The German contribution to the Venice Biennale

The German contribution to the Venice Biennale: Germany swapped pavilions with the French.

picture-alliance/dpa - Susanne Gaensheimer, Biennale
picture-alliance/dpa - Susanne Gaensheimer, Biennale

Irritations are a part of art. And so it is that the people who enter the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this summer will suddenly discover the French contribution to the world art exhibition. On the other hand, visitors to the French exhibition building will encounter a selection of works chosen by Susanne Gaensheimer, who is director of the Frankfurt Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK) and Germany’s Biennale curator for the second time in succession.

The idea of a “pavilion exchange” has cropped up quite often. But, since 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, which sealed Franco-German friendship, it seemed like a good occasion for the foreign ministers of the two countries to transform the idea into reality. Ms. Gaens­heimer and her French colleague Christine Macel agreed, on condition that the artists they both chose also accepted the idea. The thought of exchanging the exhibition venues impressed them. The head of the MMK said that, after all, the idea of transcending and crossing boundaries is a key element in their work. Bathed in the shimmering light of the Lagoon, the Giardini is the oldest exhibition area of the Biennale, dating back to 1895. This is where many of the impressive national pavilions stand, including some from the early decades of the show. It ranks among the most important international art exhibitions, alongside its younger sister the Documenta in Kassel. However, the original idea of giving each country’s most significant artists a forum here has long since been overtaken by the realities of the globally networked art scene. Categorizing art by nations seems rather old-fashioned nowadays. So, a playful, relaxed approach to the concept of the national pavilions agrees not only with the circumstances in the art world, but also with the aspirations of most artists: to formulate an aesthetic approach that is valid beyond national barriers, while not denying the diversity of cultural roots, and also to create art that asks questions of concern to everyone in the age of globalization. Despite this, however, many states still use the Biennale as a platform for self-representation, which has been on the increase again recently with countries emphasizing national characteristics or staging a scintillating show designed to reflect national glory.

This year, there are almost 90 national pavilions distributed throughout the whole of the city of Venice. “Everyone wants to join in,” says Susanne Gaensheimer. “Many countries feel it’s very important to present their image in this international context.” But she is more interested in transcending the narrower concepts of the national pavilions: “It’s important to see national representation as an open format.” She says this also makes it exciting to discover how the individual countries deal with the challenge. After all, it’s no longer a question of presenting a country’s most important artists – that’s not what it’s about anymore. On the question of internationalization, Ms. Gaensheimer reckons it is by no means complete, particularly in German society. She says people really have to think about the opportunities it brings, not just the risks. “Germany is open to immigration and the economy is globally oriented, no matter whether it’s Deutsche Bank or a small architect’s office.” Ms. Gaensheimer wants to show this side of Germany, as well as the country where politically persecuted artists, such as Ai Weiwei, can find refuge. The museum director says: “The intercultural aspect is the greatest challenge of the future.” That’s why she is staging an exhibition that bears testimony to collaboration between artists from around the world as well as to Germany’s internationality, openness and cosmopolitan focus. She has chosen four artists who are closely associated with Germany, but have different nationalities.

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has a studio in Berlin, is a professor there and says that Germany has been the most important country for his career. His participation in Documenta 2007 was a decisive factor in his international breakthrough. Romuald Karmakar, the Frenchman who lives in Germany and makes documentary and feature films, regularly addresses German topics in his works. South African Santu Mofokeng, a former German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholarship holder, is represented with his works in the Walther Collection, the leading German collection of African photography. The Indian photography artist Dayanita Singh celebrated her first exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin and is working closely with Steidl Verlag, the Göttingen-based publishing house. “The work of all four focuses on the reshaping of ideas of identity,” Ms. Gaensheimer explains. This, she says, is the real topic of the exhibition. In this respect she also wants to link up with the German contribution to the Biennale in 2011, which won a Golden Lion award. Two years ago she posthumously presented the filmmaker and theatre director Christoph Schlingensief as a globally active artist.

The curator is also happy to escape from the confines of the German Pavilion which has a heavy historical legacy and is difficult to use as an exhibition space. She says that the French exhibition hall, which lies opposite, is much more curator-friendly. “The German Pavillion is a very peculiar architectural concoction. The Nazis monumentalized it. So here we are now with this high-reaching hall and two side rooms.” The artists either have to address this architectural volume or ignore it. “The French Pavilion is far more harmonious,” she says, adding that the German Pavilion needs to be modernized, if only because of its lacking infrastructure. But she doesn’t think it needs to be demolished. Modernize, demolish or simply ignore it: these are the kinds of regular suggestions made by previous curators who have had to contend with the German Pavilion. Numerous artists, who were chosen to represent their country there, made the building itself the subject of their work: the building that the Nazis altered to symbolize their power. The artists tore up the stone floor, or made allusions to a democratic tradition in art by creating interior designs reminiscent of the Bauhaus. Anri Sala, who was born in Albania, lives in Berlin and is representing France at Biennale 2013, is free to do what he likes in the German Pavilion – as too is the French curator. There has been no German involvement here. And the Germans are equally free to use the French pavilion, which was built in Neo-Classical style in 1912.

The buildings still bear the conspicuous inscriptions “Germania” and “Francia”, but the visitors’ confusion could be quite beneficial. After all, it shows that, despite their occasional disagreements, the two European neighbours are perfectly capable of exchanges. Exchanging pavilions as a sign of European cohesion: it’s a powerful symbol. And art lives on symbols – not to mention politics. ▪