The Venice Biennale is a major exhibition of contemporary art sorted by country of origin. Germany's venue at the event, the German Pavilion, has a history complicated by its Nazi architecture and symbolism.
The Biennale in Venice runs from June 4 to November 27, 2011
Critics jokingly refer to them as "national cages" - the 30 pavilions arrayed in a large park in eastern Venice, where participating countries showcase the best of their contemporary art every two years at the Venice Biennale.
This year's exhibition runs from June 4 to November 27, culminating with the conferral of the Golden Lion for the year's best exhibitor. Germany's contribution to the festival often draws particular attention, and the country's most recent win came in 2001 with Gregor Schneider's installation "Totes Haus Ur" ("Dead House Ur.")
But most artists don't have an easy time coming up with a way to present their work in the pavilion, said Ursula Zeller, who published a book on the German entries at the Venice Biennale from 1895 to 2007.
The artists' uneasiness relates in large part to the architecture and history of the pavilion, which was co-opted by the Nazis in 1938.
First built in 1909, the structure became the third pavilion in the Giardini gardens where the Biennale is held, but it looked much different then than it does today.
Originally, the building looked more like an ancient temple and was designed by the Venetian architect Daniele Donghi. Back then, the primary purpose of the Biennale was selling art works. Marketers jumped at the chance to promote the show, including forming a cooperation with German Rail to offer discounted tickets to guests wanting to head to the city of gondolas and art.
In 2011, the pavilion will serve as an homage to Christoph Schlingensief, who died last year
'New spirit of German art'
The year 1938 brought changes in Venice that are still visible today. The German Pavilion was rebuilt to manifest the principles of Nazi aesthetics. German architect Ernst Haiger rebuilt the facade, replacing the Ionic columns that once welcomed visitors.
"Powerful, craning stone pillars support the front of the structure whose main entrance is crowned with the emblem of the Third Reich, preparing guests for the new spirit of German art," wrote the architect after construction was complete.
A stone mason engraved the word GERMANIA in large lettering on the facade, and the parquet flooring was replaced with a finely-pored marble, intended to lend the structure an air of cool consecration.
"The new German exhibition hall in Venice offers an impressive, worthy and dignified representation of the Third Reich, while proving that the right artistic framework for the works presented inside can lend them an elevated effect," appeared in an architectural digest on November 2, 1938.
In the same year, propaganda artist Arno Breker presented his sculptures to the public in the redesigned hall.
Chipping history away
"But the unusual history of the German Pavilion has driven artists to great creative feats since," said Ursula Zeller. Rather than accepting its history, she explained, the artists tried "to neutralize the building."
All of the artists who have taken part have chipped away at the history of the pavilion, including seminal German artist Joseph Beuys, who in 1976 created an installation there titled, "Tramstop: A Monument to the Future." Beuys intended the piece as a memorial to human suffering.
Sculptor Ulrich Rückriem countered the structure's monumental interior with four gigantic and heavy stone blocks. Artist Hans Haacke set a new standard in 1993 by breaking the building's floor plates into pieces and leaving them lying around as debris for visitors to stumble through.
Artists Hans Haacke and Nam June Paik won the Golden Lion in 1993 for their installation
When Gregor Schneider won the Golden Lion in 2001 for "Totes Haus Ur," the artist transformed the pavilion into a labyrinthine series of interwoven rooms. He even transported parts of his childhood home from the small Western German town of Rheydt for the exhibition.
Calls have come again and again to simply tear down the building with its Nazi past.
"The pavilion doesn't correspond at all to our democratic self-image," Arno Sighart Schimidt, President of the Federal Chamber of German Architects, who renewed the debate by calling for a new exhibition hall.
However, Christoph Schlingensief, who died in 2010 at the age of 49, was in favor of keeping the current pavilion. The film and theater director was slated to design Germany's entry at the 2011 Venice Biennale, but unfortunately audiences won't have the chance to see what he would have presented in the controversial space.
Author: Sabine Oelze / gsw
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn