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Pictures of the End of the American Dream - Philip-Lorca diCorcia in the Schirn Kunsthalle
It's Only a Step from a Miracle to a Disaster - Visiting the 55th Biennale di Venezia
Theaster Gates: Inner City Blues
Music as an Art Form - A Conversation between Anri Sala and Ari Benjamin Meyers
Deutsche Bank Opening New KunstHalle in Berlin
Violence and Creation: Imran Qureshi in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
Why drawing? Three questions for Victoria Noorthoorn
Question of Faith: Is There a Return of the Religious in Contemporary Art?
Searching for Pakistan - How Imran Qureshi is being celebrated as "Artist of the Year" in Lahore
City in Sight - The Deutsche Bank Collection at the Dortmunder U
"These are not Sunday painters" - Sophie von Olfers on MACHT KUNST
Make Art - The KunstHalle invites all Berlin artists to take part in a 24-hour exhibition
Barometer of the Art Scene - Preview of Frieze New York and Art Basel Hong Kong

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Music as an Art Form
A Conversation between Anri Sala and Ari Benjamin Meyers


The American conductor and composer Ari Benjamin Meyers has repeatedly cooperated with visual artists, including Tino Sehgal and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. Now he is conquering the art world. Recently, Galerie Esther Schipper in Berlin showed his exhibition “SONGBOOK.” At the end of April, his installation “Chamber Music (Vestibule)” opened at the Berlinische Galerie. Meyers is currently working with the Albanian artist Anri Sala on the latter’s contribution to the Venice Biennale, where Sala is representing France in the German pavilion. In the Deutsche Bank’s Frankfurt towers, an entire floor is devoted to Sala’s photographic works. For ArtMag, Sala and Meyers talked on a cold Sunday afternoon about music – as an art form.


Anri Sala:  Ari, the first time we worked together was on a project called Il Tempo del Postino, curated by Philippe Parreno and Hans-Ulrich Obrist; an exhibition-performance taking place in time. As musical director you were involved in different levels with various artists. We collaborated very closely together. How was that experience for you in relation to what you had done until then, and how did it influence you thereafter?

Ari Benjamin Meyers:  Yes. I was writing music for theatre and dance —and I was already getting interested in doing things that were actually quite difficult to realize, even in the world of New Music. The problem is that even when the music itself is very contemporary, the whole situation around it is still very, very conservative. So, even in the case of contemporary music, essentially you’re either giving concerts or you’re making records—and that’s about it. Starting around this time I was getting much more interested in situations and contexts—and audience, even—and I started thinking, why is it always that when you give a concert, you’re here, and they’re there, and then it’s over and they clap. For whatever reason, I just started questioning that. Why does it have to be this way? And I found that as soon as I tried to depart from that, it became almost impossible. There was just no way that a concert house or an opera house or all the institutions that are set up to present music could deal with those questions. This was something I was struggling with at the time, and then this Il Tempo project came along. As you know, I worked with some of the artists more closely than with others, but as musical director I worked with every artist in the show. It was an amazing group made up of extremely different personalities, positions, and attitudes towards music. Some had no experience with music at all; some had already done a lot with music. And so the project came at a moment when I was questioning what I was doing, and this coming into contact with fifteen or sixteen artists and spending a year travelling and working with them was like a kind of explosion in my head, you know? And this is where you come into it, Anri, because I saw that there were ways of thinking about music, of dealing with music that were completely beyond how a musician or composer would think about it. In terms of the piece you did, for instance, no conductor would instinctively say, OK, why do we have to stick with only one Madame Butterfly? Let’s have six—or twelve. And that was definitely a big opening for me to begin to think about other ways of music making.
 
AS: I believe it’s about how one communicates, affects and tells a story not only via the content, but also through the syntax. I remember us discussing whether Pinkerton necessarily ought to be a tenor. We were questioning the nature of the voice itself. In the sense that if the role of Pinkerton was written for that particular voice, what impact would have the change of the voice range on the narration? And it’s in the change of the voice range that syntax comes in: what happens to the role of Pinkerton if he is no longer a tenor but a bariton? And this is the part that’s probably never called into question in opera. People question the scenography, the costume design, the choreography—they question almost everything, in fact, but the music. So why not push these boundaries?

