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Katerina Gregos: "Going to a football match and cheering for your country doesn’t make you a nationalist."

Andreas Trossek (1/2018)

Katerina Gregos talks about "The State is not a Work of Art", an international exhibition, which is part of the "Estonia 100" art programme (questions by Andreas Trossek).


17. II–29. IV 2018
Tallinn Art Hall, Tallinn Art Hall Gallery, Tallinn City Gallery, Vabadus Gallery
Curator: Katerina Gregos
Artists: Ewa Axelrad, Loulou Cherinet, Marta Górnicka, Lise Harlev, Femke Herregraven, Flo Kasearu, Thomas Kilpper, Szabolcs KissPál, Stéphanie Lagarde, Ella Littwitz, Thomas Locher, Cristina Lucas, Damir Muratov, Tanja Muravskaja, Marina Naprushkina, Kristina Norman, Daniela Ortiz, Katarzyna Przezwańska, Jaanus Samma, Ivar Sakk, Larissa Sansour, Jonas Staal, Kristina Solomoukha & Paolo Codeluppi

Andreas Trossek (AT): I plan to ask more general questions today so no evil critics…

Katerina Gregos (KG): (Laughs.) I don't mind evil critics, as long as they're intelligent and they make me learn something!

AT: Yes, exactly. Anyway, we've met here in Tallinn like a year ago when you were here on one of your research trips, but this project has a longer history?

KG: Yes, it was in autumn 2015 when Taaniel Raudsepp, whom I knew in his capacity as an artist before he became the director of the Tallinn Art Hall, approached me. I had worked with Visible Solutions LLC (Taaniel Raudsepp, Karel Koplimets and Sigrid Viir) when I was co-curating "Manifesta 9" in Genk in 2012, and we had stayed in touch because I really appreciated their work. Then at some point he told me he was going to direct the Tallinn Art Hall and I thought that this was really quite progressive for Estonia to appoint an artist at the head of an Art Hall…

(We get interrupted but after a few minutes the interview continues.)

KG: So yes, then he told me he plans to change certain things in the Art Hall and to make it more ambitious by inviting more international curators. And in September, 2015, when he had already become the director of the Tallinn Art Hall, he invited me to do a show. Of course he knew that I do predominately group shows because that's where I think curating actually comes in. I find it always very strange when you see a solo show with three works in it and it's actually curated by someone – that's not curating for me. I see curating very much through group exhibitions, through grappling with complicated issues, creating relationships, thinking about how to generate a dialogue between works and create narratives, connections, etc. So he knew I am a curator who works mainly with artists concerned with socially and politically engaged issues. I don't like to use the words "politically and socially engaged art" because I find it a bit pretentious. And I don't like the term "political art" either because it implies propagandistic subtexts. So I say I am working with artists who are interested in social and political issues because that's where I think artists actually have something to contribute today. There's way too much formal art going on these days, but OK… And so he said, by the way, it's also the centenary of Estonian independence, and of course it was impossible to ignore this context. So I thought, we'll do something that relates to that in some way. But of course it's an independent show.

AT: But I presume this celebratory context will still create certain expectations and add pressure?

KG: Had I been hired by the state, I would have made sure that I have a clause in my contract that would guarantee my artistic freedom. So the "Estonia 100" programme did put a small amount of money in the show but they have no interference in the content, none whatsoever. I think it's important to say that.

AT: OK, so the show…

KG: I thought it would make sense to revisit the ideas of a nation, nation-state and nationalism. It's not that there haven't been exhibitions about this before – I'm not re-inventing the wheel. But it is an issue that merits constant reconsideration precisely because of the geopolitical shifts taking place in the world and particularly in Europe right now. I mean, it has not been so long ago that we have seen this disturbing resurgence of nationalisms on a continent that has had a very dark chapter of similar kinds of tendencies in the 1930s and before World War II. In some countries we see it in a very pronounced way, such as Hungary or Poland. But it also manifests itself with Brexit or with the rise of the AFD in Germany. At the same time, the social, political and economic landscape in Europe is very different from what it was before World War II because we have the presence of transnational institutions, such as the European Union, with their cross-border economic agendas and…

