GERMANIA - the bold letters are set in stone for all eternity at Germany's national pavilion at the Venice Biennale Art Show. For the first time in the exhibition's long history, however, the artists invited to present their work at the German pavilion will be showing at the French venue, and vice-versa.
Initiated by the two nations' foreign ministries, Germania is now Francia, while Francia becomes Germania in Venice to mark the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty on Franco-German friendship. Twenty-eight countries have built their own national pavilions on the grounds of the Giardini. Each country presents one or more contestants with the aim of winning the Golden Lion award.
Germany last won the coveted award two years ago with installations by Christoph Schlingensief. Susanne Gaensheimer, director of the Modern Art Museum in Frankfurt and curator of the German pavilion in 2011, is also responsible for this year's show. She and her colleague Christine Macel of the Paris Centre Pompidou regard the exchange of pavilions as a challenge to the tradition of slotting artists into individual nations - a tradition many observers regard as antiquated.
Gaensheimer is pleased to be given the opportunity to turn her back on the "dominance" of the building. All German post-war artists presented at the Biennale felt compelled to challenge the history of a pavilion remodeled by the Nazis in 1938.
In 1976, Joseph Beuys installed his legendary "Tram Stop" as a monument to human suffering. Sculptor Ulrich Rückriem hauled four gigantic and very heavy blocks of stone inside to offset the monumental dimensions of the single-room pavilion. Hans Haacke raised the bar when he broke open the building's floor in 1993, and left the pieces lying around like so much rubble. Visitors stumbled across an expanse of debris, literally losing their footing.
Germany represented by Ai Weiwei
"I found it good not to have that architecture as a framework," said Gaensheimer . The exchange with France gave her the idea to work on an international level and "put the European theme into a global context." She acted on that impulse and invited four artists of international renown - none of whom are from Germany. The guest artists are China's Ai Weiwei, French-Iranian Romuald Karmakar, South African Santu Mofokeng and India's Dayanita Singh - and at first sight, there is little that links them. However, all four regard their work as political, and have close ties to Germany.
China's dissident artist Ai Weiwei admits he was surprised to be invited, adding that participation is a great honor. Germany plays a large role in his life, he says: "All of my first art works were shown there." Ai Weiwei is to display a new sculpture at the French pavilion, composed of 800 to 1,000 three-legged wooden stools. "These are antiques from different regions in China that we got with the help of experts and collectors. They are at least 60 to 100 years old, and not very many of those still exist," the Chinese artist said. Ai Weiwei will most likely not be allowed to travel to Venice for the exhibition. "Although I am regarded a free citizen, I still cannot leave my country," he said.
Ties to Germany
Santu Mofokeng's ties to Germany are of a more technical nature. The South African artist and photographer, raised in Soweto, sends his photographs to a Berlin lab to be developed.
What is so special about his work, Gaensheimer says, is that he shows the perspective of the people who live in South Africa, and who experienced apartheid as a part of their everyday lives. In Venice, Mofokeng will show excerpts from his Black Photo Album, showing people who had their pictures taken in a portrait studio around the turn of the century. Other works the renowned South African has on display include "Graves," a photo series shot with a digital camera documenting how large international corporations take charge of entire stretches of countryside without shrinking back from disturbing graves in the process.
An autonomous life
Film director Romuald Karmakar, born in Wiesbaden in 1965 as the son of a French mother and Iranian father, focuses on Germany and German history.
"I don't like the idea of nationalities; that is why I accepted the invitation," Indian photographer Dayanita Singh said.
Her projected photos and films are autobiographical. They reflect her life as a woman in Indian society and a traveling photographer. She has come to know and appreciate Germany. The Steidl publishers in Göttingen publish her books.
Dayanita Singh is pleased that nationality does not play a role in the German pavilion. For 10 years, she has told people over and over again to look at her work without wondering whether she is Indian, Pakistani or whatever, she says, adding that she still asks herself, "Why is my origin so important?"