Kyoto Trend Setter Interview Series: Markus Wernhard (Director, Goethe-Institut Villa Kamogawa)


Interviewer : Ozaki Testuya
Photography: Kanamori Yuko

In our series “Kyoto Trend Setter”, we interview the people behind-the-scenes that organize and support cultural activities in Kyoto. For the second installment, we spoke with Markus Wernhard, the new director of the Goethe-Institut (German Cultural Center) Villa Kamogawa, which promotes cultural exchange between Germany and Japan. Through his fluent Japanese, we heard about the future direction of the artist-in-residency that overlooks the Kamogawa River.


Photography: Kanamori Yuko

– First, can I ask about your background? Where in Germany are you from?

My hometown is a beautiful village at the foot of the mountains in the Munich region.

– What was your major at university?

I went to university twice, specializing in fields such as sociology, theater and Spanish literature, but eventually dropped out. I thought of becoming a painter and so lived in Spain to pursue artistic activities, but eventually gave it up, left Spain and finally resolved to enter university for the third time. I turned 22 and buckled down to begin studying Chinese, German literature and philosophy.

– Why did you have an interest in Chinese philosophy and literature?

I thought that by learning Chinese, I could see a world that was quite far away, and find new points of view. It wasn’t as if I had an interest in Chinese philosophy from the beginning.

For two and a half years I immersed myself in the study of Chinese in Munich. I got up at 5 or 6 a.m. every morning and crammed kanji into my head until 1 p.m. Later on I received a scholarship and studied abroad in China. It was before the opening up of the country and Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms had just begun. It wasn’t so long after the Cultural Revolution and when I arrived it was a world of pure and unexpected poverty. There was no coffee, bread or butter, for a student from the West it was a quite difficult situation. There were no supermarkets, you had to ask in the department stores, ”Comrade, may I please have a look at this?” to try and see products. The staff were often cold, it was a typical socialist environment. Looking back now though, this was a valuable experience (laughs).


●20th anniversary in East Asia

– Did you join the Goethe-Insitut (German Cultural Center) right after graduating from university?

Yes, I graduated from university in 1989 and joined the Goethe-Institut in 1990.

– It was a radical time in Germany.

That’s right. However, as a young West German who had no particular interest in politics, my level of engagement was low. My mother wept when the Berlin wall came down having experienced the hardships that came with the division of the nation, but as I was born and raised in the Cold War era the existence of two Germanies was just natural and there wasn’t really a feeling of connection to the East. It is embarrassing to say , but I fear there were not so few West Germans who shared this detachment.

– What was your motivation for joining the Goethe-Institut?

There aren’t that many opportunities to work overseas in the cultural sector, so having heard of the Goethe-Institut by chance, I applied. There was a need of Chinese speaking staff.

There was a training program in the first two years. The following two years I worked in the head office, when human resources asked me out of the blue, ¨would you go to Tokyo?¨ As to the reason why I was approached, maybe there was a misunderstanding that China and Japan are not so different (laughs). But maybe there also was a broader perspective like ¨this person is still young, so why not give him the chance to get in touch with the Japanese language and culture. ¨

This definitely was a great chance. After having already studied Chinese, I became familiar with Japanese language and culture at a young age. As a result my life changed considerably. My wife is Japanese, and although my own parents have passed away, my family here is a big presence in my life, we get along very well. It’s quite an experience.

– You came to Japan in 1994, am I right?

In 1994 I came to Goethe-Institut Tokyo as Head of the Arts Department, and stayed there until 1999. After that I served as the Director at Goethe-Institut Beijing for just three and a half years. From 2003 until 2009, I returned to Tokyo again as Head of the Arts Department. In 2009 I went to Taipei as Director of the Goethe-Institut Taipei.


●Goethe-Institut and Villa Kamogawa

– Can you give us an outline of what kind of organisation the German Cultural Center (Goethe-Institut) is?

The Goethe-Institut is the Federal Republic of Germany’s cultural institute. It was originally a non-governmental organisation. In the early 1970s, it signed an agreement with the German government, and became responsible for a considerable part of its cultural foreign policy. Its foreign activity budget comes entirely from the government. In spite of this, the level of autonomy the Goethe-Institut has is unique to Germany.

More than 10 years ago we had a large internal reform process. One result is that the board of directors of the Federal Foreign Office and the Goethe-Institut discuss the goals that should be achieved over a period of four years. However, it isn’t a matter of a goal being pushed through by one side only, but rather through an equal consultation. As we participate in this discussion, it creates a high level of motivation on the side of the Goethe-Institut. Also, the means through which we achieve these goals are decided on by the Goethe-Institut. In other words, our level of autonomy is quite high. Once a year, we have to confirm that we are meeting our goals and discuss any new developments, but the direction by the foreign office is basically limited to this.

– The annual number of artists-in-residence at Villa Kamogawa is twelve (three periods of four artists each), what are the selection criteria?

In the end it is quality. Every year, a jury of external specialists and critics goes through all the artists’ applications and chooses twelve for the following year. If the focus of their activities is in Germany, non-German artists may also apply. There’s also a category for researchers and curators.

– Compared to the twelve selected, what is the application rate?

I can’t say specifically, but there are hundreds of applicants, it is a very high ratio.

– Kyoto must be popular?

