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A wall in the middle of the German pavilion

Stefan Dege db
May 9, 2019

Critical of how Europe handles refugees, artist Natascha Süder Happelmann has declared the German pavilion at the Venice International Art Exhibition an immigration detention center.

58. Kunst-Biennale von Venedig - Deutscher Pavillon
Image: Imago Images/M. Segerer

The main entrance of the German pavilion will remain closed, lined with massive pillars. Only two side entrances lead into the hall, which is divided in two spaces by a meter-high wall of shotcrete. It looks like a dam from one side. Small streams of latex trickle through a field of pebbles. A metal framework rises beyond the wall. Loudspeakers emit music, voices and shrill sounds.

The sound installation is titled "Tribute to Whistle." It refers to a widespread method used by migrants to warn each other by whistling when the police arrive to try to deport them. 

In an adjacent room of the pavilion, artist Natascha Süder-Happelmann has built a sculpture with stacked vegetable boxes. A tomato advertisement hangs there as well.

The artist's message is clear: Europe is sealing up.

A metaphor for Europe's isolationist policies

Is Germany's Biennale pavilion a metaphor for isolation? It's certainly a political statement, especially in populist Italy. The artist remained true to style even during the press preview at the Biennale, where she quoted Rosa Luxemburg's views on the accumulation of capital. She answered journalists' questions with prepared statements, instead of the many answers required.

As she did at a previous press presentation, the artist hid her face inside a stone mask made of papier-mache, letting an actress who goes by the name of Helene Duldung speak for her instead.

a woman speaking into a mike and another person wearing a head-covering mask
An actress reads the statement, the artist has her head inside a stone maskImage: DW/S. Dege

For months, there have been indications that Süder Happelmann's contribution to the Biennale would revolve around the topic of migration, including from videos available on the German pavilion's homepage, curated this year by Franciska Zolyom.

One of the videos shows the artist walking across sunny village streets in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg with the stone mask on her head while gazing at so-called "anchor centers," a name that stands for "Center for Arrival, Decision, Return." They are deportation centers that have existed in Germany since 2018 to house refugees ahead of their distribution to other communities in Germany or their deportation to their country of origin.

In a second video, she walks through huge tomato fields in Puglia, where migrants from Africa work during the summer in inhumane conditions and for starvation wages.

A third film is about the legal tug-of-war over a German refugee ship detained in an Italian port.

Interior of German Pavilion, room with stones on tghe floor and people walking around
Visitors check out the installation in the German Pavilion during a press preview Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Fabi

Clear message

The artist has given herself a fantasy name for her Biennale performance: Instead of her given name, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, she calls herself Natascha Süder Happelmann — because, she says, "it sounds German." Little details of her biography have been revealed: All we know is that Süder Happelmann comes from Iran and teaches sculpture at the University of the Arts Bremen (HfK Bremen).

Many artists have already faced the challenge of the monumental architecture of the German pavilion, which was redesigned by the Nazis in 1938. Hans Haacke, for example, hacked the floor open in 1993.

Three Germans — Gregor Schneider, Christoph Schlingensief and Anne Imhof — have won a Golden Lion since 2001. Will Süder Happelmann also achieve the same feat? It would be surprising. Her jab at current political issues feels too unsubtle.

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