This week #slowwords goes deep into the ultimate reasons driving an author to write, to read – and to engage as a citizen.
Thomas Girst, the author we had a conversation with, is a former journalist and the current Head of Culture Engagement of BMW: he has also been appointed European Manager of the Year in 2016.
Beside the very special tasks as a manager all over this world, he talks with us with no exceptions about the companions of his life – art and literature. And from where all started.
That’s how we like it. If you have not have found him at work in the past days at Art Basel (Switzerland) while unveiling the latest initiatives of BMW as part of its wider cultural programs, you will eventually like to meet Thomas through his books…
Your story in a very few lines – we would love to understand which was your dream as a kid and from where everything started
Curiosity is a character trait I cherish.
My parents were neither interested in culture nor in arts because theirs is a typical post-war generation which trying to make a career starting out from nothing. There was not the time to learn more about art and literature – they were of course very interested but they could not cultivate it.
I owe all my interest in arts to my godmother from Cologne. I saw at her house some books on the surrealist painter Salvador Dalí who opened up my interests in art and from there I read any book I could put my hands on about him.
I even travelled to his house in Cadaques, Port Lligat, at that time he was still alive.
I sat on the beach where his house is, I even took a fallen tile from his wall to have something to bring back with me.
The deep interest in that world – the worlds of arts and literature – never left me.
I was fifteen when I read the entire In search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust: at that time while my friends were at the public swimming pool trying to impress women, I was at home reading literature. I was just different, not weird I hope but the closest people to me were artists and writers oftentimes long dead – in my little hometown in Germany there were not so many people sharing the same passion. Yet I found them and then we founded a school newspaper solely focusing on culture!
It was never a question for me to do anything else than culture and arts, so it was natural that I enrolled in literature and arts history studies, I’m very fortunate now with my job where beside the twin interests of my life I can deal with the world of opera, the world of architecture, of classical music, new music, jazz and design (being the BMW Head of Cultural Engagement, Thomas oversees hundreds of programs the car company backs in culture, arts and also in music, architecture and in all the disciplines in which it is involved as partner of international institutions – from museums to theatres to art fairs and festivals).
I thought, at the very beginning, that this was such a great gift I would be able to delve into these areas as well. There is of course always lots of curiosity, but when you become responsible of these fields, you attend operas, you see since the beginning the work of new compositions – beside working for instance with great architects such as COOP HIMMELB(L)AU and Zaha Hadid…. There is an absolute involvement.
Before working for BMW you’re dedicating yourself to literature (with the International literature and art anthology Die Aussenseite des Elementes). Can you tell us more? You write and edit quite a lot, besides having worked as a journalist for long time: which is the form of writing which could be more yours in a few years, far from essays and articles?
I always believed doing things by my own and since the very beginning I was considering myself an author.
I was only nineteen when I founded with friends a literary journal that lived for a decade: we were organizing a lot of readings and we were well reviewed by any German press. It was just great to do so outside of any publishing house, with no advertisement and loose sheets of paper in a cardboard box, with hundreds of pages to read inside.
We were publishing, often for their very first time, very young writers who now are considered important authors with the major publishers, so we did have a very good eye for the future poets and writers!
It took to me a long time before starting to write my own books, because I was working also as journalist. The moment you really try to release your thoughts into words, you delve into anything deeper than what you deal with normally. It is an intellectual challenge as you are always bound to fail while grappling with expressing thoughts.
I always observed the world with a deep sense of wonder, of curiosity, with the urge and the ambition to really release it into words, it helps also to document what you were interested at any given time.
In the moment I ended my doctoral thesis, I could finally start writing the books I wanted to write. I had a great fascination – the biggest – about Marcel Duchamp’s work. I saw his work when I was 16 and it was only around my 30 that I could write about him – a long time of incubation, which I think is important.
If you are a lucky person on this planet, you have 70 years where you’re fully conscious – let’s say from 15 to 85. It is your obligation to make the most of your time on the planet.
