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Culture

Venice Biennale Opens with Enigmatic German Works

Martin Kippenberger and Candida Höfer are Germany's representatives at the Venice Biennale, one of the world's most important contemporary art exhibitions which opens on Sunday in the lagoon city.

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"Globus 2003" - an installation by Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander at the Venice Biennale.

German curator Julian Heynen calls the exhibit in the German pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale "Topography." Many an art critic has been inclined to scratch his head in confusion over the selection of two vastly different artists for this year's German showing at the Biennale -- Martin Kippenberger who died in 1997 and was a controversial figure in the art world during his lifetime and the cool and severe Candida Höfer.

Like the Biennale which opens for the 50th time on Sunday, Martin Kippenberger would have been 50 this year too. He always wanted to be invited to the Venice Biennale. Again and again the conceptual artist stressed that the only things that would make him go to the city of lagoons were the Biennale and his own honeymoon.

In the end the controversial artist made it for both occasions, but only the honeymoon took place during his lifetime, just a year before his death in 1997. It was an off year, when the exhibition wasn't taking place. Kippenberger had himself photographed in front of the empty German pavilion for his "Biennale Venezia 1996" poster.

Now visitors to the Biennale can look forward to Kippenberger's phantasmal global underground Metro-Net project, conceived a few years before his death, to offer 20 seconds of relief from sizzling Venetian summer temperatures above 40 C (104 F). A subway grate has been installed in the floor of the German pavilion and every five minutes the sound of a train passing and a burst of cool air emanates from it. Kippenberger's plan was to link the whole world with subway entrances, exits and ventilation grates that led nowhere. He installed his first entrance in Syros, Greece in 1993 and planted additional evidence in Dawson City, Canada and Münster, Germany.

Empty rooms

In sharp contrast to Kippenberger's virtual subway network, photographer Candida Höfer focuses on bleak pictures of public rooms devoid of any human presence.

"The idea to combine our works appealed to me and I like what came of it," photographer Höfer, told the news agency DPA.

Born in Eberswalde in 1944, Höfer is one of the most important representatives of the Bernd and Hilla Becher school, a German couple, who have had a vast influence on documentary photography and passed on their unique style to scores of students at the Düsseldorf Art Academy.

For the Biennale, Heynen and Höfer selected around two dozen photographs of rooms devoid of people, concert halls, libraries, cafés, sport halls and waiting rooms.

"I think that because the people aren't visible they are much more recognizable. You see that the rooms are made for people. Even when you don't see them, they are there," Höfer told the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, her local newspaper at home in Cologne.

But Kippenberger and Höfer are not the only German artists in Venice. Theater director and perhaps Germany's most famous provocateur Christoph Schlingensief has positioned seven people "without jobs, homes or religions" as motionless pillars at the entrance to the Giardini, where the country pavilions are. Their t-shirts say "church of fear." There they are meant to demonstrate their fears, the Berlin director has said.

Art critics doubt though that this year's German contribution will receive the attention that it did last time around, in 2001. Then Gregor Schneider had rooms from his childhood house in Rheydt, Germany -- from the bathroom sink to the electrical wires -- moved to Venice and installed in the pavilion, which was built in 1938. His work won the Golden Lion as the best of the 65 country contributions.

Controversy over Nefertiti

Biennale Venedig 2003 Wettbewerbsbeitrag der Ungarn Little Warsaw Nosfretete

Queen Nefertiti's bronze body.

Berlin got a taste of what the Biennale might bring last week. The Hungarian art duo "Little Warsaw," who will be part of the main exhibition in Venice, "Dreams and Conflicts; The Dictatorship of the Viewer," cast a scantily clad female body in bronze, designed to fit the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti at Berlin's Egyptian Museum. With the permission of the museum, they filmed the more than 3,000-year-old bust mounted on the body in late May to show later at the exhibition in Venice.

Museum director Dietrich Wildung was subsequently accused of desecrating Nefertiti by Egyptian officials, who have demanded the sculpture be returned to Cairo. "Nefertiti is not in safe hands in Berlin," Sahi Hawas, the head of the Egyptian antiquities department, told the press on June 8. Hawas and Egyptian Culture Minister Faruk Husni also took offense to the sculpture's near nakedness.

Wildung dismissed the calls for Nefertiti's return. "That happens every year," he said. German archeologists unearthed the bust in 1912 and legally claimed it for Germany.

The Venice Biennale will be open until November 2.

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