Walter Smerling is no stranger to large-scale enterprises with geopolitical implications. Between 2015 and 2017, the head of the Stiftung für Kunst und Kultur in Bonn, a type of German art world statesman, organized the largest-ever exhibits of Chinese art in Germany and German art in China.
When tensions between Western Europe and Russia began to rise around the same time, he envisioned a continent-wide exhibition: “a dialogue about what brings people together in Europe,” as he puts it. “It’s about democracy, solidarity, and personal and political liberty.”
Diversity United is the outcome, a touring group show with over 150 pieces by over 100 current artists from 34 nations, selected by ten curators. It isn’t about Brexit, thank goodness, but it does try to emphasize “the importance of a united Europe during times of political uncertainty.”
Smerling claims to be on a mission to promote liberal ideals at its core. He wanted the presentation to explore, “How do we work together?” “How do you define respect, dignity, and freedom?”
In 2018, he brought together curators from museums and galleries throughout the continent to narrow down a longlist of more than 300 current artists to about 90. And it’s an incredible feat for something that’s nearly completely sponsored by the private sector.
From elderly giants Georg Baselitz, Paula Rego, and Sheila Hicks to Sonia Boyce (who will represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2022) and Yan Pei-Ming, the list includes all the classic European names (one of the few contemporary artists whose work sits in the Louvre, following his own Venice appearance in the early 2000s). Ekaterina Muromtseva, a painter from Moscow, is the youngest, having been born in 1990.
Gerhard Richter, who at this stage in his career could get away with saying no all the time, phoned Smerling and asked him to participate right now. Few people would know about his European Landscapes, a collection of 60 very tiny, gem-like overpainted images. Anselm Kieffer, too, went all out with a work that had never been seen before: a full-scale mise-en-scene of 19th-century Romantics (from Madame de Stael to Lord Byron), written into a beautiful, wintery woodland in his instantly recognised handwriting.
Christian Boltanski, who tragically died between the publication of the catalogue and the installation of the exhibition in Berlin in May, created a new video piece called Etre à nouveau (“To be again”) Diversity United. This piece, which is formatted like one of those children’s books where you can mix and match the heads, bodies, and tails of animals, features monochrome headshots of unnamed children from Russia, Germany, and France, with their foreheads, eyes, and mouths constantly shuffling into new facial configurations.
The curatorial team spent hours recording phone discussions with the artists discussing their work and their feelings about Europe as a location and a concept. But nothing about it is obvious, not least what “Europe” means.
The word does not relate to either the EU or the Council of Europe. Despite the fact that Turkey has been a member of the council since 1950, 46 years before Russia was included, Turkish-born, Amsterdam-based conceptual artist Ahmet güt makes his mark with an intriguing installation made out of protective police shields.
Several curators note out that the majority of the artists in this exhibition have lived in at least two countries, many in multiples, and several were not born in the country they now call home. “One of China’s greatest artists has been based in Dijon for the last 38 years and has made these incredible paintings about Napoleon,” says Simon Baker, a British curator based in Paris. That, to me, is modern Europe.”
I watched the first installment in West Berlin, where I entered via a strange doorway of yellow light created by Icelandic–Danish artist Olafur Eliasson (the second instalment is now open in Moscow). There are ten chapters in the program.
In the first episode, titled Dreams and Democracy, you may get citizenship and documents for a fictitious community committed to combating climate change and global inequity at Lucy and Jorge Orta’s Antarctica World Passport Office. My passport has the number 2188 on it.
You may also buy a miniature of the one resister who refused to offer the Nazi salute amid a throng of Hitler supporters in 1936, thanks to Fernando Sanchez Castillo’s hundreds of plastic miniatures. You may also watch Moldovian filmmaker Pavel Brăila’s superb Shoes for Europe, which was released in 2002 and is a documentary on how former USSR trains must halt en way to Western Europe since their carriages are designed for a larger gauge of railroad track.
They must change their footwear.
The third and most striking part is anchored by Yan’s portrayal of Napoleon crowning himself (in brilliant monotone crimson). Memory and Conflict contains a Tarkovsky-esque video meditation on terror by Moscow collective Bluesoup, which features an unending view of what seems to be an asteroid that constantly flares but never falls.
The pebbles atop thin constructions by Polish artist Alicja Kwade are a mesmerizing moment of heaviness and unease. Kristaps Epners, a Latvian artist, has created a very evocative diptych that includes a silent video about an elderly guy in a leather jacket across a freezing lake on the one hand, and a patchwork travelogue about two young men on a voyage into Siberia on the other.
You emerge from that (I was moved to tears) to be greeted by Estonian sculptor Kris Lemsalu’s altogether more rambunctious poetry: a wall-based pincushion of freewheeling, lifesize limbs cast in clay and glazed like a Jackson Pollock, ensconced in this tufted pink eiderdown with a boombox and multicolored climbing wall grips scattered in every which way. You can’t hear it, but you can clearly feel it: satisfyingly and joyously tactile.
The project, like any textbook, has flaws that are as profound as the area it aims to depict. The cast is virtually entirely white for a film with the word “diversity” in the title. All of the curators are, without a doubt. However, there is unquestionably stunning art everywhere, created by some of Europe’s most enthralling painters. In that sense, it’s a program that can’t go wrong.