For some, it is a relic of the 19th century, aging and out of date; for others, it is a contemporary barometer of developments in art, always exciting and innovative.
First opened in 1895, the Biennale di Venezia has often been declared dead by critics, but the public has paid little attention to such assessments. When the world's oldest art exhibition opens its doors every two years, friends of art from all over the globe flock to the gardens along the Canale Grande in great numbers.
The structure of this major exhibition does seem antiquated. The basic concept has not changed during the past one hundred years. Influenced by the spirit of the great world expositions, the idea emerged toward the end of the 19th century that the best way to gain an overview of tendencies in art in the many nations of the world was to present them in separate national pavilions, with a national commissioner responsible for each. This organizational structure has been retained to this day: a pavilion for every country. Yet unique national traits now play only a minor role in our age of globalization and internationalization. Having recognized this, the Venetians have added an extensive special international exhibition, often devoted to specific themes, which focuses on general developments in art alongside the national presentations.
One of the consequences of the underlying concept is that the quality of the Biennale can vary considerably, as it depends for the most part on the conceptual approaches pursued by the national commissioners. Only the time frame and the location are binding for all. Apart from that, every country is free to show whomever and whatever it chooses. For many years, it was this freedom that gave the Biennale its chance to stand out. Art from the East Block could be seen in Venice even while the iron curtain still divided Europe politically. Artists from Asia and Africa were invited to Venice long before the great museums and galleries began to take notice of them. Fifteen countries were represented at the very first Biennale, nine of them with their own pavilions.
Germany was among the first, and the Germans were absent from the show only in 1920 and 1932. Even during the Second World War, the political powers used the forum in Venice for propaganda purposes. The GDR was also represented regularly beginning in 1982. The pavilion in which the German presentation will be exhibited again this year was built in 1909 on the initiative of the Munich Secession according to plans drafted by the architect Daniele Donghi. During the National Socialist era in Germany, the building was redesigned and adapted to the prevailing aesthetic ideas of the time. Since the end of the Second World War, nearly all of the most noteworthy German artists have exhibited at the pavilion at least once, among them Heinz Mack, Gerhard Richter, Dieter Krieg, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Hanne Darboven, Sigmar Polke, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Hans Haacke, Katharina Fritsch, Gerhard Merz and Rosemarie Trockel.
Joseph Beuys's installation entitled Straßenbahnhaltestelle was the focus of animated discussion in Venice in 1976. In 2001, his sculpture Ende des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts (End of the Twentieth Century) served as the point of departure for the central exhibition, "Plateau der Menschheit" (Plateau of Humanity). This part of the Biennale, as Biennale President Paolo Baratta and exhibition director Harald Szeemann announced in advance of the show, was concerned with ethnic, political and religious conflicts in the age of globalization.
The selection of artists and works for the German pavilion in 2001 was made by Udo Kittelmann, the newly appointed director of the Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt. He presented artist Gregor Schneider, a native of Mönchengladbach-Rheydt born in 1969, who was awarded the Golden Lion. Schneider's work revolves around a conceptual approach to architecture and space, which he reconstructs into mysterious labyrinthine forms. For a period of several weeks, the German pavilion was given another new face, and the Biennale once again asserted its position as a forum for world art at the dawn of the new millennium.
27.08.2002 Petra von Olschowski