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Interviews / January 21, 2016

Meet the Power Plant’s New Curator

Carolin Köchling, the newly appointed curator of the Power Plant in Toronto, discusses her institutional experience and curatorial ethos.
Carolin Köchling, the newly appointed curator of the Power Plant in Toronto. Carolin Köchling, the newly appointed curator of the Power Plant in Toronto.

Carolin Köchling arrived from her native Germany last week and, the very next day, took up her new post as curator of exhibitions at the Power Plant in Toronto. Previously curator at Schirn Kunsthalle and assistant curator at Städel Museum, both in Frankfurt, Köchling has curated solo exhibitions of work by Helene Schjerfbeck and Andreas Schulze and has written about Andrea Fraser and Bas Jan Ader.

She joins a revamped curatorial staff that includes the newly appointed Joshua Heuman, who becomes the gallery’s curator of education and public programs.

Here, Köchling discusses her new post with associate editor Caoimhe Morgan-Feir and reflects on how her curatorial history and ethos will influence her work in Toronto.

Caoimhe Morgan-Feir: How are you settling in?

Carolin Köchling: It’s wonderful. I had a very good start here. I arrived Wednesday and my first day at the Power Plant was Thursday. And it’s going very well.

CMF: Are you in the middle of installing?

CK: We are installing shows for the opening on January 29. I haven’t been involved in the preparation of these shows, but it’s a good time to arrive. It’s going to be three solo shows and two of them are Canadian artists (Patrick Bernatchez and Aude Moreau), so it’s a good start for me to get to know the Canadian art scene a little bit better.

CMF: I would be interested in hearing about your knowledge of or involvement in Canadian art: have you focused on or worked with Canadian art in the past, and with Toronto art more specifically?

CK: I have worked with some Canadian artists, well-known ones such as Jeff Wall and Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Jeff Wall’s iconic Picture for Women was one of the key pieces in a show I curated at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.

In 2011 I was involved in a show in the garden of Villa Schöningen, a historic museum in Potsdam near Berlin, located near where a border checkpoint was installed in Germany. And Cardiff and Bures Miller installed one of their sound pieces in the garden that responded to this historical period. But starting to explore the Canadian, and especially the Toronto-based, art scene is one of the first things I will be doing here.

I am thrilled that one of my first projects at the Power Plant will be with Abbas Akhavan. I told Gaëtane Verna in my job interview that I would like to work with him, and I was thrilled when she told me he was going to do the clerestory space here at the Power Plant in 2016, so this is my first project. I knew his work before, and I’m looking forward to starting my work with him.

CMF: Building on this: many institutions are striving to position themselves within an international arena, which means that many curatorial hires are international hires. How do you plan to marry your international pedigree with showing Canadian artists?

CK: I will work with my network of international institutions and artists to strengthen the Power Plant’s international recognition, but I also aim to engage with the local scene. Toronto has a vibrant art scene and I’m looking forward to starting a dialogue here and also with colleagues at other art institutions. Any art institution in general has to operate on the international and local level, and this is something the Power Plant is already doing, and it’s something I would like to continue.

CMF: What is your vision for the Power Plant’s programming?

CK: It relates back a bit to what we were talking about. Presenting Canadian artists is not the only way to engage with the local scene, because an exhibition is always embedded in the cultural environment. And I aim to invite artists, no matter where they are coming from, who take the history of the institution, its setting and the city into account when they are building their exhibitions. This is something I’m really interested in.

Since I just arrived, it’s tough to talk about concrete future plans. Generally I’m interested in artists who address current issues and politics our world is facing today, such as migration, capitalism, digitization, cultural crossover and so on, and I strongly believe that art helps us understand the complexity of our world better. The size and structure of the Power Plant, as I see it, allows reaction to urgent issues in a relatively short amount of time, particularly in comparison to large museums, which plan their shows two or three years in advance.Here I see a great potential I would like to exploit.

One other issue that is important to me, and a reason I feel very drawn to how the Power Plant operates, is that it is an artist-driven institution, which means its focus is on solo exhibitions and supporting new production. I firmly believe the format of the solo show is the best way to gain deep insight into an artist’s practice and his or her way of thinking. I’m looking forward to developing solo shows in close collaboration with each artist we invite to work with us here at the Power Plant

CMF: Logistically speaking, will the frequency of shows, or the approach to shows, shift at all with your appointment?

CK: No, it will remain the same: six to nine exhibitions a year. The focus will be on solo shows, both international and Canadian artists. The main business of the institution and the goal is going to be the same.

CMF: You’ve done a project in the past with Brazilian street art. Will slightly unconventional media figure into your programming in the future?

CK: In my former curatorial practice (and this will certainly continue), I have always been interested in what you could call “blind spots,” areas that are less-researched, such as Brazilian street art, and I have always aimed to work with artists who have been somehow underrepresented in parts of the world. This was also the same when I curated an exhibition on Helene Schjerfbeck, a Finnish artist who is a heroine in her country and Scandinavia, but rarely known abroad.

CMF: Beyond a political focus, and an interest in solo shows, how would you describe your curatorial ethos/approach? Do you have a curatorial style?

CK: My aim is not to have my own handwriting. All my decisions are based on the artwork instead, and on discussion with the artists themselves. Working in the field of contemporary art is a great privilege as it gives you a chance to organize shows in close collaboration with the artist, and I see it as my main duty to create a set of circumstances where the work can unfold at its best. And I’m particularly fascinated by artwork that enters social contexts and provokes a discussion outside the field of art by taking advantage of the liberties it offers at the same time.

I see a great potential in the art institution as a democratic space, where all these issues we are dealing with on a daily basis can be put into discussion—and all of this without the pressure of finding a concrete solution. This is what I’m really interested in.