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Freisteller
Deutsche Guggenheim Presents Current Villa Romana Fellows



The Villa Romana Prize has been awarded to promising young artists since 1905. It is not only the oldest German art prize but also Deutsche Bank's longest-standing cultural commitment. With the "Freisteller" exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim, this cooperation has reached a new peak. In addition, the show continues the series of exhibitions conceived by the bank in the joint venture with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Silke Hohmann presents the current Villa Romana Fellows.




The Villa Romana in Florence
Photo © Gregor Hohenberg

For a contemporary artist, receiving a fellowship to spend time in Florence can be a burden of sorts. Here, in the "cradle of the Renaissance," art of the highest quality has been ubiquitous for centuries; and the appreciation of art also harks back to a long history of admiration, devotion, and reverence. Considering that young artists are already struggling to emancipate themselves from what has already taken place in art history, Florence can't be an easy place to take on.



Asli Sungu, Ganz die Mutter (quite her mother),
video still, 2006
© Asli Sungu


How does it feel to a newcomer in a foreign country to meet experts who sternly scrutinize everything one does? How does one learn to cope in a place where everyone seems to point to one's mistakes? The artist Asli Sungu, born in 1975, graduated from the Universität der Künste in Berlin, and is one of the four 2008 Villa Romana fellows. Since February of this year, she has been living and working in the classicist villa on the outskirts of Florence. In the work she is planning on showing in the exhibition of the 2008 fellows at the Deutsche Guggenheim, she carries the feeling of always being somehow in the wrong to an extreme. For her video Faulty (2008), she invited four experts to her home, each of whom, standing behind the camera, seek to correct one of Sungu's everyday acts: a dental expert calls her attention to her erroneous tooth-brushing technique; a laundry expert lectures her on the proper way to iron; a chef makes critical remarks about her cooking, and even washing windows provides an opportunity for advice.



Asli Sungu, Ganz der Vater (quite her father),
video still, 2006
© Asli Sungu

The grotesque exaggeration of the superego and the compulsive fulfillment of others' expectations is a constant theme in Asli Sungu's work. For Ganz die Mutter und Ganz der Vater (2006), she asked her Turkish parents each to dress her in the way they'd most like to see their daughter. Two contradictory images emerged: the mother's version resembled a small girl, the father's was more of a businesswoman. "I'm interested in expectations as well as the mistakes and disappointments experienced while attempting to meet these expectations," explains the artist, whose second area of artistic activity-painting-might appear completely different, but also explores the notion of identity and representation. In her paintings, Sungu tries to combine the formal qualities of the work with its thematic content to form a single entity, "which means that the paint and what the paint represents shouldn't be two different things," Sungu adds. To her, paint possesses its own character as material; it shouldn't depict anything more than itself. "In keeping with this idea, I am currently making a wall that consists purely of acrylic paint, such that the wall can stand freely," Sungu says.



Asli Sungu, Frappant, 2005
©Asli Sungu


Standing freely is the leitmotif of the exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim, also in a figurative sense. Some of the works on display were made during the artists' fellowships at the Villa Romana in Florence. And indeed, working in Florence might actually feel liberating-to be embedded in a larger historical context that is simultaneously relatively removed from the current debates and discourses of the major centers of contemporary art.

Yet the show's title Freisteller is less a programmatic dictate than a successful attempt to find a name that describes all four very different positions, while also referring to the institution's tradition of removal to a remote location. The state of being removed, the independence that a stipend to the Villa Romana in Florence was intended to mean for an artist has been a tradition since 1905: the Villa was founded by the Deutscher Künstlerbund with private funds as an institute independent of the German state. At the time, the prize was created as a counter-model to the awards of the state academies. Deutsche Bank, host to the exhibition together with the Deutsche Guggenheim, has been supporting Villa Romana since the 1920s.




Dani Gal, La Battaglia,
video audio installation, 2007
© Dani Gal


The Israeli artist Dani Gal, born in 1977, is an expert in the extraction and isolation of varying phenomena. He removes historical documents from their contexts to enable a new and differing view to arise. His materials are documents from world history; important occurrences appear side-by-side with events from everyday life. One work explores an American school lesson from the 1970s that teaches pupils about the threat of terrorism; another has him searching out the Israeli sound engineer Avi Yaffe, who took his sound-recording device with him into the bunker during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and recorded the first seven hours of the surprise attack.