ABM: And this is the really interesting point. I think as a group, what musicians are really used to are questions of interpretation. But also consider the nature of a commission—a composer is usually commissioned by a particular ensemble. In other words, you receive a commission from an orchestra to write an orchestra piece, and there isn’t really much opportunity to question the situation. It’s a given. Artists are far more interested in questioning things—the white cube, the museum, everything.
 
AS: Yes, exactly. There are other factors at play here: the exhibition space, the overall architecture, its audience, and then the economy of deployment that produces it. In a way, while the idea of the exhibition is a very old idea, it still depends on what you’re trying to do with an exhibition, how to involve it differently. But this thing we call an “exhibition” has been around for a hundred years. So, isn’t it kind of old, in a sense?
 
ABM: Well, concerts have been around for three hundred years, so … [laughs]

AS: I have to think of a story or is it perhaps a myth, I’m not sure. However, if true, it never came to fruition because of how radical it was. A Hollywood producers offered to Arnold Schoenberg to write the score of a film. Schoenberg demanded a comparatively high fee, which was agreed, even if in Hollywood, they weren’t used to paying composers much; in a sense, they regarded them as make-up artists, people they hired to add music to the image to finish it off. However the project didn't come to a conclusion because Schoenberg wanted to have complete control over the sound, to be director of sound for the entire film. He not only wanted to compose the music for the film, but also adapt the pitch of the actors’ voices to better interact with the written music. Essentially, he wanted to cast the film from the perspective of voice and music. The film world obviously wasn’t ready for that yet—I doubt if they’d be ready for it today. A great example of questioning far beyond the frame.
 
ABM: The contemporary artist is more liberated than the musician, composer, or conductor is in the music world today. This is how I’ve experienced it, but I’m coming from another background altogether. But I still see a lot of similarities between the art and music worlds, actually. Both systems deal with a form of representation, both rely on the context in which the work is presented, as a product so to speak. Like composers’ commissions, there are also institutional commissions, curatorial commissions.
 
AS: I agree, probably with time these things will change again. For now, it seems that there’s more freedom in the arts. In a way, it corresponds to a kind of urge to push the boundaries—although not necessarily always in a good direction. But it’s part of the dynamic in art, much more so than in music.
 
ABM: There are a lot of issues in the music world right now that have to do with technology, with the Internet, with the business itself changing, which is more strictly subdivided into genres now than it ever was before. For me, the paradox is that even as a contemporary composer, I came to discover that that too itself becomes a genre—it’s bizarre.  In trying to realize your ideas, you find yourself, on the music business side of things, fulfilling the needs of a given genre, of some niche audience, and as soon as you begin to think beyond that—that there must be something else, some other way—you really come up against a wall. And on the other hand, the music business is crumbling. It’s completely falling apart. So it’s an interesting moment—and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. The relationship I’ve started with Esther Schipper and the gallery feels new, and we’re still trying to find out how it works and what it can be. What does it mean to exhibit music? I can understand that from the outside, it can seem very odd, but from my perspective, it’s just a medium—a time-based medium like film, video, or performance. I mean, it’s another medium that each of us uses to make something, to express something, to deal with some issue. To me, it’s very strange to see this fence around music—this thing separating music and composing from what would be considered contemporary art. But I think it’s a false dividing line—at the end of the day, it’s dealing with time, dealing with process, things moving through time …

AS: ... And space. I also think it’s about a medium encountering a public in a different way. For example, how you, by making an exhibition, speak to a public that’s not necessarily the same as if you were to compose and present and perform the new composition in a concert or a theatre setting. So I think it’s also about how and under which circumstances sound and public meet. When I say sound, I don’t just mean music and notes—it can be associated with image, or with choreography, or movement. There’s this moment when you open a work up to an audience that was previously used to see homologous things in a different context. So it’s also about how it does change the dynamics between the exhibition space and its audience.
 
ABM: And the expectations.

