Elfi Kopler, Worldly Companion, interviewed by art journalists Nicole Büsing and Heiko Klaas.

Ms. Kopler, perhaps you can briefly introduce yourself and tell us something about your background.

I’m Elfi Kopler. And I’m from Kassel. That means that I’ve lived in Kassel forever. I work here in Kassel at the Volkshochschule (adult education center), and I’m also a tailor. Most of all, though—and this is the most important of all—I’m a city tour guide. Therefore, I’m very interested in introducing things that I’m familiar with—some of them perhaps for years—from other documenta exhibitions.

How did you get involved with the documenta 13?

Through the newspaper. When I read it, it seemed as if it was addressing me personally, and I knew I was exactly the right person to become a Worldly Companion here.

How was it formulated? Was it an ad?

It was a big newspaper article. It said that they were not only looking for art experts, but also lay people—people who don’t have that much to do with art, perhaps even nothing at all. And that was precisely why it was important for me to participate: in order to learn about art. As a tour guide, of course, I’ve always taken guests around the documenta exhibitions. And in that respect I’ve basically seen them all, from the beginning. But I’ve never spent much time studying it.

So, if you are a Worldly Companion, then you must be guiding large groups of people, people from all over the world, around the documenta. How do you prepare for that? What happens in your team?

Training is very intense, up to thirteen hours a day. We also really have to work at it. And above all, we have to always carry our papers around with us. We have a big binder that is really full. Naturally, it’s all highly interesting. Once you starting reading, it’s actually hard to stop. It’s almost like reading an exciting novel—at least, that’s the way it seems to me.

So you’re also learning a great deal?

I’m learning a great deal, and I’m also really interested in it. Of course, I’m most interested in the artists, since I always talk about them a lot during my tours. I show the things that have already been acquired by the city. I’m specializing in that a little. But the tour is structured so that we also go past the new things and guests inquire about them.

So, you go by the new works that are now being added?

Yes, that’s what I think. Because there are different tours, after all. You can’t see the whole documenta in two hours, so we have to specialize. There are sixteen people in my group. And I’m very excited to see what happens the next time we meet, because we were all supposed to have studied three artists. Three times sixteen, you know how much we’re going to be facing, even if each person just talks a little bit about the artists he’s now studying more closely.

Could you tell us a little bit about the people in your group?

Oh, yes. They’re all of different ages. Including some who are already very well educated. In our group we have a lady who leads tours in Spain, in Madrid. And in the preliminary discussion group there was a lady from Peru and a lady from Venezuela. There are also many people from Berlin, and Germans who live elsewhere. Among the Worldly Companions, however, there are not only many people with prior training, but also people who know even less about the documenta than I do. And that’s what I find so attractive. Otherwise I might not have dared to appear as an art mediator.

How often do your classes take place?

Once a month, but they’re very intense. The whole day Saturday and a half-day on Friday. And since much of it is in English, it’s not so easy for me, either. When I get e-mails from other members of the group who think somewhat differently than I do, so to speak, when a university professor e-mails me and uses certain expressions, then I have to have my English dictionary by my side to figure it out. Naturally, that’s a bit difficult for me. But I also wrote down what sort of education I had in my application. I’m a tailor. And so I’m not as proficient in the philosophies espoused by university professors.

Good, but that’s exactly what they wanted. You bring other things to the table. You probably have a less constricted, fresher view of art.

Yes, I hope that that’s what they wanted, and that it won’t get me into trouble. That happens to me sometimes during my tours; some people think that I come off as too simple—teachers, for instance, or other people who think they know better. People who think that it’s all too average for them; they hover above in the ether.

Could you explain your connection to the documenta a bit? When you were a young girl, you were at the first documenta. What was that like?

We went to the first documenta on a school field trip. Of course, our parents were of the generations that rejected all of that. And so we had to study it ourselves and grow into these completely different things. Air Package, for instance, by Christo. That was something that really took some getting used to, as they say today. And Vertical Earth Kilometer by Walter de Maria, which is right in front of the Fridericianum, needs a lot of explaining. When I’m taking around a group that is not from here, then I have to explain it to them so that they can understand it at least a little. And that’s exciting. And very interesting.

Would you say that many people in Kassel have come to have a better understanding of contemporary art over the years, with every new documenta?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t say that. People around me strongly reject it all, and I’ve already had some arguments about it. I’ve almost lost a friendship over it. But I keep trying, and now I’m really learning how to explain these things better. For instance, the Vertical Earth Kilometer, which you don’t actually see. But members of the group shouldn’t just listen to me; they should also form their own ideas about it.

Do you expect that the documenta 13 will be somewhat different, will have a different twist than the previous shows?

I have the feeling that the Documenta 13 will be something completely different. If only because we Worldly Companions are not experts. There will not only be guests who are interested in modern art, but under some circumstances, there will also be those who do not like it. The groups that come are often a colorful mix of people. And I think that it’s important to show the works of art in this modern way, not in such an academic manner.

Are your family and friends proud of you for doing this?

My son just laughs. OK, Mother has to do something new again. No, certainly not proud. It’s very controversial. I have one brother here, and I will have to talk him into coming with me to see it. From the start, my friends said, for God’s sake, OK then, we’re looking forward to seeing how you explain it to us. So I’m going to have to fight a few battles.

So you’re met with skepticism?

A great deal. Absolutely. Perhaps even more than just skepticism.

All the better then, that you’re doing this . . .

That’s one of the reasons. Because it’s my opinion that if we’re going to have an international exhibition, why should I turn my back on it? Because when the soccer world championships are held here, everyone goes, after all. Even people like me, who don’t know a thing about soccer. It’s still an international exhibition. And that’s why people should not refuse to participate. You should at least have a look. And there is something for everyone, guaranteed; I’m completely convinced of that—there will be at least one thing that you like. Finding it, of course, is another thing.

May 15, 2012

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