(We get interrupted again. Some minutes later…)

KG: There is a clash between two different world views. One is open, liberal, inclusive, globalist, transnational, cosmopolitan, multicultural, etc. On the other hand there is this insularity of nationalist agendas, a kind of closing in, the development of xenophobic, racist and exclusionary politics, and of course the migration crisis has been a perfect excuse for this. I think it's an existential question for Europe of which of these two world views is going to prevail. So that's the first question. The second question is the very polarized rhetoric that exists now both in the art world and in the mainstream media. In the mainstream media and politics it's presented in an extremely simplistic way as a dichotomy between "them" – the others, the migrants – and "us" who are entitled. Either because of the skin colour or…

AT: "We who have always lived here"?

KG: Yes, all these kinds of national myths. On the other hand, in the art world we have a similar kind of narrow-mindedness, but on the other side, we're all liberal, we're all progressive, and we can all agree that nationalism is bad. My own position is that I like to look at these issues in a slightly more thoughtful manner that acknowledges both political and historical roots, which never come out of the blue, and at the same time also acknowledges certain advantages that the security of citizenship or nation-statehood actually brings. I mean, you can criticize the excesses of the state or nationalist oppression or militarism, etc. But I think one thing we need to acknowledge is that for many Europeans – at least for those who are still living in relatively democratic countries, including this one – actually having a passport and being a member of a nation-state in fact affords you certain securities in terms of mobility, health, education and juridical protection. And we tend to often ignore that. So what I try to aim at is to look at all those grey zones in-between. I also think it's important to say the show is in fact looking at Europe and its borders, it's not a show about nationalism all over the world; it is really looking at the European situation. You have to narrow it down somewhere and looking at these very fine hues. Nationalism – the way the AFD in Germany or Fidesz in Hungary or the Danish People's Party in Denmark or the Golden Dawn in Greece understands it – is very different from the way the Baltic countries understand it. The independence movements in the Baltic countries have been related to wanting to shake off the yoke of occupation – well, the most recent being the Soviet occupation of course but before that was the Russian imperial occupation and the presence of Germans in the Baltic countries – which is a very different kind of nationalism. It's important to understand that. I believe nationalism is not one colour. It's not black, you know, extreme. For example, the separatist movements in Scotland or in Catalonia – that would be another story, completely different story.

AT: Yes. And I guess the scope is also reflected in the fact that this show is really huge?

KG: Yes, the show is exhibited in Tallinn Art Hall, Tallinn City Gallery, Tallinn Art Hall Gallery and Vabadus Gallery. The whole team at the Tallinn Art Hall has been phenomenal; they really went the extra mile. I know this is a big thing here, both in terms of resource and commitment, it's an exceptional thing, and I am really thankful for that. I've also really invested a lot of time into it, you know, I'm not curating by e-mail.

AT: (Laughs.)

KG: So yes, hopefully the show will reach beyond the art crowd, so to speak. Coming back to the concept of the show, there are several issues that come into it. Most importantly this question of inclusion and exclusion in relation to nationalism and citizenship within Europe, which is a really big question in Europe today. But... It is my belief, you know… how shall I put it? Going to a football match – if you're not a hooligan – and actually cheering for your country doesn't make you a nationalist. There are still certain markers of our identity – language being the first and culture being the second – that I actually think are worth preserving. You know, you have your Estonian culture, I have my Greek culture, we can speak English, we can understand each other, we're Europeans – we would probably feel comfortable if we would be living and working in Berlin, for example, like I feel comfortable in Tallinn and in Riga and in Brussels where I'm living but I still have my Hellenic culture.

Katerina Gregos is a curator, writer and lecturer based in Brussels. Currently she is chief curator of the 1st Riga Biennial (2018) and curator of the Schwarz Foundation, Munich/Samos.

Andreas Trossek is the editor-in-chief of KUNST.EE.



Cristina Lucas
211 photographs, each 18 x 24 cm
Exhibition view at Tallinn Art Hall
Photo by Karel Koplimets
Courtesy the artist and Galeria Juana de Aizpuru

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