There is so much to see, so much to explore; my life is always based on the concept of ‘as well as’ and not on ‘either/or’. Energy creates energy, it does not take away from you
If you’re not affected by any sort of disease – or affected by the loss of a loved one – and if you’ve enough to eat, then you have the obligation and the responsibility to really always try to go to the fringes of yourself. I found that character trait in many people who achieved great things.
This is not to say that I have achieved great things, I feel I am a missionary in a way. I do not consider myself on par with Duchamp but if I can generate interest in five hundreds people to pick up books about him or to see his art, I think I have achieved a lot and I have contributed.
To answer to your question, I have two more books in the making right now and I am closing the deals with the publishers. But the book I am continuing to postpone, and that I really want to write, is my novel.
Since the age of 14, I am taking notes and I might have 10 kilograms of those now – all are supposed to end up in a book…
I should have the courage, maybe by taking some time out of work, by moving to the South of France with my notes and be there only for the writing and to focus.
I can write the books I’m writing now at night, but with the novel this is impossible to coordinate with my job and with the family I have – with three young kids (the boys are 13 and 11 and the daughter is 5; my wife is working hard too, she is a professor of graphic design). All of this is quite a lot, but that’s the way I like it because is good to feel the pressure!
Now, with Marcel Duchamp I speak at symposia and I could still write a couple of books about him. When I will be 70 or 80, I would love to have the courage to write another book, on another Marcel (Proust). I just read his writings for the second time, then a third time and eventually I will have enough courage to start on.
You as reader: which ways, which places and which needs? Which is the book and the music with you now?
I’m reading books, they mean a lot to me as physical objects: the way I grew up with them is like with friends, as mentors. This does not mean that you’ve a solitary life, it means that it is richer because you have your brothers and friends but also Proust and Duchamp. And they are there forever – your personal army protecting you forever. Why do not learn from the greatest people on the planet?
Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, said that minds communicate throughout the centuries like the lighthouses along the nightly shores. This is so beautiful because any single person stands on the shoulders of giants.
You can read about Ars Amatoria and read most of what you need to know about the intricate interplay between men and women via Ovid …a library and a book are volcanoes for discoveries, a tremendous potential.
I read at night because is the only time I have, I have to read before falling asleep. I love to read on long distance flights. And I also love to read to other people, I find it amazing to read a book together. You have for instance your partner reading part of the book to you and you back to her. It’s something becoming an instant bond, bringing you together in other universes. In this way, only recently, for instance I discovered Murakami…
And the music with you now? The music you like?
When it comes to music, I think that somebody, maybe Susan Sontag, said that the western civilization is the cancer of the planet. That’s true if you think about the horrible carnage that we wrought upon others …especially coming from a German background… But there is something else that exists in men and women themselves, the proof of God or some greater entity on this planet is for example Johann Sebastian Bach, you cannot listen to him while reading, he is so demanding that you can only listen to him. The experience is sublime. The more you give, the more you get out of something.
I recently enjoyed also an independent Austrian rock band, called Wanda, which is great. And I also really enjoy Angus and Julia Stone, they are brother and sister from Australia. Guitar and a great voice, those are the things I really like to enjoy in the car.
BMW takes care of modern and contemporary art, of music (especially jazz) and architecture by always privileging long term relations in which the 101 years old company is beside the initiatives as well as the museums or institutions designing them (when it is not directly BMW to design the initiative). You’re heading all that.
When and where your ideas sparkle? Is it more the history – richer and seminal if compared to other similar companies – of your brand to inspire you or more the direction of the marketing and design offices?
I think it is both – every future needs a past.
I am very proud that there has always been an incredible cultural commitment here. Look just at the arts within the company, even 40 years before I started: there is a legacy and a trajectory we need to honor and to be responsible of.
The attitude, the way you position your brand has to be done with great care, with a sense of strength, of purpose that you get only from what has been done and achieved before.
Every time you start a job you should always enquire about who was before you and how this came to happen. When I started here I was having no connections with cars. I asked to work in a factory for three weeks because I needed to establish some sort of connection. They were of course generous enough to let me work the early shift. Looking into the future is important, you need always to not be stagnant, to be alerted and on your feet, to keep questioning your core, there is a tremendous impact of what we do, more than 120,000 people are working here. There is time to breathe, of course, but the competition is fierce and everything has to have a specific pace. I am just very happy to partake with a very small fraction in the positioning of the brand within the cultural realm.
