Curating Valeska Gert: Ana Isabel Keilson in conversation with Wolfgang Muller and An Paenhuysen

This interview is the first of our new series dedicated to interdisciplinary women artists working with dance.

Ana Isabel Keilson’s introduction: In 2010 I began my PhD in the History department at Columbia University, focusing on intellectual history and performance during Weimar Germany. While researching in Berlin, I met An Paenhuysen, a former visiting scholar at Columbia, who had just curated “Pause. Valeska Gert: Bewegte Fragmente” at the Hamburger Banhof with Wolfgang MüllerIn addition to co-curating the exhibition, Müller published Valeska Gert: Ästhetik der Präsenzen (2010), which includes a reprint of Gert’s memoir, Mein Weg (1931). I was eager to talk with them about this important yet relatively obscure artist.

Interview date: July 14, 2011

Flier for “Pause. Valeska Gert: Bewegte Fragmente” at the Hamburger Banhof, Berlin 2010

Ana Isabel Keilson: Today is the 14th of July 2011. Can you both introduce yourselves? Say how you met and then we can just kind of go from there.

An Paenhuysen: My name is An Paenhuysen. I’m from Belgium. I’ve been living in Berlin for a while now. I’m a curator and historian. I met Wolfgang his show, Séance Vocibus Avium. Then we curated the show of Valeska Gert together, and now we’re working on a new project.

Wolfgang Müller : Yes. We fell in love. (All laugh).

An: Love at first sight.

Wolfgang: Mental love. Sounds horrible!

Ana: Why Wolfgang?

(They are interrupted by a phone call)

Ana: [Wolfgang] You can introduce yourself too.

Wolfgang: I grew up in a small village in Wolfsburg in this city where you don’t get an identity by birth, or some kind of no-identity. I saw it after awhile as a chance to look at where something like identity, or personality is built on. [To see] what is there, and what you can create. This is a theme I was always interested in: cognition. When I was kicked out of school, I moved to Berlin, and then to West Berlin, which was a very nice place.

Ana: When was this?

Wolfgang: 1979. West Berlin was a very interesting place because a wall surrounded it, and it was only reachable from West Germany. You had to cross East Germany, the Communist part of the country. In West Berlin, you had a half-city with coal heating, toilet outside upstairs. It was really not so modern. But this means that you could live very cheap. And you didn’t have to go to the army if you went to West Berlin.

This was a very good area to create something where you didn’t have to think of how you can make a profit out of it. Just create an idea, a concept. When you’re 20, you’re not a professor. You’re not somebody who is in an institution who has ten years time for making a research towards a master or post, or something like that. Time is money in that way. Here was a kind of free space because money was not so important. This is changing now.

An: Yeah. But it still has this a little bit, no? People are always at the cafes. People seem to have more time here, or are taking more time. Not this work pressure. In Belgium you have to make a career, and it goes very fast.

Ana: Same in New York. There’s a lot of pressure. So then I’m curious. What do you perceive as things that happened as a result of that? In the seventies, moving into the 80’s–and maybe trying to bring Veleska Gert into this–did you feel like there was an awareness among the people here that this was a special place to be?

Wolfgang: Don’t forget that she was an outsider. She came back after the war, and had a little flat in West Berlin. I have a magazine from ’66, a video I can show you, where hippies, freaks and Gert are part of it. She was really part of a subculture. There were a lot of gay people there, like Herbert Tobias, a photographer who photographed Nico, and also Gert. He was together with her.

Gert performing in slient film circa 1920, image from:

There were a lot of outsiders in West Berlin. West Berlin was till the end of the wall, attracting just these people from all over the world. There were Americans, people who can’t stand America for some reason, they moved to West Berlin. Also Italians and French people and English people from everywhere. The art business wasn’t interesting. The galleries and so on were very conservative, but the atmosphere was very open-minded. The city, the general life was open.

An: But in the case of Valeska Gert. It’s not just about the outsider or about recovering strange people and freaks.

Ana: People know about Mary Wigman who very much is able to fit into those categories, and people don’t know about Gert. There is any number of artists, things that happen, events that take place. People don’t hear about it because they’re very particular or they happen in a specific place with a specific group of people, and it can’t get broadcast in the same way.

As a historian, my interest in some ways is not saying, for example, “these people are deaf. Let’s fetishize them. Or, aren’t they crazy and weird?” But it’s that they have a certain kind of knowledge that most people don’t know about. So what’s the act of recovery that has to happen in other forms of communication or with other kinds of interested parties that share this information in a different way? I think that was more my point. I think that your interest in Gert isn’t because you want to make a discovery of this lost artist.

