Villa Romana Fellows 2016

Flaka Haliti, Stefan Vogel, Nico Joana Weber,
Jonas Weichsel

Villa Romana Fellows 2016 in conversation with Angelika Stepken

You are now close to leaving the Villa after nine months of residency. Do you still remember how you felt at the very beginning when you arrived: your first impressions and your expectations? How you see those first moments today?

(JW) My memory of that time is more of a feeling or a picture, seeing the garden and this super bright light. Everything was in such fine shape… the trees, the grass. It was a sort of a miracle place which had a strong aura for me because of stories I had heard and books I had seen. It was this beautiful place. Of course, then you begin to connect it with your own identity somehow.

It was like entering a picture prepared for you?

(JW) Yes.

(NJW) Yes, but there was also the moment of seeing the inside of the place, which you never see on the Internet. I was really surprised how spacious the studios are, the living area, the garden. It was really an amazing feeling to know that I would be able to stay here for so many months. It was much better than I expected.

(FH) Yes, you cannot reach everything from a moving chair. I would totally agree regarding the space and the building. But when I go back to thinking about the institution itself, me as a foreigner, Albanian-Kosovar who lives in Germany: this is quite another experience than being German and coming here. For me, after having spent almost a year in Venice – for the Venice Biennale – used to the Italian way of thinking, producing, being and speed, I had kind of prepared myself and thought I could handle Florence. The surprise was that I was actually entering a German institution. This I forgot.

How did you experience this long period? Sometimes time runs fast, sometimes it seems too slow and things are missing. Tell us something about how you lived your time here.

(NJW) You enter with a certain mind set when you know it is not just for one project, but also about everyday life. Today I must say that I cannot imagine how I will feel being back home, because I really lived here for nine months. For me it was perfect to have such a long stay. It is such a rare opportunity.

(JW) What is interesting is that you spend a relatively long time here but without any interruption in your artistic production. For me as a painter, usually when I travel, I leave my studio, something happens and then I come back. But here, it was all connected. It is not easy to sum up all the aspects that we experienced. Maybe we should be more precise.

It depends so much on each person. I remember fellows who at a certain point felt a lack of confrontation, of dialogue, and others who went through a period of crisis, rotating on their own axis. But Jonas you, at least, immediately succeeded in continuing your work here. You installed your silkscreen table and started working the next day.

(JW) I was in the middle of a production and just changed the place. I hardly stepped out of the studio for three months. It was a completely abstract situation in the beginning, working, but not at all relating to where I was, to the city. That happened only a little later and was nice, because then I was super open to see everything and maybe also to reflect this in my work in a way I would never have done in Germany. Stepping out, in general, was a very good thing for me.

(NJW) That is true for me, too. I was able to start things which I had been wanting to do for a long time in Germany, but somehow was not able to, for example, writing an essay. Even if I did not finish everything and maybe was not as productive in a straightforward way as I had imagined myself to be, mentally it helped a lot to start and dare new things. And I am sure it will go on next year.

I remember that some years ago, Yorgos Sapountzis said at the end of the residency that he was able to listen better to his own voice here.

(NJW) I would agree with that. I felt more removed from certain routines that can block you.

(JW) For me, for example, these olive trees, having another space for a dialogue with myself was great. Stepping out of the studio, but still being somehow connected to the situation there. I was walking around this little forest every day, talking to myself about a next step, the next decision to make. You cannot do something like this in a city. We had this huge private space.

A garden is a protected space. Interesting what you say about the garden. In the beginning, we had a lot of questions about the garden: is it a private or a public space, how does a garden relate to an artist's house? But, Stefan, you were also outside a lot, sleeping among the trees.

(SV) It was the first time that I had this kind of nature around me. Walking around in the garden, waking up in the garden is something that I will really miss next year.

What will you miss?

(SV) Maybe this kind of island. I think I will need some time to understand what the Villa was like or what the studio was like. I did a lot of things, but not necessarily in a productive way.

But you did such a lot, at least three studio exhibitions, you moved a lot into space with your work.

(SV) Yes, but this was a reaction, the space was a garage in former times. I had to change something and then an exhibition came out. And then I changed it again and again. I was not sure from the beginning if I wanted to conquer the space, to make it more neutral, less Florence, less palm trees. I did not want to feel like a tourist in my own studio.