That’s why we never use the word sponsorship that embodies a transaction, a money transfer – and anybody can become a sponsor.
We are partners, co-initiators, collaborators: it is about an interaction and not a transaction, it has to be a long term relation. We bring an international network to the table, we bring the know-how that helps artists. We never interfere with the cultural freedom of any artist or institution.
We were just in Beijing two weeks ago – for the world premiere of the BMW art car by Chinese contemporary artist Cao Fei (it was a media trip, so we had to design a program).
We went to the Ullens Center of Contemporary Art, one of the most seminal places in the field, working on a global scale thanks to its wise director Philip Tinari – he is the most active on the scene to support contemporary Chinese artists, also founding magazines about the subject matter and by curating dozens of exhibitions.
At his current exhibition, New Normal, there was an artist included in the show, called Max Hooper Schneider, who was chosen by the jury that we put together to appoint the artist for the next BMW Art Journey (an initiative in conjunction with Art Basel, for which there is also an independent jury BMW sets to select the artist to award). Phil Tinari is in the jury and he also picked Max to be included in his show in Beijing
To see that name on the show’s wall made me enormously proud because it means that what we do for artists is going well (curators push only artists they believe in!) and this cannot be obtained with a sponsorship, but just through a network.
We also host the BMW Jazz Festival in Munich and we partner with the Shanghai Jazz Festival. The winner musicians from Germany travel in Asia and the other way around. These little, tiny things have nothing to do with the contracts we have with artists or with institutions: they come within the flow, making me very happy.
What your city is giving to you and vice versa, Munich, on a very personal ‘size’, the one of the citizen – even if you travel a lot?
What I do not like when you’re traveling is the question ‘where are you based’. The whole question, to be based somewhere, seems you’re based on the moon or within a colony on Mars. Obviously I live somewhere, but I’m not based anywhere.
Munich is such a tremendously culturally rich city, it gives me so much pleasure and I cannot live in a place that is not like it.
Culture is a fortress for me, in every direction: from the west to the east, from the north to the south, I need culture around me. Even when I’m in bed and read, to know that there is an opera performance going on or in three kilometers vicinity a reading, theatre plays – all happening at the same time! – and that thousands of people are going there everyday makes me a grateful person to be living in that city. Because it keeps at bay the horrible things that you see going on in this world that are encroaching upon you.
Ugliness is always on the course of extension: you have to protect the beautiful for your sanity and to making sense of it all.
Munich is an amazing city also in the scale, smaller if compared on what is going on elsewhere for sure. It has a tremendous amount of institutions, it is safe – I could not imagine a better place to raise my children here. I’m proud of my city.
What have you learnt from life until now?
I am not at an age where I can put this in, let’s say, in a formula but I will use something that Kafka said (I cannot really translate it well, but I try paraphrase): you create your own path through life, there is no path already there for you. It is something that you cut yourself through the woods and underbrush and everything, through the grass …It’s a never ending struggle. You are lost when you find yourself so do not bother.
Your search for yourself is continuous also because you change in time.
To love and be loved is the reason to be on this planet. You should never intentionally harm anyone.
One of my leading principle is “kill them with kindness” and do not make things more miserable for others.
It’s something that Jeff Koons said also: every person on this planet is already a winner, because you competed again millions of ‘yourself’ for that egg, you’re the result from that blend, you have made it. You fought the most important battle before you were born. Everyone alive is a winner! Which is why you have to make the best and the most of life – of course, and again, if you do not have a condition, if you have enough to eat, if you have not lost someone.
Besides to never wait for someone to make the path for you, you should never give up. You have to be grounded in yourself, aware of your equilibrium in order to start to mean something to somebody else and without being too overbearing for those close to you.
At the end of the day, the person who is the closest to you is always yourself.
Duchamp said once ‘a lot of what I did was a game between myself and I’, I find that’s so beautiful.
You’ve always to care yourself.