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Even the poets were jealous of these: An Interview with Curators, Anke Kempkes and Linn Zhang

Nostalgic Dialogue

By Amanda-Jane Reynolds


Woo Jung Ghil (born 1992) 'Prayer l' 2023. Oil on canvas, 720cm x 700cm. Installation view, photography by Stephen White & Co

‘Even poets were jealous of these’ is an exhibition that opened on the 6th of October within the walls of Vermillon Partners in London. Anke Kempkes and Linn Zhang, although living in different countries, joined together to curate this exhibition, bringing “forgotten” artists alongside their contemporaries of today with the underlying theme of nostalgia. It was thought that nostalgia connotated a romanticised memory brought up through an action or revisiting of a specific environment, but both curators have unveiled its true definition and how it is used in this exhibition.

In this interview with both curators, Anke Kempkes and Linn Zhang, we delve more into their exhibition, nostalgia and their experience together as a curating duo.

A-J: Drawing from the aptly named painting ‘Even Poets Were Jealous of These’ by Sonja Sekula, an artist who aims to represent sleepwalking and the state of connecting with the subconscious, was this painting the source of inspiration for the exhibition? If not, what was?

Linn: Sonja Sekula, an artist associated with surrealist abstract expressionism, shared a similar nomadic lifestyle with other artists featured in this exhibition. We depart from feminist geography, using critical nostalgia as the curatorial starting point, where past, overlooked female artists from a global spectrum are coming together with the contemporaries of the NOW. This exhibition creates new Memoryscapes that touch on the academic debates of memory and diverse belongings, mobility and migration, conflict, and violence with a Queer perspective, inviting audiences to reflect on the factors influencing the significance of women’s memories, restrictions on certain recollections, and the connection of their experiences to the global social-political landscape over the past century. This form of nostalgia enlivens memory as a contemporary spatial practice. This exhibition carries a pronounced transnational agenda that prompts questions about the artists' identities, their sense of self, and the significance of their work and memories.

The concept of nostalgia serves as a central theme in this exhibition, allowing for an exploration of social and political discourses related to subjectivity. It invites the audience to ponder what these women artists desired to envision and why. By doing so, the exhibition encourages viewers to engage with profound reflections on the essence of female desires and the motivations underlying them.

Sonja Sekula (7978-7963) 'Even Poets Were Jealous ofThese', 7947. Gouache and ink on paper, 40cm x 57cm. Installation view, photography by Stephen White & Co

A-J: The exhibition includes a myriad of themes exploring diaspora, feminism, Queer community, spiritualism, and nostalgia. What are the connections between these combinations of themes and why do you feel is it important to show them now?

Anke: When Linn and I met this Spring in London in the course of another intergenerational exhibition of female Surrealists I had curated, we instantly felt that we wanted to work together. Though we come from different backgrounds culturally and scholarly, we sensed an instant shared sensibility with regard to artistic practice, aesthetics and current urgencies of motivation and discourse. For the last two decades I have been reintroducing overlooked female artists of the avant-gardes, and in the last years, I got increasingly interested in the history of Queer Modernism. In this context, I have been researching the forgotten work of Swiss-Jewish artist Sonja Sekula, whose somnambulist painting from the 1940s inspired the title of the show. In the narrative of Sekula’s life, the themes of the exhibition are forming a synthesis: her family left Switzerland and Europe under the rise of fascism in 1938 for New York, as did Polish-Jewish sculptor Feliza Bursztyn, here in view, whose family immigrated to Colombia in 1933 where Sekula met the Surrealists in exile and soon identified with the new artistic innovation of Abstract Expressionism. She lived door by door with the composer John Cage and his partner, dancer, and choreographer Merce Cunningham, as well as Ray Johnston who would dedicate a collage to Sekula after her untimely passing. Postwar America was marked by the politically paranoid and oppressive McCarthy era persecuting people, and in particular protagonists of the cultural scene, with alleged socialist leanings as well as homosexuals. However, different to her artist peers like Agnes Martin and many others in her immediate New York vanguard milieu, Sekula thematised Queer sexuality openly in her work at the time, and until the very end of her suicide in 1963, her last drawing of two entangled abstract nudes was titled “Lesbiennes”.

I think in today’s curatorial practice one needs to think about identity multi-directionally in terms of the at times dramatic intersection of formative dynamics. The experience of exile and diaspora is often intimately linked with a progressively compensatory sense of nostalgia. For an artist like Sekula who identified strongly with the abstract avant-garde of her time, it was nonetheless the earlier impact of Surrealism and a search for poetic and spiritualist expression and relief that drove her work. Today we see a similar urge in the work of young female painters.

