"The art scene in Germany is very international"
Susanne Gaensheimer, curator of the German Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, in an interview.
Interview by Dominic Konrad
Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa): Ms Gaensheimer, what does national identity mean to you?
Susanne Gaensheimer: The idea that there is a clear national identity is questionable, I think. I believe that it has never really existed in a clear-cut way and that in the context of modernisation and globalisation over the last ten to twenty years the concept has been undermined even further. I would simply say the notion of national identity is not that clear-cut.
ifa: Nevertheless, the Biennale is moulded in a national form with the national pavilions. How would you say the concept of German national identity has changed since 1950, since the resumption of the Federal Republic at the Biennale?
Gaensheimer: Germany has changed enormously as a country since 1950. There was the division of Germany, the reunification, then opening up to the eastern European countries and for about ten years the process of an increasing internationalisation of the country. Firstly, because Germany is an immigration country and in its everyday reality is shaped more and more by immigration, and secondly because the German economy is defined very much by international relations. It is now positioned so internationally that a company such as Deutsche Bank – a classic German company par excellence –no longer sees itself as a purely German company, to name just one example.
ifa: That question is the starting point for the German Pavilion 2013. You say a German national identity no longer exists as such. The artists that you selected for 2013 represent an international approach. How did you come to this choice?
Gaensheimer: My decision to fill the pavilion this year with truly international works was influenced by my cooperation with Christoph Schlingensief and the journey we had already embarked on together. He had planned a project for the pavilion, which unfortunately could not be realised after his death. In this project, he would have been concerned with the issue of national representation and would have broken down what he always called the "alleged uniqueness of the national identity" by a variety of measures. A major role would certainly have been played by the experiences he made in Africa, and ideas from his early films, for example, in his Germany Trilogy. And all that together would have created a situation that questioned the idea of a German representation. We have worked very hard on these ideas and that was for me the occasion to think ahead, and to contribute my experience of Germany, in everyday reality, as a highly international country. And it is also true that the art world is very international in Germany. Berlin, for example, is the European city in which the greatest number of artists from other countries have found a new home. These include Ai Weiwei, who, if he could travel, would set up a studio here in Berlin and accept a professorship. I thought it would actually be quite good to show this facet of Germany in the pavilion.
ifa: With his media presence, Ai Weiwei is in a sense the focus of the pavilion. He will contribute an installation.
Gaensheimer: The work is very abstract. It is a new work that has emerged for the Pavilion and this place. It deals with the relationship of the individual to a rapidly modernising society. It's about the relationship between individuals and the system, formulated metaphorically. It can actually be understood as a kind of basic principle, which is again taken up and specified in the work of other artists.
ifa: How was the collaboration with Ai Weiwei handled? Was it seriously hampered by the travel ban?
Gaensheimer: We discussed the problem from the beginning, and he said that it has not been an obstacle for him. He has had several exhibitions, the great Washington exhibition, organised completely from China. And in our case, he developed the installation in a large hall outside Beijing, on the original floor plan of the room with the skylights, as they are in the French Pavilion. He also knows the French pavilion very well. He has worked there as an assistant to a Chinese artist. He then dismantled the work in Beijing with his staff, it was shipped here and re-built identically according to a very precise plan. Everything worked out perfectly, it was really incredible.
ifa: That is also a stroke of luck for the organisation.
Gaensheimer: Yes, it really was. Extremely professional.
ifa: Among the other artists, Romuald Karmarkar stands out. He is the only one who has German roots.
Gaensheimer: He is a German artist. He has parents of different origins, but he was born in Germany and he has spent his entire artistic career in Germany. He was closely involved with German issues. So he's really a German artist.
ifa: How will that be reflected in the pavilion?
Gaensheimer: I of course did not choose Romuald Karmakar without reason; he is one of the most important filmmakers in Germany, as well as artists. He not only makes documentaries and feature films, but also art films, which play a very important role in his work. I invited him because he is one of the few filmmakers in Germany that deals in a very consistent manner with German themes and German history, especially with the perpetrator’s perspective. This is the theme of his cinematic work, both concretely and figuratively. And that of course will play a role in the pavilion.
ifa: Dayanita Sing and Santu Mofokeng are two important photographic artists. How does the intercultural perspective the two artists bring, as South African and Indian nationals, enrich the pavilion?
