On October 24, 2014, the curator Florian Ebner, in collaboration with Museum Folkwang and ifa, presented his concept for the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2015, titled “Resistant Images in Times of Digital Overexposure.” Invited artists were Olaf Nicolai, Hito Steyerl, and Tobias Zielony, who live and work in Berlin, and the Cairo-based artist duo Jasmina Metwaly / Philip Rizk in a setting that focuses on the presence of images in contemporary life. The exhibition was conceived to allow visitors to reflect upon the material and political nature of images in the digital age and a globalised world, a concept largely influenced by the extremely different biographies and artistic experiences to move into the pavilion.
Olaf Nicolai is a sculptor, conceptual and media artist who grew up in the GDR, and eludes any form of stylistic labelling. Hito Steyerl has made an international name for herself as a filmmaker, video artist and controversial authoress on the concept of the documentary, whilst Tobias Zielony has gained his reputation in the field of broader, artistic-reflexive documentary photography. The joint work of the artist Jasmina Metwaly and the author and filmmaker Philip Rizk brings an artistic position to the pavilion whose origins lie outside of the realms of the established western art market. Starting out from four aspects and ideas – migrating images, participation of the actors, light as an elementary image carrier and the roof as a place of freedom – a contextual and formal force field will be established, from which this pavilion will derive its tension. Classical questions of representation – the balance of power between subject and object, the old asymmetry between photographer and model – are said to pose themselves in a new way in the light of the digital images. While a contemporary understanding of the “photographic” element as a central position of documentary work is open for discussion, all works of art are created especially for the German Pavilion, and shown here for the first time.
During the past twenty-five years, the German Pavilion at the International Art Exhibition Biennale di Venezia has repeatedly been conceived as a place for the asking of questions and the deconstruction of German identities. The building itself has become a direct point of reference as a place for artistic, sometimes mythical or ironic archeological work on the concept inherent in the name borne by the art temple: Germania. Continuing its contribution to the 2013 edition of the Art Biennale, this year’s German Pavilion modifies the classical concept of the national pavilion, opening itself up to a global perspective as regards content. The ifa (Institute for International Cultural Relations), which functions as the coordinator of the German contribution to the Venice Biennale on behalf of the German Federal Foreign Office, succeeded in gaining the Sparkassen-Kulturfonds of the German Savings Banks Association (DSGV) as the main sponsor of the German Pavilion for the second time in succession. To coincide with the opening of the Biennale, a publication will be made available in connection with the 2015 German Pavilion, to include numerous colour illustrations and contributions from Tom Holert, Marcel Beyer, David Riff, Sarah Rifky, and others.
The German Pavilion has received support from a number of partners on its way to Venice. This includes a blog set up by the specialist photography magazine Camera Austria International to address the exhibition themes: the blog, which is administered by national and international authors, will be accessible for the duration of the Biennale on the German Pavilion’s website. The announced 2015 media partners are Deutsche Welle, Monopol – Magazin für Kunst und Leben, and Deutschlandradio. Significant backing also came from three Essen-based foundations – the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Stiftung, the RWE Stiftung für Energie und Gesellschaft, and the Stiftung Mercator – which provide joint funding for the German entry to the Biennale. The three foundations’ initiative is designed not only to support the concept of the Pavilion but also to increase public awareness of the grand tradition that exists in Essen of promoting photography and creativity. All three Essen-based foundations have a long tradition of supporting the Museum Folkwang, the professional home of curator Florian Ebner, and its photographic collection; they are significantly involved in realizing and facilitating exhibitions, outreach programmes, and new acquisitions and in providing training and grants for artists and researchers.
In February 2015, just three months before the opening of the Biennale di Venezia, curator Florian Ebner has provided an insight into the Pavilion preparations by releasing a short status report on the progress of this collaborative project. Stressing that the entire process that goes from approaching the artists with conceptual ideas for the work and the initial phases of realization, going through to the finished exhibition, has put the Pavilion’s architecture into focus, Ebner explains that the German Pavilion “has often acted as an artistic echo chamber for German history and identity. This year, the Pavilion’s large, quiet interior with its great height and accompanying sense of volume is a resonant space in which the productive sound of a globalized world can be heard. Starting from their varied reflections on the notions of ‘work’, ‘migration’, and ‘revolt’, the four artistic positions transform the building into a factory, into a vanished, virtual factory of the imagination, into a factory for political narratives and for analysing our visual culture.”
“The actors who populate the works by Olaf Nicolai Hito Steyerl, Tobias Zielony, and the artist duo Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk,” says Ebner, “are figures of protest and revolt. We are confronted by these figures in all four works – be they theatrical, photographic, filmic, virtual, and/or physical in nature. The interpretation and usage of the building’s verticality immediately provide a number of different stages for this pavilion of protest and images of resistance: ranging from a kind of basement area all the way up to the roof. It is important too that the roof appears as a heterotope, as ‘another place’, in which freedom is evoked.”
“Olaf Nicolai puts the roof on show as the setting for a seven-month-long action. His protagonists perform a mysterious activity, a shadow economy enacted under a glistening sun. The choreography of his figures shifts focus between functional actions (or the actual production of an object) and the aesthetic dimension of what is done.
Hito Steyerl’s video installation Factory of the Sun shows a world in turmoil and a world of images on the move. It involves the translation of real political figures into virtual figures and an innovative experience of making and engaging with images, somewhere between a documentary approach and full-on virtuality. The new ‘digital light’ is the main medium used to transfer what is left of reality into a circulating digital visual culture.