Dani Gal, The talking mountain of Israel,
video audio installation, 2007
© Dani Gal


In the course of his research, Dani Gal further dissects the acoustic and visual material he collects, separating text and image to spark a remarkable intensity. More than anything, however, he seeks the means in an exhibition situation to establish relationships between language and space, and between the individual viewer and collective history, that can be experienced physically. For Freisteller, he dispenses with the pictorial level, concentrating entirely on space and sound: he manipulates two record players such that an approaching viewer influences the volume and speed of the sound, becoming a performer him or herself. With his references to subjectivity, Dani Gal shows us that our image of reality consists of chance occurrences, errors, statistics-of a collection of moments that could have been remembered very differently. In his installations, he lets the viewer alter the variables of his or her experience.



Dani Gal, La Battaglia,
video audio installation, 2007
© Dani Gal


While the painter Julia Schmidt uses completely different methods, she also collects found items from history, isolates them, and sets them into new contexts. The visual motifs of the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig graduate might be very different in nature, but all are precisely and carefully chosen. Some of her images derive from various print media or the Internet. During the painting process, they disappear-in part.



Julia Schmidt, Untitled (shellac), 2007
Courtesy Casey Kaplan Gallery
© Julia Schmidt


The centers of Julia Schmidt's paintings are often empty; the connections between the individual elements remain vague. Hers is a cantankerous kind of painting that first lures the viewer with familiar forms and motifs and then coyly blocks all narrative or emotional access. "In the exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim, I will be showing a new constellation of images with a heterogeneous spectrum of motifs," the artist announces. "The makeshift construction of a kiosk, excerpts of a beggar painting by Edgar Degas, the grimy crotch of a male figure sprawled in a baroque chair, and pigs' hairs used to manufacture the finest artists' brushes."



Julia Schmidt, Untitled (atelier) I, II , 2007
Courtesy Casey Kaplan Gallery
© Julia Schmidt


Julia Schmidt will present her paintings grouped together on a makeshift-looking wall leaning at a slight angle. There are no protagonists here, no thematic framework. Yet Schmidt addresses a theme nonetheless-the specific questions that the medium of painting poses today, including the question of value and merchandise. She does not address this theme directly, but rather by allowing important and unimportant elements to blot each other out during the painting process, by feeling out meaning and the loss of meaning, and by opposing magnificence with destruction-without aiming for a conciliatory result. Schmidt's painting embodies ambivalence; it is the refusal to agree made visible, carried out in a manner that is both interesting and contradictory-and with supreme confidence.



Julia Schmidt, Untitled (kiosk), 2007
Courtesy Casey Kaplan Gallery
© Julia Schmidt


Clemens von Wedemeyer also investigates ambivalence as the chief feature of a postmodern society. The Hochschule Leipzig graduate, born in 1974 in Göttingen, produces no more than two films per year; he has already taken part in large major exhibitions such as the Skulptur Projekten Münster 07. In his films, which are staged but often appear documentary, he addresses socio-political themes such as urban planning, border policies, and the disappearance of public space. At the same time, his works always examine the medium of film itself, calling the authority of the narrator he creates into question.



Clemens von Wedemeyer, Die Probe (the test),
video still, 2008
© Clemens von Wedemeyer


His contribution to Freisteller investigates the moment of freely chosen failure, of calling everything into question at the height of one's greatest triumph. In his film Die Probe (The Rehearsal) (2008), he details the first minutes immediately after the election of a new president of an unnamed country. Backstage at the election rally of the wining party, the president rehearses his acceptance speech only seconds after he's won. Yet instead of celebrating his victory self-confidently and aggressively, the prepared text is riddled with doubt-not only in himself, but in the entire power apparatus. If he were to give the speech before the public cheering out there in the audience, it would be a resignation speech. Instead of stressing the superiority of his election program yet again, he admits: "My words were merely a means to an end." He wants to refuse.



Clemens von Wedemeyer/Maya Schweizer, Metropolis,
Report from China, video still, 2004-2007,
© Clemens von Wedemeyer/Maya Schweizer


Visibly in doubt, he leaves the backstage area to head for the stage, but the viewer is not told whether or not the president actually gives the speech. Or if he does, if it's not merely part of a pernicious strategy to further increase his power. The loop then begins again; one sees The Rehearsal perhaps two or three times with varying degrees of prior knowledge. The formulation coined by political scientist Thomas Meyer of "politics as theater" comes to mind, introducing other references connecting to the location of the Villa Romana-after all, the media side of politics is hardly as extreme and obvious as it is in Italy.



Clemens von Wedemeyer, Von Gegenüber (over the way), 2007
for 'Skulptur Projekte Münster 07'
Photo: Mühlhoff/Vossiek
© Clemens von Wedemeyer


When Freisteller opens, the artists will have spent only the first three months of their fellowships at the Villa Romana, yet there is already an astonishing coherence among them in dealing with views of the world, despite all the differences in their positions. All four artists address the question of objectivity in their own way; all four create new systems of reference in order to arrive at new insights into contemporary life, entirely in keeping with Florentine tradition.

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