curatorial lens vol 9./ christelle havranek

Christelle Havranek, 2022. Photo by Vojtěch Veškrna with image courtesy of Kunsthalle Praha.

Christelle Havranek (born 1971) is the Chief Curator at Kunsthalle Praha, a non-profit art organisation established in Prague in 2015 and opened to the public from 2022. She previously curated for the National Gallery in Prague and at the French Institute in Prague, where she created a rich program of exhibitions, lectures and residency programmes in partnership with numerous international arts institutions and festivals.

As part of the pre-opening programme of the venue, her recent curatorial activities have included the following site-specific projects TransFormation: Pešanek/Díaz (2017), Adela Součkova’s Exit the Loop (2018), Aliona Solomadina’s Lightness (2020), Joël Andrianomearisoa’s Translations of All Our Lost Passions and Our Future Desires (2021), Mark Dion’s Cabinet of Electrical curiosities (2021) and the night of performances Living Kunsthalle (2019).

Christelle Havranek co-curated with Peter Weibel Kunsthalle Praha’s inaugural exhibition Kinetismus: 100 years of Electricity in Art (2022). She has been the editor and co-editor of several publications, the most recent being Kunsthalle conversations (2020), Field Guide – Cabinet of Electrical Curiosities (2021) and Kinetismus: 100 years of Electricity in Art (2022).

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: Kunsthalle Praha is a new art venue in Prague, established by art collectors Petr and Pavlína Pudil. As the Chief Curator of the new art institution that navigates between museums with large art collections and kunsthalles, primarily focused on temporary exhibitions of contemporary art- what is your curatorial vision for the institution?

CHRISTELLE HAVRANEK: To answer this question, I must first say that I was recruited to conceive the overall dramaturgy and exhibition program of the new kunsthalle whilst the building was still under reconstruction. My curatorial vision was thus born from a few elements that I had to consider from the very beginning: the desire of a passionate couple of collectors to create a living art center, and the geographical, historical, and social contexts of where this project was to be realized. As a kunsthalle, our format is quite straightforward, it is a cultural institution organizing temporary exhibitions that focus on the art of the 20th and 21st Centuries. However, in terms of programming, I didn’t want to replicate any existing models but instead offer a proposal that responded to the specific needs and gaps of the local art scene. 

From the outset, together with the founders and the director Ivana Goossen, we see Kunsthalle Praha as a non-elitist, accessible platform grounded in scholarship and professionalism with a participatory approach and a caring environment. In line with this vision, the exhibition program is multidisciplinary, developed in close dialogue with thinkers, academics, artists, and external curators, allowing for multiple voices. To put it simply, we want above all to connect, to build bridges between times, disciplines, and people. Furthermore, our program aims to reflect the world we live in, including its controversial issues, and to address the traumas and taboos of the recent past. All the exhibitions are complemented with a strong educational program, which to me is crucial. I believe that a meaningful cultural institution should tend to facilitate inter-generational dialogue, offer a plurality of views on current sensitive issues and, in this way, strengthen empathy and tolerance within local and international communities.

LŠ: How exactly are you shaping the exhibition program, in line with the institution’s mission to connect the local with the international art scene? Perhaps we could address this question from the exhibitions’ point of view?

CH: When it comes to working with artists and curators from the Czech Republic and Eastern Europe we are developing an ecosystem that provides support for the production, presentation, and promotion of their projects on both a local and international level. This is made possible, for instance, thanks to residency programs.  We have a long-term partnership with the Delfina Foundation in London, and Art Omi in Ghent, New York state. We also hosted a Ukrainian artist residency in Prague, in collaboration with the Ukrainian institute’s Exter program which unfortunately no longer exists.

As much as possible, we encourage encounters and exchanges between Czech artists and their international contemporaries through the organization of group exhibitions.  In addition, we always offer two parallel exhibitions at a time in our spaces, one focusing on the local scene, the other with a more international perspective. This will be the case with the exhibitions we are planning for this autumn: the first comprehensive retrospective to date of the Berlin-based artist Gregor Hildebrandt, which will occupy two of our galleries out of three, and an exhibition of digital art including six Czech artists titled Invisible Forces which explores the relationship between biology, technology, and art. This collective project is curated by my colleague Iva Polanecka in collaboration with Signal Festival.