Gaensheimer: The photograph allows access to a particular view. In Santu Mofokeng it is the view of a black South African. We know the views of the white people, for example, by the photographs of David Goldblatt. But what we do not so much know is the view of a black South African who has lived through the apartheid as an everyday reality, and expresses a perception in his photographs, which allows us access to a very specific point of view; a self-portrait of a segment of the population. That's very interesting. Dayanita questions identity: What is gender identity? What is national identity? It discusses identity in the broader sense as a woman, as an Indian, as an artist, as a photographer. That is what their work is about. She addresses this in the context of her close environment. The work features people who are very close to her and to whom she grants us very close access via photography.
ifa: Was it difficult for you as a curator to bring four highly expressive artists together?
Gaensheimer: I selected these four artists because I had such an exhibition in mind. In some cases I said very precisely what work I would like to see in the pavilion. We then discussed ideas together, but much of it only developed in the process. I invited these four artists because I saw a substantive connection and imagined that, despite all the differences, there could be very interesting overlapping points. Four completely different cultural backgrounds that nonetheless come together at one point or another. This is actually the theme of this pavilion: That we ultimately have much in common – despite the great distance and the large cultural differences.
ifa: There is also a further issue which is being discussed in the media. What was the artistic rationale for the exchange with the French Pavilion?
Gaensheimer: This exchange was a proposal from the Foreign Ministries of Germany and France. It had already been suggested last time. But for various reasons, Christoph did not want it. It also came at a very late stage, there was no more time. This time, Christine Marcel, my colleague from France, and I considered from the beginning whether we wanted to address this possibility. We could identify with it, because it corresponds with our working reality. We work constantly with other institutions from European countries and worldwide. But for us it was an absolute premise that the artists that also can the same. The four artists I had invited could identify with the exchange because their work deals with the question of unique identities anyway. It's also the theme of our exhibition. Anri Sala also agreed. And after everyone had said they thought it was a good idea, we did it.
ifa: With the Élysée Treaty you have a political linkage with the theme...
Gaensheimer: Yes, it’s fitting. That was also the reason why the Foreign Ministries recommended it to us. And it is also true that this agreement has played a big role and still does today. It is a basis for a united Europe, so I think it is also a very appropriate and a very nice link.
The South African Santu Mofokeng participated in two exhibitions of the ifa Galleries in Stuttgart and Bonn in 1995 and 1996.
ifa: A propos international relations: How has the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations provided support in the realisation of the theme?
Gaensheimer: I received great support from the ifa to realise this idea. I wished to discuss matters at an early stage with Elke aus dem Moore (Head of Department of Art (ed.)) and sought her opinion. She was very much in favour of the curatorial concept and kindly supported me throughout the cooperation. This was not just in infrastructure issues, but also substantive matters, which was supported by the basic concept of art as world art. The ifa simply has the relevant experience and therefore was in a position to support me. Incidentally, the German Foreign Office did so too.
ifa: In 2011 at the last Biennale, you and Christoph Schlingensief were awarded the Golden Lion for the best country entrants. Does having such a distinction in the bag mean you have a different approach for 2013?
Gaensheimer: It was great that that happened the last time, but that does not really matter for this time. One should not spend time thinking about winning the Lion. That is not the objective, but rather to make the pavilion something that seems right and sensible to us at a given moment and in a particular place. To make a great exhibition and show outstanding artists who represent the country in a meaningful way. However, I must say that it has of course influenced me that I will curate this pavilion a second time. The second time you have the opportunity to take a different approach. That was one of the reasons why I have invited four artists, three of them from another country.
ifa: How has the work for the Biennale brought you forward personally as a woman in the German cultural scene?
Gaensheimer: It was a valuable experience both times. Last time, with the death of Christoph Schlingensief, it was also very sad. Everything else was so to speak pure damage control. On the other hand there was a lot of support and constructive cooperation with those close to Schlingensief. Overall, one can say that the pavilion is a very special place. Politics play a role, organisation plays a big role, because it is quite difficult in Venice. It is an experience through which you learn a lot. The cooperation with the four artists this year is an enriching experience for me, so I'm grateful that I could make the pavilion again in this way.