Behind the scenes: the tension starts to ease prior to the opening
This summer's major exhibition AVANTGARDE! runs until 12 October in the special exhibition halls at the Kulturforum and casts the spotlight on the pioneering artistic movements of the early 20th century. Divided into two distinct sections, the exhibition probes the question as to who the avant-garde were and what they wanted to achieve. But what about all the work that has to be done beforehand, so that an exciting exhibition like this can get off the ground in the first place? We posed some questions to the show's curators, Anita Kühnel and Michael Lailach, about the practical considations in creating an exhibition, from the planning stages to the official opening.
Holding an exhibition takes a lot more than just hanging a few pictures up - can you take us through the steps required, from the early planning stages to the opening?
Anita Kühnel: Finalizing the detailed plan accounts for half the total work, because in it you determine what the display will look like. You then have to clarify the details with the designers. It's their job to try to give shape to the contents you wish to convey. In this case, Bernard Stein and Slawek Michalt were the designers and they were brilliant in understanding our intentions and implementing them.
What exactly do the designers do?
Anita Kühnel: As an example, they select the colour of the walls, the fonts and font sizes for the captions; they think about how the objects should be presented in relation to each other so they complement each other in the best possible way and that a curatorial statement is evident; and they plan the logistical processes which are absolutely essential for such a large project to work. This includes handling tenders for the service providers responsible for the physical work, such as hanging or producing display cases.
Michael Lailach: In the section of the exhibition on level -1 this task is slightly more complicated, because there are so many books and other small objects on display, such as invitation cards and manifestos. We spent a lot of time considering how we could present these things to a large audience in a way that would not get drowned out in a maze of display cases, but be tangible as a visual message. The designers then came up with a really neat idea: why not present the exhibits in cases similar to those used in the 19th and early 20th century in front of bookstores to show off their wares? That would create the impression of space and hopefully allow for a presentation that is visually stunning.
How does an exhibition's design convey your curatorial message?
Michael Lailach: Both exhibition areas are less concerned with the individual object, more with using tableaus to show the entire range of working methods that went into the objects' making. After all, it was a broad art movement that included a lively debate on style. In the lower part of the exhibition, you can see that certain avant-garde movements, Cubism, Futurism, or Expressionism for instance, thought about developing an overall, defining visual look, in a way similar to a brand. The upper level of the show also features brands, but product brands, from Beck's beer to the Osram bulb. We ask: what makes the picture of an Osram lightbulb an effective piece of advertising? The lower display is concerned with what Futurism looked like, what its aims were and what it actually was.
Apart from the curators and designers, are there any other people who have an influence on the look of an exhibition?
Anita Kühnel: We always have the conservators on board from the outset. At every stage in the process we have to consult them and ask: is what we have in mind at all feasible; can the objects themselves take such exposure? Especially when it comes to unframed pictures, it's up to expert conservators to decide which materials will not react with the objects, and which types of paper and background are to be used. These are all things that the visitor doesn't notice, but which have to be carefully considered beforehand and which we curators often overlook or don't think about straight away. We ourselves learn a lot from implementing an exhibition and each show is a lesson for the future.
While I'm talking to you now, most of the pictures are already in place. Does this mean you're already in the home straight?
Michael Lailach: The set-up phase, as visitors imagine it, only lasts two weeks and is actually the smallest part in the whole process. The bulk of the work happens long before the installation begins. The intensive work phase usually lasts a year.
Anita Kühnel: Actually, the start of the set-up is when our workload eases, and you start seeing that it has all paid off. It's a moment of relief. During the month-long preparations, the pictures lie on tables, which means, once they're installed, we get to see them from a new perspective for the first time. It's completely different to a computer simulation.
Michael Lailach: But even at this late stage there is room for errors of judgement, misunderstandings. It's like a theatre performance: until the curtain goes up, no one can really tell if it's going to work. And because there are many companies involved that work together and the whole thing takes a lot organization, something always goes wrong. Someone always forgets something, orders don't turn up as planned, or things get very tight in terms of time. And yet in spite of this, somehow everything falls into place in the end. And seeing everything ready makes you very happy.
Does the real sense of relief only come on opening night?
Anita Kühnel: Yes, but only when enough visitors turn up.
And the dismantling?
Anita Kühnel: That takes no time at all. It's also the saddest part to an exhibition. You thought about the objects for so long, spent ages planning and getting them in place, and then in just two days everything's gone.