The main entrance is hidden behind glass walls and metal fences. The German Pavilion is shielded. The long line of people in front of it leads to the side entrance. There it goes in. For the viewing of the German contribution at this year's Venice Art Biennale. Passing by security people. On top of the roof there are isolated figures looking down on the queue of visitors. Watchdogs peep through between the fence poles.
The German Pavilion, a fortress. Currently an award-winning fortress. The 39-year-old performance artist Anne Imhof from Frankfurt am Main, who is performing in the pavilion this year, was awarded the Golden Lion for the best national contribution for her work. A good decision, because Imhof's performance stands out at a rather average 2017 Biennale.
A total of 86 countries are presenting contemporary art at one of the largest art exhibitions in the world until the end of November. Only 28 countries, among them Germany, have their own building in the Giardini of Venice at the biennial fair. The rest of the countries are spread all over the city. The German Pavilion is a special building. Built in 1909, barely 14 years after the first biennial with ancient-style Ionic columns, it was converted by the Nazis in 1938 to a martial architecture with four massive rectangular posts in the entrance area. A challenge for every artist who has to design this monstrosity.
Anne Imhof has ensured that the claim to power that this building makes architecturally can be experienced in an almost striking way. Visitors enter the interior in a detached position on a floor of bulletproof glass. The walls in cool white or glazed. Under her feet move figures doing something: looking into their tin bowls, crawling across the floor, pressing their faces upwards against the glass ceiling. They seem to vegetate like dogs. Or are they people after all? And what do we care about them down there?
The scenes are part of a total five-hour performance, which is directed by Anne Imhof in the background via text message instructions – and which the viewers can't escape from. For they are involuntarily part of it when they whip out their smartphones to photograph these creatures. They basically look just as distant. Impassively through their cameras like the actors through the glass windows.
It is a strange mutual disinterest that arises here, although everyone is looking at. It remains unclear how alien these worlds are to each other. Or are they perhaps more similar than first thought?? The glass creates complete transparency and separates at the same time. Everyone sees everyone and at the same time reflects themselves on the glassy surface. It is about seeing and being seen, about surveillance and narcissistic self-reflection, about belonging and being excluded.
Art as a critique of capitalism
"The performers seem to turn themselves into consumable images," says Kassel exhibition organizer Susanne Pfeffer, who curated the pavilion and brought Imhof to Venice. Unlike her predecessors in previous years, each of which presented works by several artists, Pfeffer has decided to entrust the pavilion to just one artist. And she is satisfied.
Anne Imhof has uncovered and updated the pavilion's architecture of power by using glass, currently the most popular construction material for banks, as a symbol of money, thus incorporating transparent and thus almost invisible, yet separating boundaries. Pfeffer sees art as social criticism: "The essence of capitalism is unrestrained consumption, the destruction of the body," she writes in the exhibition catalog. Will say: Exploitation nowadays works both via foreign domination but also subtle self-control.
"It's about freedom"
The result is a multimedia performance of painting, music and staging at the German Pavilion in Venice. In which boundaries become not only visible but occasionally transgressible. Anne Imhof succeeds in creating powerful images time and again. At some point, the actors suddenly stand next to the spectators, look through them like zombies, storm past them, or stage themselves on glass pedestals, like antique statues.
Two roll around on the glass floor, intertwined – or rather wedged together? Intimate embrace or fight to the death? Affection or self-assertion? Freedom or oppression? The artist Anne Imhof says only this much: "For me, it's about freedom, the freedom of thought!" And it also gives the viewer its freedom. To stay, or go, when he pleases. The five hours are just an offer.
Info: "Viva Arte Viva!" – The Biennial 2017
The international art exhibition Biennale has been held in Venice every two years since 1895. It is directed this year by Christine Macel, chief curator of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The motto is "Viva Arte Viva!"Long live the art, long live it! 86 countries exhibit. The thematic exhibition "Viva Arte Viva!" Is shown for the most part in the "Arsenale", the morbid buildings of the former shipyard. Another part can be seen in the Giardini in the district of Castello.
The 28 permanent national pavilions, most of which were built during the first decades of the Biennale, are also located in the Giardini. In addition to the German one, the French, British, Russian and U.S. Exhibition buildings are there, among others. Most countries do not have their own pavilions. Their exhibitions are spread all over Venice. The Munich-based artist group super+ refers to the original German Pavilion of 1909, which was also called the Bavarian Pavilion, with their installation of a mobile bar with classicist arcades.