Venice Biennale Radical and brutal

German artist Anne Imhof won the Golden Lion for “best national participation” at the Venice Biennale 2017 for her performative work at the German Pavilion
German artist Anne Imhof won the Golden Lion for “best national participation” at the Venice Biennale 2017 for her performative work at the German Pavilion | Photo: © dpa; picture alliance / Felix Hörhager/dpa

Germany stands out at this year’s Venice Art Biennale, winning two Golden Lions. Opinions differ regarding the German Pavilion, however, where Anne Imhof has made an international breakthrough with a grim work of performance art.

The two German prize-winners at this year’s Biennale in Venice could hardly contrast more starkly. On the one hand, there’s 77-year-old conceptual artist Franz Erhard Walther, whose colourful textile works have been a staple of contemporary art for decades. On the other, there’s 39-year-old Anne Imhof, who once temped as a bouncer and is now fêted as a new black-clothed shooting star with her brutal performance art.
What they have in common is they’re both from the state of Hesse, in fact they’re from the very same city, Fulda, and both won over the jury at this year’s Art Biennale, whose motto is Viva Arte Viva: Walther as best artist, Imhof for her show at the German Pavilion. The spotlight of the international art world is now on her. So: Viva Anne Viva? 

Jury on Imhof: “powerful and disturbing” 

The German Pavilion, curated this year by Susanne Pfeffer of the Fridericianum in Kassel, is not an easy space to work with. For many years now, artists have had a tough time designing this bombastic space, which was built during the Nazi era and was once used for National Socialist propaganda: it is still burdened with its dark, heavy past. The late German theatre director and performance artist Christoph Schlingensief once designed an installation called A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within in the pavilion, for which he won the Golden Lion posthumously in 2011. Imhof has now followed suit. 
Imhof makes merciless use of the building’s atmosphere, which recalls Fascist brutalism, for her performance piece Faust. In her acceptance speech, she said her work is about opposing “what we associate with this past”. She puts two Doberman pinschers in kennels in front of the doors and a raised wall-to-wall glass floor inside the building. The performers move like zombies through the room, through the public, to the abrasive sounds of booming industrial music. They crawl on the floor and hang from straps on the wall. Masturbation, sex, violence, power, aggression – all these elements are part of the mix.
The jury described Imhof’s work as “powerful and disturbing”. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said it helps us “shed light on social spaces and their centres of power”. You can tell just by looking at Imhof that’s she’s been working hard over the past few months. Again and again she thanked her daughters (“without them I wouldn’t be here”), who had to do without their mother a lot recently. She also thanked her partner, Eliza Douglas, who appears in the five-hour performance herself. 

Biennale: political statements not much in demand 

Opinions of Faust diverge. Some see it as a compelling look at exclusion, injustice and violence in the world. Others feel its attempt to play on Germany’s past falls flat.
Whatever the verdict, one thing’s for sure: Faust sets itself apart from the other pavilions and from the main exhibition. Curator Christine Macel from Paris’s Centre Pompidou has put together a by and large optimistic exhibition that seeks to celebrate art in and of itself, hence the motto Viva Arte Viva. Political statements weren’t much in demand here. Instead, some critics complain, there was too much participatory textile and handicraft art. 

Jury on Walther: “radical and complex” 

Franz Erhard Walther fit the mould better, above all because since the 1960s he has been inviting viewers into his artworks – to become art themselves. Placing the viewer in the middle of the artwork is an aspect that is also central to Imhof’s work, however.
Franz Erhard Walther won the Golden Lion for best artist at the 2017 Venice Biennale Franz Erhard Walther won the Golden Lion for best artist at the 2017 Venice Biennale | © dpa; picture alliance / Felix Hörhager/dpa “I’m happy about the recognition,” Walther told dpa, the German Press Agency. “I’m surrounded here by mostly younger artists. It’s very nice to be accepted in this circle with so much sympathy.” He has now achieved new fame as an “oldie”.
The jury stresses the “radical and complex nature” of his oeuvre. It may be worth noting that Walther currently has a big solo show running at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía, whose director, Manuel Borja-Villel, is president of this year’s Biennale jury. 
At any rate, Germany has won two Golden Lions this year. “It’s a perfect coincidence,” Biennale president Paolo Baratta told the dpa, “a stroke of luck.” And although it is repeatedly underlined that art can never be only national and is always created in a global context, it’s a good day for the German art scene.
Biennale at the Giardini and Arsenale in Venice from 13 May to 26 November 2017