It is. At other Goethe-Instituts, for instance in China or India, there also are artist-in-residence programs, but none have facilities and features like the Villa Kamogawa. The Villa Kamogawa is the only one where everything is fully geared to serving the resident artists.

– What is the work involved as director?

To start with, I comment on the feasibility of each artist’s project at the screening level. For instance, one may be too abstract, or the focus is unclear…However, I have no vote, my role is limited to giving an additional point of view to the members of the external jury. Although they are specialists, as they live in Germany they may not be able to fully evaluate the feasibility of the projects. As a voice from the location, I believe my comments can be useful somehow. Next, together with all our staff, is to support the artists in realizing their projects once they have arrived in Kyoto. The artists do research on Japan before they arrive, but, as the reality here may be different to what they imagined, alterations in their projects may be needed.


●Desire to increase the communicative power of Villa Kamogawa

– Can we hear about your direction and goals as the new director?

In 2011 the Goethe-Institut Kyoto was renovated and reborn as Villa Kamogawa, and over the last three years has established its functionality as a residence for artists. However, its visibility and synergy with the art scene and local partners in Kyoto, Kansai and Japan still leave something to be desired. Many people with interest in contemporary culture in Kyoto and Kansai probably aren’t aware that top-level artists from Germany are residing here. To have friendly relationships with people involved in Japan’s contemporary culture is important for the outcome of the artist’s projects. In this respect, I think there is still room for improvement in the networking of the Villa Kamogawa.

Also, it may be regrettable if the stay in Kyoto is solely focused on the realization of the artists’ own project. For example, if creative people from Japan and Germany get in touch and talk, interesting topics are sure to emerge. In addition to its purpose as an artist-in-residence facility I’d like to develop the Villa Kamogawa into a platform where creators from Japan and Germany can exchange views.

– So you’d like to stress the ‘software’ side rather than the ‘hardware’?

Exactly. I want to increase the communicative power of the Villa Kamogawa. This also led me to approach you about starting Creators@Kamogawa(※). Besides the discussion itself, I think it is important that documentation is made public. We disseminate texts, photos and videos and thereby make it known in Japan and Germany, and also internationally. I am confident that here in Kyoto we can produce content that is also valuable in an international context.

At our recent Creators@Kamogawa, the exchange between the writers Marion Poschmann and Fukunaga Shin for me was revealing. They were both very interested in each other and wanted to talk more. Fukunaga-san sent me an email afterwards saying, “I can’t speak a foreign language and so it was really great to have the chance to talk to a foreign author directly.” I felt it is an important role for the Villa Kamogawa to create this kind of opportunity.

– In Kyoto there is for example the Villa Kujoyama, the artist-in-residence facility of France, and there are creators from many other countries that have short or long-term stays. Is there the possibility that other foreign creators in Kyoto could do something together with the residents at the Villa Kamogawa?

If there were such a chance, it would be a pleasure for sure.  It’s really important to discuss shared topics on an international level and interesting perspectives should come out of this. Not necessarily just conversations about art, but also contemporary topics, like for example the anti-dancing law issue for clubs…We are looking to further improve our equipment for simultaneous interpreting and if this could manage multiple languages, it would be most suited to exactly that.

In the cultural sector simultaneous interpretation is rarely used, but I don’t think it should be that way. Only people in politics and the economy can communicate through the ideal way of simultaneous interpreting, whereas those in the cultural field have to make do with consecutive interpretation as a poor substitute (laughs). Is this acceptable!? So even with high costs I would like to use simultaneous translation.

– It would be great if the costs could be shared with the Institut Français or Kyoto city for example.

At the Goethe-Institut, we always very much welcome cultural cooperation with other countries. If there’s a chance, we will try to make it happen. For example if there are events at cultural institutions that the city of Kyoto is committed to, such as next year’s PARASOPHIA or the ROHM Theatre, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to bring critics from Germany and other countries to Kyoto to have an after talk with Japanese critics?

Usually, even if there is an interesting talk after the event, without public documentation it just ends there. It’s a pity if there are only a few dozen people appreciating it and then going home. If it stays in the form of a well edited video or text, it can be widely shared and may lead to something new in the future. Documentation really is important .

– If you use Ustream, many people can have a look through real-time internet and not just those present at the spot. And if you put the recorded file online, people that didn’t have a chance to see it can access it later.

It will give the resident German artists something special to take back home. And if the contents are also edited to be understood abroad and are, for example, made available through the international network of the Goethe-Institut, this should also have positive effects for the Japanese creators and artists involved. We can give something back to them if we pro-actively promote these contents.

– This sounds great. We really look forward to what’s coming next.

(Interview: 23 July 2014 / Publication: 29 August 2014)


Markus Wernhard
Director, Goethe-Institut Villa Kamogawa

A talk series that started in July 2014 at the Villa Kamogawa. The residing artists at the Villa Kamogawa and Japanese creators exchange views on topics related to the artistic process in a relaxed, bar-like atmosphere. Moderator: Ozaki Tetsuya. Simultaneous translation available. (Next event December 6, 2014)


(English Translation: Nat and Asako Koyama)

〈C O N T E N T S〉
Kyoto Trend Setter Interview Series:
#01 Isabelle Olivier
  (Responsible Officer of cultural programs, Institut français du Japon – Kansai)

#02 Markus Wernhard
  (Director, Goethe-Institut Villa Kamogawa)