AS: Yes. Very often, when I think of what I do when using film—and again, this is just a way of naming the medium, because film also means other things—I realize that I increasingly think of my works as time elements in space, closer to sculptures than films. My work is mostly time-based, but it still happens in space, both when it’s filmed and when it’s presented. When thinking of an idea I often try to not only anticipate the choreography within the film, but also how the audience will approach and use the exhibition space. How can one prompt the choreography of the audience in the exhibition space in such a way that it can produce substance and implication? All of a sudden you’re dealing with all these different layers—for example, how a narrative situation is followed by another one and how their coming together produces a distinct narrative. You and I have a very similar intuition and approach, although we come from very different backgrounds and education. But I wouldn’t see working in both the music and the art world as an either-or, especially in your case, while you’re negotiating this overlap in your own life and work, adding layers to create a richness that isn’t at all reductive.

ABM: Yes, this matters, but I still feel very much the composer. But I’d also say that you’re a composer too, in your own work. For me, composition is a very strong concept. And for me, the word means working in time. That’s what it is—it’s about organizing time. And space. I also think that it’s possible to think musically, but that the output doesn’t have to be audible. The output has to be music. I’ve been lucky to work with artists who are very, very musical in their thinking—you, Anri, but also for instance Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Saâdane Afif. Neither of them plays an instrument, but each has a way of thinking about time and space that I understand right away. I can relate to it as a musician, but it also gives me the possibility to go beyond what I know as music. I think you and I are similar in the way that we separate the narrative from the film, separate the film from the film. This is very close to what I’m interested in. It’s going to sound strange, but it’s almost like separating the music from the music. A music that doesn’t have to be music that you hear right away—I mean a kind of music that’s not music.
So when I show the instrument and the music stand—as soon as you see that, there’s already a kind of sound. And in the end, that’s a kind of score. It took me a while to get to this point, but I really believe that the music—let’s say the act of understanding something as music—is not the score itself, or the performance, or even something that you hear. It’s really something that happens in your mind. And once you believe that, the logical extension of that is to say, if that’s the case, then the music that I can put in your mind—let’s say as a fantasy, or the music that you don’t hear, or the absence of a music or a music that you imagine—is just as strong. In fact, I find that it can be even stronger. More than if I were to write a piece and have this be the piece that everyone hears—because this is what a concert is, the ideal concert, with the ideal concert architecture of the concert hall ensuring that everyone has the same exact experience. You hear the same thing, have the same quality of sound, and now that ideal has even entered the home with ultra high-quality, hi-fi stereo systems, and so you’re really hearing whatever that is—the perfect sound. But then you can start to think of that as something unrelated to sound, as something that happens in your own mind. I’m at a point now where I feel like the music that I can somehow put out there, put into your mind as an idea or as a suggestion, could in fact be stronger than the piece that I would write and that you would hear on a record and that would be the same every time. So this is what I’m working on right now. It’s a hard thing, you know? I studied music since I was four. I started with piano. Music is something very physical; when you play an instrument, it’s something that has to be practiced for many hours each day. And then I studied conducting, so this kind of letting go of how it actually sounds and moving into something else is not necessarily a simple thing. It took me a while to get there. But for me it’s very, very liberating. It’s a way for me to continue to make music that feels important to me without feeling that I’m serving a particular niche created by outside forces, whether it’s the music industry or whatever.
 
