Patron, collector and board member (Blaffer Art Museum, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston Center for Photography) Jereann Chaney poses questions to Tristian Koenig, founder, owner and director of his eponymous gallery, Tristian Koenig in Melbourne, Australia.
Why are you exhibiting in the Dallas Art Fair 2014? I’ve heard the Fair does great tote bags! No, seriously, I’ve heard fantastic things about the Fair since it started. I heard that the Fair was bespoke, considered and was about producing tangible outcomes for artists, collectors and galleries — what more could you want? My very good friends Paul Moss and Miles Thurlow from Workplace Gallery in Newcastle in Gateshead, England, participated in the 2013 edition, and that really sparked my interest in terms of converting from being someone that followed the Fair to someone that is participating. After speaking with [Dallas Art Fair co-founder] Chris Byrne, I think we were both really excited by the prospect of including an Australian gallery in the Fair. So, here we are!
Tell us about the artist you will be bringing to the Fair next April. I understand you will have a solo presentation of Indonesian talent Hahan. What made you feel this particular artist was the one to bring to Dallas? Bringing Hahan to Dallas is something I’m absolutely excited about — thrilled, even. Hahan is a young artist of the post-Suharto generation, whose work directly engages with the transformations being wrought in his country, with specific reference to the art scene. Indonesia is inarguably the hottest spot in the international art world right now — you’d probably bump into more collectors, curators and gallerists there than at the Istanbul Biennale!
The work has a vitality and immediacy that transcends cultural boundaries. In Hahan’s case, his combination of street art, comic-book references and a graffiti sensibility, when combined with an interest in tattoo culture and knowing nods to artists like Takashi Murakami and KAWS, creates this really seamless mix in this pop/institutional critique and cross-cultural context he works out of. Also, I think globally people are just beginning to “get” Indonesia — in population, it’s comparable in size to the United States; economically, its growth is outstripping China, while culturally, the mix of Dutch, Hindi, Muslim and Buddhist influences with local traditions has created this wildly sort of “meta” culture that I think is legible to most people.
I think Dallas is the perfect place to debut Hahan’s work in the States, as collectors in the region are very astute. As your own collection of Asian art demonstrates, collectors in Texas are very open to acquiring new and exciting work that really pushes them and makes demands of them conceptually.
What is the focus of Tristian Koenig? When, where and why did you open your space? Your personal background? My background is a bit all over the shop, which may help explain my diverse interests. My father is from Leipzig and escaped East Germany before the Wall was built, arriving in Melbourne the day the Beatles played in 1964. Our family regularly returned to Germany before and after the fall of the Wall, with mum and dad dragging my sister and me to castles, museums and ruins, so that was really the foundation of my interests. After high school, I began a bachelor of science with a major in geology, before moving across to a bachelor of arts, majoring in art history. All my lecturers were second-generation Viennese School art historians, so I was scrupulously trained on material from ancient Greece to the start of modernism — we didn’t touch anything after Symbolism, really, and I still have a soft spot for Gauguin!
At the same time as my studies, I volunteered at the Heide Museum of Modern, which brought me in to contact with modern (Australian) and contemporary art. In the five years that I was there, I did everything from painting walls and taking guided tours to curatorial research and assisting artists. It was an incredible experience that gave me an exceedingly sound and diverse skill set that I still draw upon today!
From there, I was involved with a festival for emerging artists, setting up an artist-run space and freelancing, freelancing and freelancing. In 2006, with an artist, I established my first gallery, called Neon Parc. I think we knew one collector who basically gave us the seed money — something inordinately small like $10,000 Australian dollars [approximately $9,344 U.S.]. Things went really well, but by about the end of 2010, the partnership had run its course. I left the gallery and started again — it actually started at the last edition of Artforum Berlin.
Lorenzo Rudolf, the former director of Art Basel who established Art Basel Miami Beach, asked me to exhibit in the first edition of his new fair, Art Stage Singapore, in January 2011. I told him that Berlin was my last gig with Neon Parc and that he should talk to my former business partner. After ruminating on some beautiful German Riesling, Lorenzo asked me to pull a project together and come to the fair. Without thinking, I said yes, and everything snowballed from there. In Singapore, I was invited to Hong Kong, though it was conditional that I open an actually gallery to participate. Thankfully a collector gave me a space rent-free, and things just continued from there. Hong Kong led to being invited to Taipei and Rio and so on. Things became a bit crazy and too big too quickly, so the gallery space opened and closed in 2011, while in the first half of 2012, I completed fair obligations in Los Angeles, Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
After taking a break and having the space to think strategically — basically moving from being reactive to pro-active — I reopened in September this year. My wife and I just celebrated the birth of a daughter (our first), so I’m slowly getting back into the swing of things and still figuring out the best way forward. At this stage, the artists I’ve been working with have predominantly been New Zealanders, though the makeup of the 2014 program of gallery shows and fairs is changing and taking shape as we speak.
