In conversation with Xander Karskens

Xander Karskens is the curator of the Finnish Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. He is working with artists Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors on The Aalto Natives, their joint exhibition opening at the Aalto Pavilion this May. Karskens also recently took up the post of artistic director at the Cobra Museum in Amstelveen, where Frame caught up with him for a brief interview.


How did you end up as the curator of the Finnish Pavilion in Venice? You have known Erkka and Nathaniel for a while now – is that correct?

I’ve known Nathaniel since the early 2000s.We first worked together in 2005 on ‘The Pink Mist’, an exhibition of his work at Galerie Fons Welters in Amsterdam, where I was working at the time. I found his work very powerful in its intelligent use of language, drawing from a range of absurdist and satirical traditions. I also liked the playful, offhand way he combined different media, like sculpture and video, in his installations. He was still young but had a very distinctive voice, and his work felt very different from the theory- and research-informed practices that were dominant at the time.

Erkka and I met during his residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 2007, where he met Nathaniel, too. Erkka was perhaps even more singularly idiosyncratic. He was making intentionally silly-looking 3D animation videos, which a lot of people considered ‘bad taste’, but I found them completely hilarious. Also, he was utterly uninterested in being part of  ‘the art scene’, or any socially defined group. He was just making these very smart, crazy things. When I would ask him anything about them, he would simply answer every question with ‘Yes’.

Eventually I worked with both Erkka and Nathaniel, separately, as curator at De Hallen Haarlem, where we exhibited their work. When the open call for Venice was announced, Erkka got in touch with Nathaniel and myself to develop a plan for the Aalto Pavilion. It felt like a very natural thing to do, as our connection was very close.


Since you know Erkka and Nathaniel well and have followed their process leading up to Venice, what are you most looking forward to in the Aalto Natives exhibition?

One of the most exciting aspects of their collaboration is the fact that they are creating the work together on all levels. They are – each for the first time – working as a duo, jointly developing every idea from conception to realization; writing, sketching, sculpting, filming. They are basically spending a year together.

This brings a very particular, unpredictable dynamic to the project, and so far it has produced an incredible creative energy. Having been involved in this process from the first ideas and drafts, one of the things that I look forward to the most is seeing the final work in the pavilion. The Aalto Natives has a solid but very open structure, allowing for a lot of ideas to be implemented on the fly, and this is exactly where the excitement lies for the curator. It’s not like there was a step-by-step production outline or a design that subsequently got executed – the work is the direct result of a very open collaborative process.


With you in Holland, Erkka in New York and Nathaniel based in Los Angeles, plus Frame here in Finland, this project is quite scattered geographically. How have you managed the challenges of such a broad geography?

Some time ago, the Bulgarian mystic Dr Timen Timeff introduced me to the concept of vertical time. This is not the horizontal time that almost everybody lives in, but rather a secret, elusive meta-temporal concept that allows me to operate in different time zones simultaneously. After Venice I will slide back into horizontal time again, hopefully without any physical consequences.


You’ve just been appointed Artistic Director of the Cobra Museum of Modern Art in Amsteleveen – congratulations! How has it gone so far? Do you plan to make changes at the museum?

The Cobra Museum is in a very interesting place at the moment. It is in a transitional phase, rethinking the ways it is able to research, present and disseminate the legacy of Cobra. One of the things that I hope to make more programmatic are the connections between Cobra and contemporary art and thought. There are so many relevant ideas in Cobra for our current zeitgeist that it is a great lens for looking at contemporary issues of radicality, resistance and the connection between art and life.

Of course, Cobra was also about generating intense affective response, and visual exuberance; elements that have somewhat dissipated from a lot of contemporary practices. So, the current discursive debate about autonomy versus engagement –  which is a principal discussion regarding the place of art in the world –  can be fed by looking at the postwar avant-garde that experimented with and questioned a lot of these concepts. I hope to be able to address these issues in a programme where Cobra and contemporary art are presented alongside each other, creating moments of cross-pollination and exchange.


The legacy of Cobra is indeed super interesting and it will be great to see where you and the e museum will take it. I find a certain similarity to the form and politics of the Cobra movement and the work of Erkka and Nathaniel; ‘uncivilised’ expression and moving away from other existing art forms. Am I making this up or do you seek out projects that take place in this kind of a realm?

I think it is a very relevant observation. I am very much drawn to artistic expression that uses a personal, formal vocabulary, and art that deals with the irrational, the grotesque, and the animistic – more generally art that creates a world of itself, rather than art that points towards the world outside, or basically just refers to something ‘interesting’. Although one has to be careful with these kind of ahistorical claims, one can identify parallels between the practices of the Cobra artists and Erkka and Nathaniel – in their interest in the childish, the grotesque and the naïve, and in their shared fascination for what Asger Jorn called ‘the human beast’. Tellingly, Nathaniel was the recipient of the Cobra Art Prize in 2011.


Hanna Ohtonen, Frame together with Xander Karskens


The Aalto Natives by Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors, curated by Xander Karskens will open at the 57th Venice Biennale in May 2017. The Finnish Pavilion, called Aalto, is located in the heart of the biennale park Giardini di Castello and was named after architect Alvar Aalto, who designed it in 1956.

Xander Karskens (NL, 1973) recently started as artistic director at the Cobra Museum in Amstelveen, where he collects and exhibits the art of this postwar avant-garde in relation to developments in contemporary art and discourse. Before, he was responsible for the contemporary art programme and collections at Frans Hals Museum | De Hallen Haarlem. Earlier international exhibition projects organized by Karskens include Ghost in the system – scenarios for resistance at NCCA Moscow (2013) and FOCUS:the Netherlands at ARCOmadrid in 2012.

The Cobra Museum houses a collection of key artists of the CoBrA group, with the intention of keeping alive the legacy of the CoBrA movement. CoBrA was an artist group formed in 1948 by artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam whose painting style was highly expressionist and inspired by the art of children. The name CoBrA is taken from the first letters of the cities (Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) where the group’s founder members lived. However, they welcomed the coincidental reference to the snake, since animal imagery was common in CoBrA painting. As a group they had active social and political concerns. They held a major exhibition in 1949 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam under the title International Experimental Art.

Founding members of CoBrA were Karel Appel, Asger Jorn and Constant Nieuwenhuys (known simply as Constant). Other members included Stephen GilbertPierre Alechinsky,  Jean-Michel Atlan and Ernest Mancoba. The group dissolved in the early 1950s.