AS: But I think there are always outside forces at work. The question is how you use them to further your own creativity. If you can do something in an art gallery now and it fits to your creativity and offers the freedom you need, it doesn’t mean that it’s not an outside force. It’s not about attaining freedom from outside forces, but using the production potential in the existing forces in such a way that it expands your creativity instead of diminishing it. Back to music, for me it’s about how to expand music into a different territory without diminishing its distinctiveness or taming it into a mere tool. For example, one of the most applied extensions of music into another territory is its use in the cinema. But to me this is often very diminishing because of the misconceptions about the nature of interaction that narrative and music could have. In cinema, music is rarely used as an idea or concept that can develop throughout the film. Now, nothing is categorical; there are, in the history of filmmaking, examples that prove the contrary, but they’re rare. Although I always work with images, whether film, performance, photography or sculpture, in my case, an idea always has its beginnings in music or sound. Along the process it will call the image, it will trigger it, and the question for me is how to not let image turn into an obstacle and become toxic to the idea itself.
For example in Long Sorrow, the film I did with the saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, I had this idea in mind of somebody suspended in a void; who has to negotiate his state of being in the void by improvising music, instant after instant. So I imagined that the suspended musician would be playing the saxophone, an instrument that you play in order to compose music as you go along. But then, if he is suspended, where is he suspended? Is he hanging outside a window? Oh, but a window triggers an image, as it comes with a view. So I always try to expand my idea first via the sound, and then let the image come in as the actuality in which the sound is produced. I try to do this in such a way that the image does not hijack the idea, by bringing in some metaphor or information that goes against my intuition about the work, bringing it somewhere else. So I simultaneously expand through the sound while reducing through the image. That’s my process. Even if I’m a visual artist, I build on the sound, I build with sound and in the process I let sound trigger its visual reality. The challenge is how to make this process visible, without letting images diminish the sound. And this creates a different kind of film, where music never operates as mere film music, but is the product of an act as opposed to an illustration of an action. It’s inseparable from the action. It’s the very reason of the action. The moment you blow air into a saxophone it produces music—you can’t detach the breath, the blowing of the air into the instrument from the music it produces in its other end.
Ari, we have been working together recently on what is at once the music and the script of Ravel Ravel, which is part of my project for the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In it one sees and hears two different interpretations of the same concerto for piano and orchestra performed alongside one another. We recomposed the tempos for each performance so that their differences induce an impression of continuously shifting musical echoes. As we discussed all these temporal intervals, we were also aware of the choreography that the tempo rearrangement would impose on the hands of the pianists. Recomposing the tempos meant also directing the choreography of the hands playing it. It became simultaneously a score and a film script.

ABM: This was for a Ravel concerto written for the left hand. For instance, with the film 1395 Days Without Red I wrote music based on a particular Tchaikovsky symphony, but it was really a kind of deconstruction. Here, it was not about deconstruction, but a way of saying let’s keep the composition, almost exactly as is, but let’s separate the notes from the tempo, let’s recompose the tempo. It brought the composing to a completely different level.

AS: This time it was not about composing the notes, but recomposing the gaps in between the notes.
 
ABM: I think an example of what you mean is when we were filming in Paris: you could be filming the pianist playing, filming his hand playing while you hear the notes the hand is playing—at that moment the film is almost like a documentary. By that I mean it’s very real—you’re filming the hand playing the notes that you hear. But the moment the camera moves and starts to film the right hand, which is on his knee, doing nothing, while the music continues the nature of the music suddenly shifts, becomes a kind of film music.
 
AS: It is a concerto written for the left hand as much as it is a concerto written for the absence of the right hand. So in that sense, like you say, it’s both documentary and fiction—documentary when we see the left hand alone play for both hands, and fiction because seeing the right hand resting, one hears music composed for its absence. From the beginning, what attracted me in this concerto is how, depending on what you focus on, you can have both things combined at the same time, documentary and fiction. Both pianists we worked with, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Louis Lortie told me that playing in the film made them think for the first time about what their right hands are doing while their left hands are playing. They had never thought about the right hand when they had played the concerto before.
This brings me back to something that’s very important to me: how the human body produces music. The fact that one doesn’t play the piano with both hands completely reverses the relation between the fingers and the melody. Usually the left hand plays the low notes while the right hand plays the high notes, while now when playing all alone the left hand has to come all the way across the keyboard to play the melody by itself. This produces a difference on how the body plays the melody, especially because the high notes are no longer played by the 4th and 5th finger of the right hand, but the thumb and the 2nd finger of the left hand, which have a much bigger stretch.
Another interesting example of the physical aspect on music playing is the difference between playing a particular piece of music or listening to it. It’s very common that musicians prefer playing some music pieces instead of listening to them, and vice-versa. So it means that a great composition might somehow be less interesting to hear than play. This doesn’t make the piece any less good. But because most of us don’t play instruments—we’re playing instruments less and less—we understand music only as something that we hear, something that comes to us, whereas music used to be something that began with us. At a time when there were no LPs, no tapes, no recordings, people used to play together and actually do the thing. So music was something that came from you, not something that came to you. And this completely changed the relation to written music.