Wolfgang: I think Valeska, she did really an art which is still not dead because she works just between the schools. She doesn’t solve things. When she performed “Baby”, and she has the old face, of course she knows that it’s grotesque. You see it when she’s performing and afterward, when she’s finished, you see this old woman, 75 years old who just did a performance. She makes a cut, a border, a wall. It’s very important. People assume she is that way [and not performing]. If she performed in the 20’s as a prostitute having an orgasm, then people think, “Oh, she must be very open-minded.” Of course she was, but it doesn’t mean that she had sex with everybody. This is a big misunderstanding.

Ana: Right. But there’s a practical level to it too, which is the art that we have of Gert’s. We have these fragments, a couple videos, some visual images, letters and other kinds of things. But if people don’t get to see these videos, then they don’t know what you’re talking about.

Wolfgang: That’s why we publish it.

Cover of book by Wolfgang Müller

An: It’s also a way of presenting. You can dig up all this stuff from the 80’s and present it in many ways. With Valeska Gert. It was very important for us the way that we presented her work. It was about concepts.

Wolfgang: Not [only] historical.

An: It’s in the vein of contemporary art. It’s not about her life that’s about  [being] a baby, young, and then old.

Wolfgang: It had nothing to do with the time, in fact. If a young performer would do the same now, it would be also good.

An : But it would be easy for Valeska Gert to be shown as  a prostitute and then an older grotesque dancer, or as a woman dancer. We had to discuss lots how we present her, because still today this was in one room and it was “Works made by Women” from the collection. Still today, the way we perceive art–we act as if the contemporary art world is free of hierarchies. If we go inside and we see a woman who works with the body and does the prostitute thing, we have right away this frame. So we tried to have another frame there for how people watch her work and to see the concept of her work. She happened to use her body, but that was not the main thing for us.

Gert performing circa 1924 image from:

Wolfgang: I mean everyone has a body, but she used the body as an instrument. This is something that people don’t notice. They think you are the body. They couldn’t imagine that somebody would make a performance and stay behind or next to this body. She doubled it in a way. This doubling is so interesting. She is not like Mary Wigman, who found a form and then built it to become a Gesamtkunstwerk. This is something else. Valeska makes deconstruction a big key of the work. It’s not deconstruction. It’s deconstruction–with construction. Very important.

For instance, it’s not like Einstürzende Neubauten. The punk world was such that we destroyed the stages.  I think this is déconstruction, word by word taken. For me it was always interesting to imagine Neubauten would play on stage, destroying and playing the big evil man, and then in the background you see a recommendation from the Berlin Senate, “please support for our American tour.” This is how this band from Germany made high art.

Ana: But I think that also takes a certain kind of self-reflexivity, or a self-awareness or self-consciousness. Like with everything you’re saying about Gert. She’s not stupid. She gets what she’s doing. One minute she’s this baby that’s–call it grotesque, call it disarming, and then she makes a break and is this old woman. She gets that she’s in control. She gets that that juxtaposition of the two is part of what she’s channeling in the work. I’m curious to hear you both speak a little more about the curatorial aspect and also the scholarship side because you’re both scholars. Scholarship has it’s own position in this kind of cultural landscape. [Scholars] as participants, viewers, audience and activists.

I believe that scholars are activists, and maybe that’s why I keep going back to this idea of recovery, historical recovery. You’re saying that you didn’t want the Hamburger Bahnhof exhibition to be historical, and that it was more about ideas in her work as a female artist. How do you structure a situation in which that can happen, because I think that from my perspective, it’s hard to say that an exhibition at a museum about someone like Valeska Gert isn’t historical to some extent.

An: Is it historical?

Ana: It is historical in the sense that she’s dead, she’s not living. She’s not very well known. Part of it is just about giving access to what she did. She worked with very famous people. She was an important actor in a moment to groups of people.

Wolfgang: Historical in that way, I would say. We plan not to make some kind of “This was Valeska, she’s grown up there and there.” There is an introduction to her work in a historical context at the front of the exhibition. But within the exhibition, we displayed in a way that was more about concepts than a timeline.

We put her work in communication with Marcel Duchamp’s work, or Marcel Broodthaers or VALIE EXPORT. VALIE EXPORT is still alive, but all these other artists are dead, and are/were more or less her generation. One of the Viennese Aktionists, Günter Brus, met her in a cafe and described her in the book, Old West Berlin. It was published a year and a half ago. Valeska was performing and acting in the same moment. In that way, she opened a space between these roles. We sought to show a wave of time and development where she was making many different kinds of work.

An: And to break conventions also. That’s what people talk about all the time. In 1975 she had this interview on T.V., on a talk show, and she talked about sexual education for kids. She said, “I don’t agree with [the way] sexual education [is taught],” As an artist, she performed an orgasm in the 20’s. She knows that people are shocked by her.

