Visual Arts in Germany: Exhibitions and Artist Portraits

By Way of a Detour – Germany at the Biennale in Venice

Installation von Ai Weiwei; © Burkhard MausAi Weiwei’s installation; © Burkhard Maus

For decades now it has been considered to be in the best possible taste at the Biennale in Venice to call the competition among the nations into question. The German entry most definitely made a statement, but in the end it shied away from any real conflict.

At first glance the situation looks like a schoolboy prank – instead of setting up their exhibitions in their usual places, Germany and France swapped pavilions. Germany is now to be found under the sign saying “Francia” and France presents the Albanian artist, Anri Sala, in the “Germania” pavilion.

The decision, however, did not actually come about as spontaneously as one might think. The foreign ministries of both countries had been discussing it for years as a gesture of friendship, in 2013 it then served as the official seal on the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty.

Where are you from?

Susanne Gaensheimer; © Renato Ribeiro AlvesIn 2011, curator, Susanne Gaensheimer, presented a solo exhibition of the works of the artist, Christoph Schlingensief – a political maverick who died much too young. In 2013 she fielded an international group of artists: the Chinese artist and current dissident darling of the international art world Ai Weiwei; South-African photographer Santu Mofokeng; Dayanita Singh from New Delhi and filmmaker, Romuald Karmakar, who was born in Wiesbaden.

The latter however has both German and French nationality and was brought up by Indian adoptive parents. His mother is French, his father comes from Iran. Karmakar spent part of his youth in Athens, but now lives in Berlin. All four artists have the following in common: they all have close contact with Germany, they have worked there at some time or other or they are still working there.

Exhibition view; © Burkhard Maus

Otherwise, in line with the logics of migration and the globalised art business, localising their national origins turns out to be quite difficult. Dayanita Singh, for example, vehemently rejects the idea of being perceived as an Indian artist and, instead, states that her roots are to be found somewhere “in the air”. Ai Weiwei has been greatly influenced by the years he spent in New York; Romuald Karmakar’s biography constitutes a whole rainbow of changing cultural identities.

Nevertheless it is hard to shake off the impression that, by inviting an Asian, an African, an Indian and a European, a well calculated mixture of representatives from various cultures has been put together that depicts Germany positively as a country that is open to immigrants. The thinking might well be somewhat outside the box, but the approach qualifies as a national representation.

Exhibition view; © Burkhard Maus

A gigantic tangle of roots

In the middle of the pavilion there is Ai Weiwei’s installation Bang (2010-2013) that he had to have other people set up for him because he is not allowed to leave his native China. It consists of 800 three-legged stools that have all been artistically fitted together and interlocked.

Up until China’s Cultural Revolution these stools had served as traditional pieces of furniture that were often handed down through generations from family to family. Today hardly any of them are produced any more. Although they were all constructed the same way, every one of them has its own special characteristics and its own story to tell.

If you try to proceed or take a look at any of the other exhibition rooms, your view will be initially blocked by this huge installation whose metaphoric content is fairly easy to grasp – community evolves as a chaotically proliferating network of individuals who, at heart, are all the same.

From the long shot to the close-up

Dayanita Singh; © Burkhard MausAi Weiwei’s sprawling sculpture also determines the perspective on the three adjoining rooms that seem to appear as details that have been zoomed in. Dayanita Singh’s series File Room and Sea of Files (2013) are echoing its structure of never-ending growth, although the archives she photographed seem less organic.

Alongside this, great importance has been attached to the film portrait of the eunuch, Mona, who Singh has been friends with for years. In Mona and Myself (2013) we see Mona speaking, without hearing anything about her life story – a story that in every respect has most certainly been affected by disruption and social exclusion. Instead the atmospheric loop of images with its soft background music above all testifies to the present state of her person.

Work of Dayanita Singh; © Burkhard Maus

The photographs of Santu Mofokeng, on the other hand, deal with memories and how they are linked to certain places. His tranquil, unobtrusive views of the landscape of Mpumaloanga province in the North-East of South Africa instil an empathy for what it means to the local people when international mining companies destroy their spiritual burial grounds. At the same time his collection of historical photos (The Black Photo Album / Look at Me, 1890-1950, 1997) contrasts the huge number of stereotype pictures of black people that have been taken and published by generations of foreign photographers since the very first voyages of discovery with early taken proud self-portraits.

German lectures

Whereas the works of Mofokeng and Singh complement each other in their various perspectives, the films of Romuald Karmakar have added a new dimension – mainly due to the fact alone that they explicitly refer to events in Germany.

His Hamburg Lectures (2006) and 8th May (2005/2013) document the cruel, intellectual logics of two radical movements: the declaration of war against the infidels issued by the Salafist preacher, Mohammed Fizazi, whose mosque in Hamburg was also frequented by the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks on the United States on 11th September 2001, and the big neo-Nazi demonstration in Berlin to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

Despite the fact that all the artists adopted a sensitive approach to questions of national identity, the way the various positions have been put together seems a little overloaded. The whole project would have benefited from concentrating more on content, rather than aspiring to a form of trans-national normality. One starting point, for example, could have been the conflict situations interpreted by Karmakar. The way it is, however, shows that the confrontation with the meaning of cultural influences for the development of communities is mainly limited to the allegedly provocative, convoluted design of the exhibition itself – a presentation by international artists in the French pavilion staged by the Germans.

Britta Peters
works as an art critic and a free-lance exhibition curator in Hamburg.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
June 2013

© all photos except the portrait of Susanne Gaensheimer: Burkhard Maus

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