ABM: That’s definitely a major point—this separation between listener and producer, listener and performer is in fact a very modern thing. I still have a kind of ideal that the listener is producing and listening at the same time. And again, this goes back to what I was saying: it doesn’t even have to be an audible thing, it can be something that’s happening in your mind—but that you are producing and listening to it at the same time. It’s the same process. That’s very much an ideal of mine. I think it’s important to understand that it’s a very modern development that the two are so separate. Music at its base is a very physical act—to make music, but even to listen to music in this active way.

AS: Exactly. This severe separation between passive and active is not unlike the difference between seeing an exhibition or watching a film in the cinema, where – physically speaking –you passively absorb what’s being projected. While in an exhibition one can play this issue of program active / audience passive quite differently. There is a similar thing with music. As you already said, what’s evolving is the boundary between the receiver who is passive and the listener who is not necessarily completely passive or is perhaps active. I don’t know when it happened historically—that the program, the product became the active agent, and the public the passive agent— but it was not always like that.

ABM: Part of what I want with an exhibition has to do with changing back this relation, this clear line between active and passive. I think it also has a lot to do with reproducibility, with reproduction. The kind of exhibition I’m making and talking about can’t be put into a book. You can make a catalogue, but that’s not the exhibition, which functions in time. In fact, we don’t even have this clarity anymore in terms of the reproduction versus the actual thing. We’re at a point now where even linguistically someone will blur this and say: Oh, I have the new CD of so-and-so; I bought the new record of so-and-so. The recording of music, regardless of whether it’s on a CD or a record, is like a photograph. A recording is a moment in time, one image of the music. Visually, everybody understands that a photograph of the Mona Lisa is not the Mona Lisa. It’s obvious, no one questions it.

AS: We know the music of The Beatles as sung and recorded by The Beatles. But in previous times it would had been different: back then music didn’t become public in the form of a record but as music sheets. For example when Liszt heard somebody play his latest composition he would say: Great! That’s exactly how I imagined it. And then a few days later he would hear it again performed by someone else, with a very different interpretation, and say again: That’s exactly how I imagined it. Whatever it sounded like, he endorsed it. And the more he endorsed, the more elusive it became what it was that he really intended.

ABM: To bring it back to the exhibition—there was music with text, on the piano, you know. It’s an invitation to the visitors that they’re welcome to sit down at the piano and play. They can play the piano, sing if they can sing, plunk it out if they can plunk it out. You know it was funny at the opening, because people came up to me and said: Oh, I’m sorry, I missed it. And I said: Missed what?

AS:  There seems to be a continuous missing.

ABM: All night people came, and everyone thought they had missed something. It was very funny. I said: No, this is it. It’s not a concert or a performance.

AS: At the same time, this isn’t quite “it,” because it’s a continuous potential. Every time someone sits down to play, this would also be “it.”

ABM: It’s also a gentle suggestion. But maybe what’s gentle to me is kind of rough to someone else. This is another aspect of music that I wanted to present. I wanted to put that right out front with the music—that the notes are a kind of secret language, a code. And you kind of feel like: They’re reading music that I can’t read, they’re playing instruments that I can’t play. These are thoughts you don’t usually have when you see a film, or an exhibition. Seeing is something we feel we can all do. There doesn’t seem to be something between us and seeing in the way there seems to be something between us and hearing. On the other hand, I think it’s broken down a bit when you understand that Esther Schipper actually plays a piece of that music, that her staff plays the music. And that’s the other side of it—they’re a fairly large group, thirteen people who are not really musicians. They know I’ve written this composition for them. They might not play it in the next three weeks, but they will play it eventually, because it’s already an idea in their minds. In the interviews I conducted with them, I asked: Do you play an instrument? Have you ever played an instrument? And then of course you start talking about childhood, parents, and everything comes out, you know. Which is interesting, because while it was just about music, it was also about everything else. It goes very deep. One of them said: Yeah, I played cello for 25 years and then I quit. I mean, that’s quite a major statement, that really means something. And when someone says: Well, I played this, I played that, and then I played this, but my dream was always to play this other thing … It’s also very interesting. And so some of the pieces are fantasy pieces. It goes back to what we were talking about before—that it’s a suggestion of a piece. Even if they can’t play it now, they know it exists. And so it starts something.