Aiko Miyawaki (7929-2074) 'Work', 1962. Oil and powdered marble on board, 24.2cm x 33.4cm x 4cm. Installation view, photography by Stephen White & Co

A-J: Nostalgia is an interesting feeling to tap into when reflecting on traumatic experiences, as its connotations are typically warm with sentiment and longing. Could you tell us about your research into critical nostalgia, and how the theme is woven into the exhibition?

Linn: Nostalgia, as a multifaceted emotion, has been the subject of extensive study spanning the last three centuries. In ancient times, it was often perceived as a neurological and psychological illness closely related to depression and homesickness. However, contemporary research has illuminated various perspectives on nostalgia. Just to list a few, some scholars consider nostalgia a pivotal element in driving social transformations, hastening urbanisation with anxiety-laden responses. Conversely, others contend that nostalgia acts as a catalyst for reviving marginalised histories and traditional rituals. Recent studies reveal that collective nostalgia is marked by feelings of loss, idealisation of the past, and resentment toward the present for falling short.

From my perspective, nostalgia can also be viewed as a unique space or junction where diverse cultural elements and ideologies converge, forming an internalised cultural practice. This practice can either propel us forward, keep us anchored in the past, or even leave us suspended in between. This raises intriguing questions about how we can arrange and perceive time differently, offering alternative angles and perspectives within the realm of art history.

Therefore, curating this exhibition is both thrilling and intellectually stimulating. It provides an opportunity to explore how each artist's dynamics interweave and contribute to a nonlinear timeline in art history, intimately intertwined with the tapestry of research in human geography. In addition to the artists, during the curatorial process, Anke and I exchanged a wealth of information about our past experiences, both professionally and personally. The exhibition is, in a sense, a dialogue between us. While we are curating for an upcoming show, there's always an element we integrate from our own histories, something we feel a deep connection to or yearn for. These emotions persist and significantly contribute to the curation process. In essence, we are engaged in a dialogue not only with the artists but also with our own experiences, forging connections to their unique journeys.

Woo Jung Ghil (born 7992) 'Digesting Noise' 2023. Oil on canvas, 25cm x 40cm. Installation view, photography by Stephen White & Co.

A-J: It is clear the selected artists find inspiration in Abstract Expressionism; what inspired you to feel that this aesthetic would be most effective in encouraging recollection of the social-political climate over the last century?

Anke: The 1950s marked a period in the Western art world of an intense search for spiritual and metaphysical models and subsequently an intense projection on oriental philosophies. Zen Buddhist principles appeared as Asian-inflected modern abstraction and as a projective Western neo-orientalism in the works of Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Michael (Corinne) West, Sam Francis, Agnes Martin, Charmion von Wiegand and John Cage, to name a few, and in the work of two modern women artists in this show, Sonja Sekula and the Dutch Constructivist painter Nikolaas Warb (Sophie Warburg) who lived in Paris and increasingly embraced a spiritualist dimension in her geometric and biomorph abstraction. Young Asian artists on the other hand, like the Gutai formation, reinterpreted traditional Oriental philosophy in new ways. Processing previous disruptive experiences of totalitarian regimes and atomic warfare, they politicised the “void” as a post-traumatic space, “nothingness” as a dimension that conceals vast contents within and conceptualised “silence” as carrying the very presence of the unspeakable or the politically suppressed. This was a perspective that was shared by New York artists such as Sekula, Cage or by Michael (Corinne) West, who in reaction to nuclear warfare acted out a violent artistic gesture by scratching out the centre of her earlier paintings and slashing this newly created void with bold red and black brush strokes. This dramatic visceral relation to painting and the creation of inner existential and psychologically charged abstract landscapes is a tendency that we see in a lot of contemporary abstract gestural work today, particularly when invested with feminist and postcolonial identity politics.

A-J: Not only have “forgotten” female artists been included in this exhibition, but their modern-era contemporaries have been invited to exhibit work alongside them. What do you mean by “forgotten” artists, and why is this an important element of the exhibition?

Linn: When we speak of the "forgotten," we are primarily referring to artists who have received notably less recognition and attention due to their unconventional values and beliefs. The content of what has been overlooked in this exhibition is incredibly rich and diverse. To illustrate, consider the case of Fliza Bursztyn, renowned for her unorthodox critique of political and religious elites. She sought political asylum in Mexico and later relocated to Paris, a journey that reflects her resistance to conforming to conventional norms.

It's worth noting that we've also extended invitations to living artists who share parallel journeys and perspectives, ensuring that their voices and contributions are part of this important discourse. Linjing Peng embarked on her career as a highly-skilled designer at Celine but has consistently challenged the established conventions of the fashion industry, forging her own unique artistic path. Wenyun Xiong, a Chinese artist who was born in 1955, her experiences during both the Cultural Revolution during the 60s, the Economic Reform in the 80s, and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2023 are unique and valuable for subjective research related to Chinese history and contemporary Chinese art. Marissa Stoffer, who is a Dutch-born Scotland-based artist, her work embodies sustainability through feminism ecology, Queer ecology and mythology with the use of trees, which is really both contemporary and ancient.