As for the thematic research-based exhibitions, we aim to reassess the art historical narrative by presenting under-recognized artists and opening up unexplored themes from the post-communist European countries, bringing them into the global context.

LŠ: What are Kunsthalle Praha’s plans to support the local art scene? Could we talk about the conversation between private collection(s) that co-exist(s) with public ones in Prague?

CH: The vitality of a local scene depends on the dynamism and variety of the actors in its artistic community. There is no doubt that since 1989, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin wall, the way Czech Republic’s artistic landscape has grown has been immense and exciting. Philanthropic initiatives now complement a generous network of public galleries and museums. To me, in the cultural sector, the coexistence and balance of the private and public models are very important. It is a guarantee of greater autonomy and freedom. Moreover, these two models together ensure that there is space for various creative attitudes within the art scene. As for the collections accessible to the public in this country, for decades they were held solely by state institutions. The acquisition policy of national museums and galleries is never neutral, as they generate a collective cultural narrative and articulate it in many ways. It is therefore healthy that individual perspectives are also represented, precisely thanks to private collections which are constituted according to quite different, let us say more intuitive, criteria.

As you know, Kunsthalle Praha holds a collection that focuses on Central and Eastern European art from the 20th and 21st Centuries. The Kunsthalle Praha Collection mostly serves as a source for research, education, and loans to external exhibitions. Sporadically, on the occasion of thematic or collective shows, some pieces may appear in Kunsthalle Praha spaces, but the collection as such is not meant to be presented on permanent display. However, once every two years, Kunsthalle Praha dedicates a specific exhibition to its collection. In order to offer various perspectives, artists are given carte blanche to curate their selection of works drawn from the Kunsthalle Praha collection. Acting as guest curators, the artists are invited to use the collection as a medium, shaping it with their sensibilities, and submitting it to their subjective interpretations. Whether they choose to display a few individual pieces, a monographic set, or a thematic series, the artists/curators combine ‘fragments’ of the collection with their works, thus creating unexpected associations, affinities, and confrontations. The first artist intervention into the collection is scheduled for the end of 2023.

LŠ: Kunsthalle Praha re-purposed the former Zenger Transformation Station and as a nod to the building’s past, the inaugural exhibition, Kinetismus: 100 Years of Electricity in Art, looked at the role of electricity and technologies in art production. How was this large concept, tracing back the artworks to 1920, contextualized with co-curators Peter Weibel and Lívia Nolasco-Rózsás?

CH: Through our inaugural exhibition, it was important to convey the essence of our future program, showing Kunsthalle Praha as a place primarily connecting past and present, here and elsewhere, knowledge and creativity. The first exhibition had to be as open as possible, bringing together historical works with new commissions from local and international artists.  As a starting point, we took inspiration from the industrial legacy of Kunsthalle’s building, a transformer station from the interwar period, and the theme of electricity suggested by its original function.

What’s more, since its construction the building has been closely associated with Zdeněk Pešánek, an artist of the Czech avant-garde who created a series of visionary light-kinetic sculptures in the 1930s entitled 100 Years of Electricity intended to decorate the transformer substation. The series was composed of four monumental assemblages that brought together art, science, and sound, but sadly they were never installed on the façade. Intrigued by this story, we chose to demonstrate the prophetic nature of Pešánek’s work by placing his work at the center of a historical, collective, and international exhibition. To realize such an ambitious project, we approached Peter Weibel, an eminent curator as well as a new media theorist and an artist. This exhibition also owes a lot to the work of Lívia Nolasco-Rozsas, scientific associate, and curator at ZKM Karlsruhe, and of course to the fantastic team of Kunsthalle Praha.

