solve that.

PS: Have you discovered any artists, exhibitions or writers recently who you feel to be particularly progressive?

AP: One person I’ve been working with closely is Wolfgang Müller, who I’ve mentioned before as a writer, but he has many occupations—most importantly being an artist. I meet up with Wolfgang a lot and he can say things that confuse my thinking in a productive way, breaking its underlying structures. For instance, recently I asked him how he finds his topics and he told me: “I’m interested in that which I’m not interested in.” In 2011 we curated an exhibition together about the intersection of deaf culture and hearing culture, and one of the artists was Christine Sun Kim, who I had been following up closely since then. Her work, which focuses on the unlearning of sound etiquette, also opens up a space for new thought I’ve never thought of before. Good art is not about complicating things, Gertrude Stein said, it’s about seeing things in a new way. And there’s a lot of great artists that I write about in my blog—kate hers RHEE, Jennifer Danos, etc… Check it out!

Image credits (from top):

An Paenhuysen, Berlin. Photo by Justin Lépany: http://www.lepany.com

Valeska Gert dancing the Pause in the 1920s. Silkscreen by Wolfgang Müller for the exhibition Pause. Valeska Gert: Fragments in Motion in Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum of Contemporary Art Berlin

Performance by Christine Sun Kim at the opening of Gesture Sign Art. Deaf Culture / Hearing Culture, Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien Berlin, Photo: Malte Ludwigs