Interview with Susanne Gaensheimer “There’s no national culture anymore”

Susanne Gaensheimer
Susanne Gaensheimer | Photo (detail): private

Susanne Gaensheimer, curator of the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2013 and director of the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt am Main, talks about her Biennale concept and the meaning of national representation through art.

Ms Gaensheimer, looking back now, how would you sum up the Venice Biennale?

The German pavilion was unusual in two respects. For one thing, Germany and France swapped pavilions. That was a suggestion of the French and German foreign offices. For another thing, I decided to show international artists at the German exhibition. I invited Romuald Karmakar, Ai Wei Wei from China, the Indian artist Dayanita Singh and the South African Santu Mofokeng. We’d already picked the artists when our French curator Christine Macel and the French artist Anri Sala and I jointly decided to accept the suggestion from both foreign offices and swap pavilions.

The pavilions are places of national representation and consequently political places. So that raises the question as to how a country represents itself through art at a specific time in this place. My decision to present Germany as a globally connected country, an international country, has to do with my collaboration with Christoph Schlingensief. In his unexecuted plans for the 2011 pavilion, he’d been grappling with the question of national representation through art. I didn't want to go back on his approach to the question.

What’s more, I think Germany over the past ten, twenty years has developed tremendously in the direction of internationalism, and significantly more than most countries in Europe. It’s the country in which the greatest number of international artists live and work. Dayanita Singh has all her books published by a German house, Santu Mofokeng has all his works printed by a Berlin printer’s and Ai Wei Wei feels no country is as important to his artistic career as Germany.

Making Germany more international

What might be the reasons for Germany’s internationalization?

The reasons lie in German cultural policy efforts to open the country up in the sphere of the arts, especially the fine arts. There are plenty of programmes along these lines, such as the DAAD artists-in-residence programme in Berlin, which enables artists to come this country and then stay here, send their kids to school here and so on. For another thing, Germany takes a cultural policy stance when politically persecuted artists like Ai Wei Wei, for example, can find permanent refuge here. Also worth mentioning is the German Federal Cultural Foundation’s Fellowship programme, which enables German museums to internationalize their collections and bring in international artists.

So there’s a clear-cut desire to make Germany more international in the cultural policy domain. One reason for that is certainly Germany’s need for a complete break with the past after the Nazi era, to risk a fresh start, and to make that clear. And this is coming off very well in the area of the arts.

So the point in Venice was to showcase this potential we find in Germany. But it was also about sending out a signal that Europe, together with North America, is no long the centre of modernity, but an equal partner in a network of many centres all over the world. The Eurocentric view of art is but one of many options nowadays.

Using differences to develop common ground

What does the idea of national representation through culture still mean in this context?

What could be clearly seen in the pavilion was that there really are different cultural characters. The point is to develop some common ground based on differences. I’m not claiming that national identities have dissolved. The efforts of small and very poor countries to be visible in Venice too go to show how important it is to them to be part of this network and to be represented through art. It then becomes clear that some countries prioritize the struggle for self-assurance, whereas others focus on other issues. I find the concept of national pavilions anachronistic and yet still interesting, since you can see there how different these self-conceptions are. We need to put a broader construction on this concept and get away from the notion of somehow showing a country’s best artists. Who’s the best artist anyway? That is, after all, a silly question!

Incidentally, the German pavilion was only criticized in the German press, whereas reactions in the international press were consistently positive. And among the public, who took a great interest in the pavilion, it gave rise to plenty of discussions and reactions.

Dr Susanne Gaensheimer is the director of the Museum für Moderne Kunst (Museum of Modern Art) in Frankfurt am Main. She studied art history in Munich and Hamburg, then graduated from the independent study programme at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. After taking her PhD, she designed and organized exhibitions as a freelance curator and began an academic traineeship at Munich’s Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus. Gaensheimer subsequently served as director of the Westfälischer Kunstverein (Westphalian Fine Arts Society) in Münster. From 2001 to 2008 she returned to the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich as director and curator of contemporary art. In 2011 she curated the German pavilion, which won the Golden Lion, at the 54th Venice Biennale. In 2013 she curated the German exhibition again at the 55th Biennale. She was also appointed to the acquisitions committee of Federal Republic of Germany at the beginning of 2012, to the advisory board of the MUMOK in Vienna and the Turner Prize Jury in 2013, among other things.