Tobias Zielony’s documentary essay deals with the situation of African migrants and refugees in Germany. Instead of travelling to Lampedusa, as many journalists (and artists) have done, Zielony dedicates himself to the activist scene in Berlin and Hamburg, tracing out the paths these people have taken, their different fortunes and attitudes. He works with them and with the way they portray themselves, which he then uses as a basis for discussion.
The video installation by Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk is an experimental chamber play in filmic form. For their film project Out on the Street, the artist duo invited Cairenes, both employed and unemployed, to an improvised studio on the roof of an apartment block, where they were encouraged to tell their own stories of relational power dynamics based on the premise of a factory that has been privatized and wound up.
If nothing else, the Pavilion can be read as a parable for the metamorphosis of visual media, from pictures as classical recordings to the generation, processing, and projection of images. It can also be seen as a statement about the changing use of images, which blurs the boundaries between document, testimony, and fiction.”
In a more descriptive note titled “Reflection on the material and political nature of images in the contemporary digital world,” the curator Florian Ebner stresses the four aspects and ideas the German Pavilion is based on and discusses the artists’ work in relation to them. “For a curator of photography, developing a contemporary idea for the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale implies bringing two dimensions together: the real and historical space of the pavilion, and the metaphorical space of the “photographic” element.
From as early as the 1980s, photography and video art have found their place in the German Pavilion, side by side with painting, sculpture and installation: the works of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer, Katharina Sieverding and Rosemarie Trockel – all of them protagonists in the vibrant art scene at the Düsseldorfer Akademie in the late 20th century – were followed by the actions and films of Christoph Schlingensief and Romuald Karmakar, along with the documentary approaches of the Indian artist Dayanita Singh and the South African photographer Santu Mofokeng.
Thus, nothing needs to be undertaken to highlight the significance of photography in today’s art market; it is more a question of drawing attention to reflections on the changed meaning of contemporary images in artistic discourse. And no place could be more prominent for this than the German Pavilion. We have been living in a digitalised and globalised world for some time – a world of images. Following the digital turn, there are indications that an algorithmic turn is imminent. Photographs are no longer mere recordings, but products of continuous recalculation and optimisation; they seem to be on the verge of being cut off from visible reality. How can the “photographic” element of images be understood today, an element that once provided direct evidence of the origination of the images? What is new about these images? And how can we create a fitting symbol for them in space?”
“With its basilica-like layout, high walls and apse, the interior of the German Pavilion takes on a sacral form, almost like a stage. This architectural structure is especially suited to expansive sculpture, installations or large panel painting – an extremely difficult space for small formats or projected images. The challenge is therefore to create a space/media dispositif that does justice to both today’s images and the given format of the building.
Starting out from four aspects and ideas – migrating images, participation of the actors, light as an elementary image carrier and the roof as a place of freedom – a contextual and formal force field will be established, from which this pavilion will derive its tension. Classical questions of representation – the balance of power between subject and object, the old asymmetry between photographer and model – pose themselves in a new way, in the light of the digital images. A contemporary understanding of the “photographic” element as a central position of documentary work is open for discussion. All works of art will be created especially for the German Pavilion, and shown there for the first time.”
– Migrating images
“The filmic and photographic works of Tobias Zielony, Hito Steyerl and Jasmina Metwaly/Philip Rizk examine migrating and volatile images in very different ways. Migration is an existential condition of the modern human being; in a figurative sense, this is also true of the digital image – one can even say that it is one of its most important qualities. The “migrant image” (J.T. Demos) asks how documentary practices react to the effects of globalisation (and transform themselves). Through the mass distribution of images in social networks, the question of what our “shared images” actually represent fades more and more into the background; the performative act of producing and showing images seems to be of greater relevance. Who tells these stories of transitory existences, and in what way? On whose authority, with whose voice are they communicated, and who is intended to receive them?”
– Participation of the actors
“Forms of participation available via the internet, for example involvement in political processes, detailed information and education, have many faces. With this in mind, the contributions developed for the Biennale will discuss the meaning of the concept of participation in terms of its significance in politics and the media, taking the dialectic aspect of these processes into consideration: the emergence – but also the disappearance (and becoming invisible) – of the human subject in contemporary images. The works of art set this phenomenon in contrast with the self-confident and self-empowered actor in multiple forms and figures, from documentary or fictive appearances to physical or virtual configurations.”
– Light as an elementary image carrier
“Light is the element that will shape the content-related and formal design of the pavilion. At first glance, in view of the fact that the digital element is in the foreground, this old protagonist in the field of art may seem too emphatically chosen. However, the transfer, coding/ decoding and worldwide distribution of data today consists of nothing other than the reduction and transformation of information into light signals – as will become particularly apparent in the work of Hito Steyerl.”
– The roof as another place
“Olaf Nicolai will turn his attention to the building as a whole, both inside and out. This idea includes envisaging the space as a stage for the visual works of art. In his artistic-sculptural and architectural intervention it will not be possible to avoid addressing the historical aspect, working both with and against it, and reacting to the tectonic, vertical alignment of the building. In contrast to previous interventions in the pavilion, which focused primarily on the floor – some projects and installations were almost reminiscent of archaeological work – the roof will be an integral part of Olaf Nicolai’s design. This specific place will also to some extent play a role in the contributions of the other invited artists. Moreover, it can be understood as a heterotopia, as a place where freedom is conceivable.”
This article has been compiled to bring together a number of press materials and additional information available in connection with the German Pavilion. The preview of the German Pavilion takes place May 6-8, 2015, for accredited guests only.