Kinetismus: 100 years of Electricity in Art explored artistic practice from the start of the 20th Century to the present day by focusing on four key areas – cinematography, kinetic art, cybernetic art, and computer art. The exhibition featured over ninety works by several generations of artists from all around the world, including independent figures and members of emblematic groups such as the Bauhaus, GRAV, Dvizhenie, ZERO, and teamLab. The exhibition included the work of pioneers such as Mary Ellen Bute, Zdeněk Pešánek, László Moholy-Nagy, and Marcel Duchamp; established names such as Woody and Steina Vašulka, François Morellet, Adéla Matasová, Olafur Eliasson, William Kentridge; and representatives from younger generations such as Refik Anadol, Haroon Mirza, Anna Ridler, Žilvinas Kempinas, Shilpa Gupta, to name a few.

Exhibition view of Kinetismus: 100 years of Electricity in Art at Kunsthalle Praha, 2022. Photo by Vojtěch Veškrna with image courtesy of Kunsthalle Praha.
Kinetismus: 100 years of Electricity in Art, Kunsthalle Praha, 2022. Photo by Vojtěch Veškrna with image courtesy of Kunsthalle Praha.
Exhibition view of Kinetismus: 100 years of Electricity in Art at Kunsthalle Praha, 2022. Photo by Vojtěch Veškrna with image courtesy of Kunsthalle Praha.

LŠ: For the institution, you created a series of exhibitions, Ways of Collecting. The latter addresses the various approaches to collecting and the relationships between collectors and artists. Could you tell us more about how you created this series?

CH: In the long run, Ways of Collecting will present diverse approaches to collecting within Czech and international private collections. The series aims to answer questions such as who collects and why? What are the relationships between collectors and artists, and how do private collections coexist with public ones? It will also offer a unique insight into art collections that are mostly out of public view.

The Ways of Collecting cycle began with Midnight of Art, an exhibition dedicated to the collection of Karel Babíček, who founded Behémót Gallery in 1991. One of the first private art galleries to open in Prague after the Velvet Revolution, Behémót Gallery followed the example of galleries in New York by keeping abreast of current events and communicating across generations. The exhibition is also accompanied by a publication edited by our guest curator, Lenka Lindaurová.

Exhibition view of Minight of Art: Karel Babiček’s collection at Kunsthalle Praha, 2022. Photo by Vojtěch Veškrna with image courtesy of Kunsthalle Praha.

Having the Babíček collection open the cycle is a reminder that a love of art can develop into a commitment to an emerging art scene. Beyond his collecting activity, Babíček’s generosity and insatiable curiosity drove him to create exhibition spaces and in so doing support numerous Czech artists of his generation.  In many ways, the story behind Midnight of Art resembles that of Kunsthalle Praha, which was founded by passionate collectors Petr and Pavlina Pudil.

LŠ: Which collectors have in your opinion stimulated the international art scene the most?

CH: There are many, but I will speak about the scenes I know well, namely from France and the Czech Republic, my home and adopted countries respectively. During my studies in Prague, I came across the activities of Vincenc Kramář (1877-1960), a Czech art historian and early collector of Cubist art, who played a central role in promoting Cubism in Prague and shaping its reception among Czech artists and audiences.

I’d also like to mention the incomparable trajectory of Denise René (1913-2012), a gallery owner and collector in the second half of the 20th Century in Paris, who introduced geometric abstraction and kinetic art to France. It was her that first exhibited Mondrian in Paris in 1957 when French museums were reluctant to do so, and showed Malevich, Albers, and the Polish avant-gardes before anyone else. In 1955, she organized the historically important exhibition Le Mouvement featuring Tinguely, Agam, and Soto, later followed by Cruz – Diez, Le Parc, and the generation of Latin American artists that it attracted to Paris. All artists, by the way, were included in our inaugural exhibition Kinetismus: 100 years of Electricity in Art.

Among today’s personalities, I am impressed by Marie-Cécile Zinsou, an enthusiastic French-Beninese collector. In addition to collecting contemporary African art, she also created the Zinsou Foundation in 2005, which has two museums in Cotonou and Ouidah in the Republic of Benin. Zinsou does exemplary advocacy work, helping to make contemporary art from the African continent accessible to a large audience both locally and internationally. Furthermore, she played an important role in the recent restitution to Africa of cultural artifacts from the former kingdom of Dahomey, that have been looted during French colonization.