(FH) Timewise, I was more stressed by the clock of deadlines. Working on deadlines made me work on things I had already promised So I just tried to function. As I often had to go to Munich for appointments, at a certain point I noticed that I was working there or, for example, in Stockholm, but waiting to come back here. It became a kind of base for me on the concentration level. The studio here became a place for writing, administration and production. In that way, I became local. For me, maybe the terrace was very practical. When I was working on Photoshop or other things, I could be there almost inside the white cube of the studio. The garden was more a space to socialize, the terrace was private. Sometimes for me, it was enough to go outside into the garden instead of moving to the city.

How did you relate to the city then?

(FH) When I left the studio after days of working, in the city I felt like a tourist because of the crowd, the beauty of the Tuscan landscape and some Italian memories.

I must say when I go to the city – not too often – I do not even feel like a tourist. I do not want to be a tourist, I do not want to see the tourists, I am more or less moving in a tunnel.

(FH) But I had this all the time. When I went there, I went there open-minded and refreshed my mind from other daily routines. Also, I spent many holidays in the past in Italy, which made it easy to create this feeling again.

And what about all the art around? Was it the same again this year, that you first kept your distance in order not be overwhelmed? And then in November you started to hurry?

(JW) To be honest, I was not scared to be overwhelmed. I was hoping to be overwhelmed somehow. It is super interesting to follow the red line of painting history. Many things, my kind of reference system, the kind of Western aesthetics were invented here. For example, the Uffizi was the first institution to call itself a Gallery. A lot of questions, not only in a formal way. It was also a luxury to see things not only during two weeks but coming back again and again.

(NJW) Being surrounded by so much art that is not contemporary and connected to my own way of working made me freer to look at it. I do not have to think all the time about the way I work and it makes me much more sensitive and appreciative of colours, surfaces, materials in a less preoccupied way. Also, it is a bit like moving in a time capsule where you do not feel the necessity to always be everywhere as it might happen in NY, for example. The concentration is a different kind and more inward-looking, I would say.

(SV) In the beginning, I went to the city as a tourist because of the tourists. And then I started to discover the island of the Villa Romana because of the exhibition, the studio and so on. There was a gap between the Villa and the city which forced me to go to the city. Then the river became a kind of border to me, because our side of the Arno is somehow more normal, you can have a drink at Santo Spirito etc. As soon as I crossed the bridge, I went as fast as I could. Now, during the last month, maybe because it is towards the end of my stay here, I enjoy the centre more.

(NJW) Maybe it is because the city changed so much during the course of our stay. This is another reason why having almost an entire year of residency is beautiful: the seasons change, the city changes. Especially now in November I like the light, the fog on the river, less people around. I think in August I went to the city only once.

(SV) If you live in a city for one year you build up a relationship, it does not matter if you like the city or not. I am curious about coming back next year and looking at the Uffizi, maybe with different eyes.

(FH) My relation to the city as a museum, the Renaissance etc., was more like this: ok, there is a lot to see but I am not searching for anything. Looking for inspiration would have led me in a wrong direction. Rather let it happen, now or in two years. And this has already happened to me, now looking at the old paintings in museums and churches I noticed that I am less scared to look at these things than looking at contemporary art which is much more linked to my kind of aesthetics. Lately I was really inspired by the wings of the angels and discovered then: ok, I am again looking from a contemporary perspective. In a way, I am already working on this in a new production but de-attaching it from the painting and the church and its metaphors of representation. More things will come up later.

How did you feel about the parallel realities in Villa: the exhibitions, guest artists in residence, concerts, meetings and visitors:  these events change your private studio surroundings into something of a public space. Did this disturb your concentration or was it an opportunity to open up sometimes?

(JW) For me, it was a good mixture, there were a lot of things going on, we had a lot of studio visits and then there were weeks without almost anything. I think if you had kept up the speed of May and June it would have been too much. But as it was, the level was perfect.

(SV) At the beginning, you do not know how much effort you make for studio visits, for example. Usually the studio visits I had before were visits of friends or people I had invited. In the end, I found the right approach by not giving too much to those groups of visitors.

(NJW) Yes, there were times when you felt like an animal in a zoo. But it was ok, because you accept that it does not always have to affect you emotionally, you just do it. At a certain point, I thought, "now it is too much." But at the same time, I realized that it helped me to open up and talk more easily about my work. I never felt pressured to do things. It was always like this: if you need your own space, you can take it. I really appreciated that in a structure where we were all living under one roof and a lot of things were happening. Of course, this was a community that grew over the year and we wanted to participate in it, but that is something different than feeling expectations and pressure to join in all the time.