What is the contemporary art scene like in Melbourne? In Australia as a whole? The scene here is amazing. Melbourne is a really cosmopolitan city. Very European. There are three main university art schools, a heap of artist-run galleries, non-collecting and collecting institutions, private art museums and great private collectors. It’s daunting. Unfortunately, I don't get the chance to see everything.
In Australia more generally, the professional gambler David Walsh recently opened up the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, which is inarguably one of the most exciting, eccentric and esoteric (all at once) art museums to open internationally in recent years. In Sydney, the Museum of Contemporary Art runs a really great program of Australian and international exhibitions — the view from their rooftop cafe is killer, too: the Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge, one of the best views in the world. The Art Gallery of New South Wales, also in Sydney, recently received the bulk of John Kaldor’s Collection — John is the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of Count Giuseppe Panza, while Sydney also has one of the world’s longest-running biennales. In Brisbane, the Queensland Art Gallery under former director Doug Hall initiated the Asia Pacific Triennial, through which they’ve amassed the greatest public collection of contemporary Asian art, period.
Do you consider art fairs vital to reaching new audiences? How many of your collectors are Australians versus internationals for example? Fairs are a really vital part of my program, although I’m probably atypical with respect to most galleries here in Australia. On average, I do a fair a season, which doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re coming from the ends of the world, it adds up! Probably 50 percent of my market is international, though in Andrzej Nowicki’s recent show, everything that sold went offshore — including Boston!
Describe your artists and exhibition program. Define the Tristian Koenig aesthetic. How do your artists represent this aesthetic to the viewing public and what do you specifically look for when deciding which artists to represent? Tough one. I guess I’m looking for art and artists that are a bit left of center. By that, I mean artists that are posing problems for themselves or asking questions. Artists that are producing work that sits at an intersection of context and references with a view toward the horizon.
Biggest career break/most memorable moment to date as a gallerist? Probably in 2008, when Toby Webster from The Modern Institute visited my old gallery. It was October, and he’d left the Frieze fair in London early to come over for a Kaldor Public Art Project with Martin Boyce. Charlotte Day, the director of the Monash University Museum of Art, brought Toby to the gallery, and we were introduced. I think Toby’s program is exceptional, and what he’s done for Glasgow is something I’d like to try and duplicate for Melbourne. Anyway, Toby advised us that Frieze was initiating a young gallery section of the fair called Frame in 2009 and encouraged us to apply. Needless to say the gallery was accepted. [And] Miles [Thurlow] from Workplace Gallery introduced me to Kaspar Koenig (no relation) at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. That was pretty special; I think Miles thought it was funny.
Where do you find new talent? Are you actively branching out beyond Australia? While I did receive the lovely compliment of having “a good eye” recently from a museum director, I think a good ear is equally as important. The artists you like — whether they’re alive, dead, you work with them or drink with them — listen to whom they’re talking about or looking at. Apart from that, grad shows are great, smaller institutional spaces that have small budgets and big ambitions, the internet, magazines, blogs … It’s relentless, really.
I think the plan for me, long-term, will be to incrementally increase my geographic reach. I think Hong Kong is too hot right now — I guess I’ll wait to see what happens there in the next five years, whilst also maintaining a watch on where things are going in Indonesia. Thailand is also very interesting too.
Is your gallery committed to staying in Australia? Do you feel like you are pioneering a scene there? Goals in next five years? In the short-term, yes, but who knows! My wife is from New Zealand, so given distances in this part of the world, we’re pretty happy being in this neck of the woods for now. I think Australia is still yet to be discovered in many ways.
What are you personally most excited about for 2014? Your top three must-see shows around the globe? The Sydney Biennale that’s being curated by Juliana Engberg in 2014 will be smashing. Juliana is an exceptional curator that puts together exceedingly considered shows that really privilege and reward an active viewer — professional or novice.
The City Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand, is hosting a traveling survey show of Simon Starling, which I think will be very, very special. He’s one of my favorite artists and kills me every time. His touch is great — there is neither material surplus, or not enough. It's a beautiful balance, conceptually rich and full of poetic potential that unfolds over time and rewards considered contemplation.
ARTIJOG [Art Fair Jogja] in Yogyakarta [Java, Indonesia]: This is amazing. It’s what you get when you have an art fair without an art fair — artists’ exhibiting and selling their own work, which given the lack of infrastructure in the country, totally makes sense — an absolute must-see.