Exhibition

Scarcely an exhibition context is as charged and overlaid with meaning as the national contributions to a biennial. National representation and cultural attributions—the dangers of every national pavilion—are not infrequently associated with conflicts. That is particularly true of the German Pavilion in Venice.

After the founding of the Biennale di Venezia as a sales exhibition in 1895, the first German contributions took place in the international and German galleries of the main exhibition building in the Giardini. Starting in 1909, the Bavarian Pavilion, renamed the German Pavilion in 1912, represented the country at the show. In 1938, that building was altered to conform to the fascist architectural aesthetic. The Nazi imperial eagle over the entrance portal was removed after the war. In 1984, the wings were furnished with the inscriptions “Bundesrepublik Deutschland” and “Repubblica Federale di Germania” to distinguish Western Germany’s contributions from those of the German Democratic Republic, which had been participating since 1982. Nevertheless, the architecture of the German pavilion still exemplifies the formal language of fascism to this day.

Thus it comes as no surprise that the artists invited to exhibit here in the past have often defied this architecture and the spirit it emanates. Hans Haacke, for example, broke up the plates of the pavilion’s travertine floor in such a way as to recall Caspar David Friedrich’s Sea of Ice. Anne Imhof introduced transparent walls and a glass platform that literally pulled the floor out from under the feet of those entering. Natascha Sadr Haghighian—who called herself Natascha Süder Happelmann for the occasion—divided the main room in two with a huge wall that was reminiscent of an arch dam while also alluding to the so-called “Festung Europe” (“Fortress Europe”).

The general sense of unease characterizing many of the contributions is not least of all a reaction to Germany’s twentieth-century history and the atrocities committed by Germans against the Jewish population and all who did not conform to the ideology of the Nazi regime. What position does a country with such a past adopt in the context of the current global crises? What possibilities does art have against this background? And how can art take on these questions while at the same time developing a stance and pictorial language of its own?

It is with these questions in mind that the German Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2022 will focus on aspects of political and cultural representation and what artistic production means to society—issues of particular relevance in today’s challenging times.

Yilmaz Dziewior
Cologne, January 2021

Conversation Between Yilmaz Dziewior and Maria Eichhorn
on the Occasion of the Nomination for the 2022 German Pavilion
at the Biennale di Venezia


YD: Do you still remember what went through your mind when I asked you whether you could imagine exhibiting in the German Pavilion at the next Biennale in Venice? I thought you seemed very relaxed, but you did want to know immediately whether you’d be exhibiting alone or with others.

ME: At first I was incredulous and amazed and at the same time very delighted about your invitation. I remember we talked for a long time about the Biennale’s past and present and what it means to society, and about certain Biennale contributions. Our conversation gave me a sense of the seriousness and responsibility artists before me have attached to this task. In any case, I was glad that we’ve known each other for so long, have already worked together several times, that we’re a team built on trust.

YD: When I’ve visited the German Pavilion in the past, I’ve often asked myself which artist I would have presented there. In that sense, I’ve often tried to imagine one day being responsible for the German Pavilion in Venice in the role of curator, though admittedly never in great depth. Was it like that for you, too? I mean, did you ever think of possibly taking on this task as an artist?

ME: No, I didn’t start thinking about it until you invited me.

YD: I think it’s downright surprising that you’ve never exhibited in the German Pavilion before because you’ve addressed yourself repeatedly to various topics related to German history. I’m thinking above all of Restitutionspolitik / Politics of Restitution (2003) and In den Zelten … (2015), and of course the Rose Valland Institute (2017) you founded in the context of the documenta 14. All of these projects are about unresolved ownership and property structures from 1933 to the present—that is, about how Nazism continues to have an impact today in the broadest sense. The architecture of the German Pavilion in Venice can also be interpreted as a symbol of that period. What’s your view on the subject?

ME: Several artists have grappled with the architecture of the German pavilion and with German history. There have been a number of attempts and proposals to redesign the pavilion. Since its monumental reconstruction in the Nazi period, the building has undergone various changes—inside and out. In 1957, for example, the documenta founder Arnold Bode had the idea of redesigning the pavilion in such a way as to give it a more democratic look. He wanted to renew the façade, move the entrance, and have a second level constructed in the interior—an idea later exhibition contributions picked up on. The issue of how we should deal with the architectural vestiges of the Nazi era, or with Nazi architecture, is one of ongoing topicality. With regard to the German Pavilion in Venice, I share the view of Hans Haacke and others that, historically speaking, the pavilion should be preserved as a monument. History, which also conveys itself to us in architecture, can’t just simply be dismantled and belied like with the Palast der Republik in Berlin, which was replaced with a fake Schloss.

YD: What contributions to the German Pavilion have you especially liked and why?