Gert performing “Baby,” image from

Ana: It also makes me that there’s something–it’s not just her–I mean it is just her, but it’s also what she’s doing when she’s using her body. It’s also bringing it back to this idea of the body. She’s occupying the middle ground between performance, between acting, between a public persona, going on these talk shows and saying things. She has this very big body of work as well. She’s not a writer. She’s not a painter.

Wolfgang: No, she is a writer.

An: She wrote books!

Ana: Excuse me. (All laugh). She is a writer. Thank you!

An: She also wrote articles on makeup.

Wolfgang: Yes! She also wrote about makeup in the 1920’s, very clever.

Ana: But I think that further making this gray area grayer (I’m blushing), there’s something about her that defies categorization. As a result you have to think about both her life and her work in a way that’s unique to her life and her work. I guess, in theory, one would want to do that with anything, any objective inquiry.

Wolfgang: In order for her to survive financially, Valeska opened pubs. Now, the pub as an art concept has become such a trope. This is something that I see in Damien Hirst’s and Carsten Holler’s pub art works, which were sponsored and received so much attention. When I read about Valeska’s pieces, I found it much more transgressive. In New York she said “My concept is a black woman singing with a deep voice with soul, and a white woman with a very high voice.” She was working with these stereotypes, and she brought them together so much better than [Holler’s] The Double Club.

An: She dances with Josephine Baker in a black costume.

Wolfgang: Yeah, but she keeps a white face. She doesn’t use black face. It’s a big difference. And white cloth.

An: And because Valeska Gert is in between these genres, we can show dance work and and this gets classified as “expressionist dance.” While she was alive, she didn’t have any success in the art world, which is in part because she defied easy classification.

Ana: With Wigman, it’s about a systemization of information and knowledge and art production. You can say “This is Wigman’s pedagogy and there’s the Wigman School. Hanya Holm comes to the U.S. and teaches the Wigman way.” You see it still with people who really cling to that kind of improv in dance, a certain way of improvising, a that’s really based on that system of knowledge. But it also makes me wonder about all these different things that Gert does. She’s writing articles about makeup, or she’s writing a book, or she’s performing and then opening bars. She’s always in everything and the work never transcends her, but I mean that in a good way. It’s always very particular to her personality.

Gert performing, date unknown, image from

Wolfgang: Yeah, it’s invisible work because she’s so in-between that she disappears, in a way. She said it that when if she made jam as a performance, she just might concentrate on the jam. She’s not a total performer. Performers don’t claim her. Valeska said “Some people tell me I’m not a dancer, and some people say I am only a dancer.”

Ana: But that’s great for precisely the Wigman sort of opposition. No one can come to a consensus. Because she’s very particularly there, or invisible there’s no way of putting your thumb down and saying, “this is the Gert Method.”

An: It’s difficult to imitate it. There is this film by Volker Schlöndorff, Just for Fun, Just to Play: Kaleidoscope Valeska Gertt and it’s great documentary about her.

Wolfgang: She said you create art by your reflection, by the points you put down and then the image appears. You don’t have to work for it. She was not taking care of her image all the time. It was just about putting things together. People don’t understand when she performed being a woman in the concentration camp in 1951. This piece is still misunderstood. She shows a character, a different element of that identity. This is more frightening.

She always attracts you and then she pushes you away. It’s always touching and then throwing away, touching and throwing away. The space in between comes out. This is art. There’s nothing to identify with her or not identify with her. That is not the question. People always want solutions. In the left-wing newspaper, they write that she makes fun of Nazi crimes. It’s not making fun. That’s a misunderstanding.

Ana:  Maybe this is also a question of viewership. What do we expect to understand when we see a work of art? And what do we expect to understand when we see somebody performing something? Maybe those are different questions but it seems like, increasingly, people just want–especially with respect to seeing art, to understand it in a very superficial way. “I go to a museum. I see a beautiful painting.”

I don’t think viewers like to feel uncomfortable, maybe because we paid money and we want to be entertained. These are all superficial things. It makes me think of what you said about Einstürzende Neubauten’s performances, sometimes you want to go to a hardcore concert and see shit destroyed onstage and it gives you pleasure because you can’t experience that in your life. And then you leave and you’ve had a cathartic experience.

Wolfgang: Yeah, but that’s not the main reason. I think you make some art piece and it doesn’t matter if the audience feels good or not good. You have a concept, which is important. Then you should be independent. It’s not an autonomy based on your artwork, but that you shouldn’t care what people think. When Valeska dances Pause it’s nothing but it’s also something. Of course, people were not satisfied when she was performing a pause in 1920. They wanted to see speed and industry. In the midst of that scene she just chose to pause. But this shows that her way of using the body and performance is a very intellectual process.

An: You compared it to John Cage’s 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence.

Wolfgang: Yes! Valeska’s pause in 1920 set a precedent for this concept.

Ana: That’s a good note to end on. Thank you for the talking with me.

Wolfgang: Thank you, too.

An: Thank you.

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