These artists hold immense significance in being showcased and explored because their experiences are pioneering, especially within the context of contemporary globalisation. Their work touches on a multitude of themes, including diaspora, race, gender, queerness, and the environment. They provide invaluable perspectives that expand our comprehension of these intricate issues, ultimately contributing to a more diverse and inclusive dialogue within the art world.

Linjing Peng (born 7993) 'Pain is the process of growth' 2023. Mixed media sculpture, ceramic, bondage, oil paint, artist scratch, human body size. Installation view, photography by Stephen White &Co.

A-J: As the title would suggest, poetry is a feature of this exhibition, with some of the artists using poetry as their medium alongside painting or sculpture. What is the role of poetry in the concepts of the exhibition?

Anke: The title of this show ‘Even the poets were jealous of these…’ derives from an intimate monochromatic gouache by Sonja Sekula inscribed with this enigmatic and provocative line. Sekula created here a sombre vision of dark figures parading in an imaginative landscape with several black ‘moons’, the ‘Sleepwalkers’ wake’. The work is deeply embedded in Surrealist tropes. Andre Breton, a peer, and friend of Sekula considered the sleepwalker to have privileged access to the world of the subconscious and he promoted the famous expression that the true “poet works in his sleep”. Sekula’s scenario seems infused with mythological underpinnings. The ‘primitivist’ silhouettes, like Pollock, Sekula had studied the culture of the Northern-American Navaho tribe, sketched just of line drawings walk above and below a stark dark road or a river, maybe the demarcation between the world of the living and the afterlife, or the two osmotic realms of wakefulness and dreamscape.

Aside from her alliance with the Surrealists, Sekula had her own deeply personal vision of the sleepwalker’s special dimension, one ‘even envied by the poets’. Like Agnes Martin, the artist was at times haunted by the dark side of the psyche and emotions, possibly and in part inflicted by being a Queer woman in a time of political repression in postwar America and later back in the provincial and repressed milieu of Switzerland in the 1950s. She also spent time in Mexico with other like-minded women artists in the Surrealist milieu like Frida Kahlo and Alice Rahon, here on view, with whom she had formed a close relationship for some time.

Like Sekula, Rahon was a painter and poet and engaged in a painterly universe situated between late Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Both artists created abstracted fantastical landscapes bearing enigmatic cyphers and traces like imprints of the deeper activities of the mind. In my conversations with Linn who brought into the project very young female practitioners, among them several Chinese artists, who currently live and work in London, it was amazing to see how many of the tropes in the work of the female Modernists I introduced to the project, are recurring now in contemporary practice and motivations, like the intense interest in writing poetry, a practice Linn herself shares with extraordinary output.

A-J: I would love to know how you both became a curational duo, considering you live countries apart. Does the distance play a part, and what have you both gained from this professional partnership?

Linn: Our initial encounter occurred at an exhibition Anke curated in London earlier this year, hosted by an art foundation where I was also a lender. Meeting Anke in person was an exciting prospect for me, as I had long been aware of her significant contributions to the art world. It seemed serendipitous that Anke took an interest in my doctoral research. During a relaxed lunch, our conversation flowed naturally, and I learned that Anke had curated for some of my favourite galleries and prestigious museums. It felt as though destiny had brought us together. Since our first meeting, I have had the privilege of learning a great deal from Anke. Her approach to curating is characterised by a classical outlook, elegance, and a profound dedication to the content of her exhibitions. She consistently remains true to herself and her artistic vision. While it may sound cliché, encountering genuinely original curation is a rare and precious experience in today's art world.

Speaking of our working styles, I believe we are both highly committed individuals who also value our need for freedom and solitude. Living apart has allowed us to complement our personalities, and we can always connect through calls or messages to share updates on our new discoveries. I had the opportunity to visit Anke in Engadine, Switzerland in June, following an art event in Basel. The trip was a blend of work and leisure, allowing us to further strengthen our bond.

Anke and Linn’s incredible research and thoughts behind this exhibition has filled my mind with intrigue and interest, to depart from feminist geography and instead put female artists under a different scope. The theme of nostalgia is a compelling curatorial space that has allowed Kempke and Zhang to discover the revelation of continuing themes in nowadays artists' work that their female past contemporaries mediated. Using the nostalgia theme, a different window of insight has opened our minds to encourage the viewer to see the woman behind the work but to also understand what she envisioned from her experience, and the effect of environment and time. It would be hard to disagree with Zhang’s description of the exhibition being “thrilling and stimulating”.

You can visit the exhibition ‘Even poets were jealous of these’ at the Vermillon Partners in London until the 26th of November 2023.



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