ME: I especially remember contributions by artists who responded to the site, for example Sigmar Polke, whose works reacted to the humidity of the lagoon and who showed a painting entitled Polizeischwein (Police Pig) on the pavilion’s façade, right next to the words “Bundesrepublik Deutschland.” Then there was Hans Haacke, who made reference to the history of the pavilion and broke up the floor. The commissioner Klaus Bußmann’s nomination of Hans Haacke and Nam June Paik, which questioned national affiliation, was quite foresighted. I liked Katharina Fritsch for the clarity of her contribution. Isa Genzken, who hid the façade behind scaffolding. Liam Gillick and his talking cat. Hito Steyerl’s attack on the Deutsche Bank, and finally Natascha Sadr Haghighian, who involved herself performatively by disguising herself and focused on the AnkER centres.

YD: It’s not uncommon for your works to bear specific reference to the exhibition site for which they’re made. Against that background, what does it mean to you to exhibit in the German Pavilion?

ME: The German Pavilion is symbolically charged and presents a challenge to artists on several very different levels. With every attempt at deconstruction you’re confronted with that fact, but it also makes it fun. Without departing from that aspect, I regard the German Pavilion not as isolated, but as part of an ensemble and engaged in interplay with other pavilions and other country participations in terms of national-territorial and geopolitical, global-economic, and ecological developments.Why was the Biennale founded in 1895? When were the respective country pavilions built? Which countries have never been represented and why? Is the Biennale really still a mirror of politics between nation states, as is often assumed, or hasn’t its representative function actually already long been brokered in a transnational arena of the art market extended by capital?Then there’s the question of ownership: Who do the pavilions belong to? The fact that Venice continues to adhere to the model of national pavilions is inseparably linked to the fact that, like embassy buildings, the Giardini pavilions are the property of the respective countries—except the U.S. pavilion, which is owned by the Guggenheim Foundation. And country participations without their own Giardini pavilions copy this dominant structure almost without exception. How would art be produced and received more independently of such constructions of national identity? The individual state, to refer to Hannah Arendt, can be seen as an abstract structure consisting of many nationalities, which could help dissolve the concept of the nation.

YD: Country contributions at the Biennale in Venice are also always associated with attributions and expectations regarding national representation and cultural affiliation. How will you deal with the expectations that might be placed on you?

ME: I don’t think art is subject to the kind of representation that occurs in politics or religion, where figures with a claim to leadership and representation play a prominent role. Most of the artists who do a Biennale pavilion, including the German Pavilion, simply see it as an assignment either to pursue their accustomed work and show that, or to expose grievances, question politics, initiate forms of solidary exchange between groups of society, take a stance, etc. In my view, an artist is not a representative of a country, but of a certain attitude, a certain way of thinking and acting in relation to a given situation.As for the question of affiliation: I conceive of myself as a mixture of multiple identities and non-identities and distinguish myself from myself. It’s not me as a person but my work that’s supposed to be the focus of the attention. I make my work and then recede into the background.

YD: Biennials are a special kind of exhibition format you’ve already had a lot of experience with, for example through your participation in Istanbul (1995 and 2005), Yokohama (2001), Berlin (2004 and 2008), Łódź (2004), Sevilla (2006), and Guangzhou (2008). You’ve even contributed to the Venice Biennale three times in the past—in 1993, 2001, and 2015. Do you think those experiences will help you in Venice in 2022?

ME: Yes, definitely. But conversations with colleagues and artist friends who have exhibited in the German Pavilion or other pavilions in the past are also instructive and helpful.

YD: Large-scale exhibitions like biennials are coming under fire more and more frequently, also with regard to the ecological implications of the excessive travelling they’re associated with. Neither art insiders nor art tourism necessarily contribute to improving the ecological footprint. How do you see the relationship between ecology and large-scale exhibitions?

ME: Ironically, the 1895 Venice Biennale was founded in response to Venice’s economic decline as a way of boosting the economy and the tourist industry. And by the way, that’s often the modus operandi for newly founded biennials to this day. Now, 126 years later, we have to bear the consequences of an excessive tourist industry. The Venice Biennale, and the culture industry in general, are part of the ecological disaster. In addition to social displacement and real estate speculation, cruise and mass tourism are huge problems in Venice. The Comitato No Grandi Navi has been protesting against the cruise and luxury liners for years already, and the Venice Climate Camp activists carry out campaigns demanding that tourists stay away from Venice.

YD: Do you think the pandemic that’s still very much with us today will have an impact on your work? And how will it be reflected in Venice in 2022?

ME: No one knows how things will be in 2022. But Covid-19 has been raging for more than a year and has had extreme consequences for nearly all areas of life. The pandemic is going to have a lasting impact already for that reason alone, even if it’s not being talked about directly.

YD: Without revealing too much at this early stage, how would you characterize your contribution in Venice in 2022 in three sentences?

ME: I’ll try it in two: The work is accessible. It can be experienced both conceptually and—physically and in motion—on site.

Interior, German Pavilion, photo: Ugo Carmeni
Interior, German Pavilion, photo: Ugo Carmeni