59th International Art Exhibition
Deutscher Pavillon 2022
The artist Maria Eichhorn has been invited by curator Yilmaz Dziewior to create the German contribution to the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia.
In her project Relocating a Structure. German Pavilion 2022, 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, Maria Eichhorn examines the eventful history of the German Pavilion since the beginnings of the Biennale and the powerful resistance art demonstrates when it focuses on social conditions.
Relocating a Structure consists of a number of interacting components. Eichhorn’s initial idea was to relocate the German Pavilion for the duration of the Biennale and then to faithfully reassemble it on its original site. The temporary relocation of the building would leave an empty space, increasing the undeveloped area of the Giardini, originally designed as a public park, as well as the visual and spatial environment around the adjacent pavilions. The German Pavilion’s absence would open up space for movement, reflection, and an examination of the conditions to which art is exposed in the context of the Biennale with its national pavilions.
“The German Pavilion represents a challenge for artists on several completely different levels. With every attempt at deconstruction, one is confronted with it yet again. 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.”
Eichhorn’s reflections on the relocation of the German Pavilion were accompanied by an analysis of the actual physical structure of the pavilion, which principally consists of two buildings: the Bavarian Pavilion built in 1909 and the extensions carried out by the Nazis in 1938, as seen today. Where is the original structure located? Where do the extensions and the reconstruction begin?
Eichhorn had the foundations of the pavilion excavated and layers of plaster removed from its walls to expose the joins between the earlier structure and the remodeled building. In order to comprehend the radical reconstruction and extension work, she also had the outlines of the window openings and doorways from 1909 laid bare. In this way, the original, hidden pavilion has been rendered visible and tangible.
Explanatory wall texts have been added to the exposed areas in English, German, and Italian. The texts were drawn on the wall using pencil and stencils to create fine outlines that were then filled in using a brush and white paint.
Not only were the transitions between the original architecture and the extension and reconstruction work revealed, but also the shift in dimensions. While the proportions of the Bavarian Pavilion were oriented to a human scale, the 1938 additions to the side rooms, the main room, and especially the facade dwarf visitors, producing an intimidating effect.
The other components of Relocating a Structure include a comprehensive publication and guided tours to historical places of resistance and remembrance in Venice, conducted twice weekly during the Biennale. The publication brings together essays and studies on the history of the Biennale and the German Pavilion, as well as on broader aspects embracing art history, philosophy, urban sociology, and politics. In addition, a brochure has been published to accompany the guided tours of places commemorating the anti-fascist resistance and the deportation and murder of the Jewish population during the German occupation from 1943 to 1945. For these tours, Eichhorn collaborated with the Istituto veneziano per la storia della Resistenza e della società contemporanea (Iveser).
“The title of Maria Eichhorn’s project, Relocating a Structure, can be interpreted in a figurative sense. ‘Relocating a structure’ to a new context may refer not only to the architecture and history of the German Pavilion, but also to fundamental issues of human existence and ethical responsibility.”
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, engaged in an interplay with the other pavilions and national 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.