AS: Which expands the time frame of the exhibition. There’s a moment when the exhibition stops being public to continue in the private lives of the people. The person who doesn’t dare to play a particular instrument in public might try it sometime on his or her own. So the exhibition will continue and the reality that idea can produce will go well beyond its closing date.

ABM: The music exists, the “Songbook” exists, the scores exist after the show is over. For me it was very interesting to say: Okay, it’s not a performance of music, it’s not a concert of music. It’s not even so much about exhibiting music as it is exhibiting the process of composing, the process of making music and playing music.

AS: You are exposing within a new context, with a distinct economy of time and space and possibly in front of a different public. So what’s interesting is to be able to move between different contexts, jumping dispositives and see how they echo back into each other.

ABM: I think the problem is, as a musician or a composer, your work stops at a certain point. In other words, you compose the piece, you spend maybe a year, or if it’s a large piece possibly longer composing the piece. And then, even if you conduct it yourself, even if you play it yourself, at some point your involvement ends. You don’t have a say about how you want the space to be, how you would like the audience to be arranged in that space. And so for me it’s really about wanting to be able to control more, to be free to extend the composition beyond the notes and into some other realm. And if it’s in a concert hall, then it should include the whole situation and it should be a real decision to have that situation. Not because it’s the only situation that’s available.

AS: The concert hall produces a reality, an exhibition produces a reality, a gallery, a museum produce a reality. As long as they produce a reality in the way that you want it to be produced, a way that benefits your creativity, they’re all good. The moment you do something in a concert hall, you take into account that you can’t possibly have the concert hall continuously. Whereas in the gallery, people enter it whenever they come. So the exhibition starts when each person comes in, because that’s when the exhibition starts for them. While the concert in the concert hall does not start differently for each person. Everybody is witness to the same event at the same time.

ABM: In terms of the Berlinische Galerie, from the very start they asked me to do something long-term, a piece that would be up for one entire year. So to pick up on what you just said, that it would be hard to have an orchestra for 24 hours—it would be even harder to have an orchestra for a whole year. It would be hard to have even one performer for a year, in fact. Although I thought about it and brought it up, as an idea. As a musician, as a composer, the time spans tend to be in terms of minutes, maybe hours if it’s an opera. I wanted to make something that would still involve a performance element, that would involve people. I think almost everything I do involves people on some level. In that sense, I don’t really consider myself a sound artist. I’m very much a composer, I think about things that happen over time, things that involve people. So I decided to choose a space that itself is an active situation. They showed me first a nice empty space, and then they said: Well, we also have the foyer where visitors come in and out. And I thought: Aha, okay, this is an interesting starting point, because at the very least there are people coming in, people going out, there are things happening there—I can work with that. So I chose the foyer, the “Windfang.” And I wrote a composition specifically for this space.
And in fact the piece is based on a very simple idea. It’s a kind of glass cube, this Windfang. It’s a typical foyer where you have two sets of doors. And I very much like the idea that this piece of music, which we will record in there, will also remain in there. In fact, the entire vestibule is sort of like a music box. The music only plays when all the doors are closed. When you open the door, the music stops. When you enter and close the door behind you, the music starts. So everyone has to make a choice whether to continue to the next door and stop the music, or to stay inside this glass cage and hear this piece of music. What I’m happy about is that even though the music is recorded, even though the music is detached from a kind of interactivity, people still have to be active in the sense that they have to make a crucial decision. The work also has an element of impossibility, which brings it back to the show at Esther Schipper. I like the idea that you don’t get it all at once, that you don’t get it served to you on a plate. You only hear it for 20 seconds, and those 20 seconds become the piece for you. But if you want to hear the whole thing, than you have to negotiate how you might go about that. Because the piece is quite long and people will be constantly passing through the space—so you have to intervene somehow, ask them to wait, to listen, to shut the door.




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