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Construction Sites of Modernism:
Isa Genzken at the 52nd Biennale in Venice

Isa Genzken, Oil, 2007, German Pavilion, Venice

With Deutsche Bank as the main sponsor, the German Pavilion at the 52nd Biennale in Venice opens in just a few days. It will feature an installation called "Oil" by Isa Genzken, who after working as an artist for more than thirty years is at the zenith of her career. Genzken, who was born in 1948, is a legend on the art scene yet is hardly known to a wider public. That will change now. Brigitte Werneburg and Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on Genzken's fascinating work, in which she combines sculpture with economic, social, and political aspects.

Nicolaus Schafhausen and Isa Genzken, 2007

The German Pavilion in Venice is a risky business for any artist. And this is no doubt because the contemporary art of a nation is presented in an international comparison. The Pavilion, built in 1909, focuses on German art and history like a burning lens: the triumph of Modernism in the 1920s, the exploitation of art by the National Socialists, and the efforts made in the 1950s to rehabilitate artists ostracized under the National Socialists by presenting their works. The Nazis radically changed the pavilion. At the entrance, monumental pillars replaced the dainty columns, with the insignia "Germania" emblazoned above them. Although after the Second World War the prospect of razing them was often discussed, the Pavilion is still virtually unchanged. It was not until 1964 that the pathos of National Socialist spatial design was broken when major refurbishments were carried out in the pavilion's interior. Since then, the presentation has concentrated on one or just a few artists. While not all of them have explicitly dealt with the history of the building, they have all worked in a field of tension between the difficult legacy and their artistic vision.

German Pavilion in Venice

"It's always been about catharsis and trauma", said Kasper König, the director of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, when Isa Genzken's contribution to the Biennale was discussed at the Witte de With in Rotterdam. "And now a very essential artist is launching into it, she really knows what she's doing." In 2007, a kind of superhero by necessity seems to have roused the pavilion from a long slumber – a "nonconformist", as Nikolaus Schafhausen, the curator of the German contribution in Venice, calls Isa Genzken. Since Gregor Schneider received the Golden Lion in 2001 for his Haus Ur, the reactions to the German contributions have been rather tepid. And the situation did not even change when Tino Sehgal had supervisory staff sing the slogan "Oh this is so contemporary" as a conceptional artwork in 2005. This time, people again expect a groundbreaking contribution which is highly profound, which captivates visitors, which is truly "contemporary", and which captures the pulse of the time.

Elefant, 2006
Courtesy neugerriemschneider, Berlin

But how will Isa Genzken react to these expectations? "I'll simply do what I've always done: my best", she said in an interview with db artmag back in the autumn of 2006, "and I won't drive myself crazy thinking I have to cause a sensation. I don't think much of sensational art to begin with. Christo doesn't do anything for me. I hate everything that has to do with sensations. Art doesn't have to be calm, but it has to be an attraction in itself, not loudly directed to the outside world. In terms of the German Pavilion, I can only think of one exhibition that I liked a lot: that of Joseph Beuys. I liked his Straßenbahnhaltestelle from 1976 a great deal. It wasn't clamorous, yet it was still very forceful."

Leonardos Katze, 2006
Courtesy neugerriemschneider, Berlin

Accordingly, she will approach the pavilion from the outside; cautiously, distanced, without immediately spreading herself out inside. This is a radically different approach from that of Hans Haacke, one of her predecessors in the German Pavilion in Venice. In a very symbolic way, Hans Haacke broke up the floor of the German Pavilion to show the abyss of modern art compromised under fascism. Naturally, this abyss was not very profound in the presence of Hitler Portraits and deutschmark emblems. Modern art can only have a future if it shelves pretentious gestures; the patent recipe for a liberation of art and society is to say farewell to the esotericism of purity.

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