By Andrew Russeth
Germany’s national pavilion at the Venice Biennale has yet again taken a bruising.
In 1993, artist Hans Haacke famously shattered the building’s travertine floors and put the rubble on display. This time, Maria Eichhorn has ripped up a long patch of it and dug down, revealing brick and cement supports, plus dirt and rock. A netted fence prevents visitors from tumbling into the abyss.
Though Eichhorn’s piece is a nod to Chris Burden’s legendary 1986 piece Exposing the Foundation of the Museum, which excavated part of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, understanding precisely what is going on here requires consulting some accompanying texts. That’s often the case with the incisive Eichhorn.
The basics: She initially “developed the idea of relocating” the building for the run of the biennale and then “faithfully reassembling it on its original site.” One imagines that would have been a complicated—and costly—endeavor. Instead, she has put on display its foundations, which were laid in the first decade of the 20th century to create a pavilion for the Kingdom of Bavaria. In the ’30s, the Nazis erected an expansion for the imposing architecture that still stands. Eichhorn has also uncovered slices of the building’s brick walls, as if stripping the pavilion for parts.
Amid the frenetic competition for attention during the Biennale, one has to at least grudgingly admire Eichhorn’s restraint. She is refusing to play that game. But if this were her only contribution to the world’s largest art festival, it would certainly be a disappointment: the history of the German pavilion is far from a mystery at this point, and artists regularly use it as a foil.
Thankfully, Eichhorn’s pavilion has additional components. Throughout the run of the Biennale, guided tours will occur throughout Venice in what she terms “Places of Resistance,” when anti-fascist events occurred in the city during World War II or where memorials to this resistance have since been constructed.
Organized with the Istituto veneziano per la storia della resistenza e della società contemporanea, these walks around Venice include areas that will be familiar to regular Biennale-goers, like the Jewish Ghetto and the Santa Lucia train station.
Deeply researched materials on the pavilion’s website detail the history of these sites. At the Jewish Ghetto, the tour guides, Giulio Bobbo or Luisella Romeo, will detail the stories of Giuseppe Jona, the Jewish Community Council’s president, who committed suicide in 1943 rather than furnish the Nazis with a list of the group’s members, as well as the 250 Jews deported from the city during the war, eight of whom survived. At Santa Lucia, attendees will learn of the veteran railway inspector, Bartolomeo Meloni, who took part in sabotage operations and died in the Dachau concentration camp.
Those tours will not begin until next week, on April 28, long after the VIPs have left town. April 28 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Venice, after fighting between German forces and the Italian Partisans at the Arsenale, the grand old shipyards, which are now filled with hundreds of artworks—and the pavilion of Ukraine.
As for Germany’s pavilion, there have been proposals over the years to demolish it or radically rework it. Eichhorn, for her part, says in an official interview with the show’s curator, Yilmaz Dziewior, that it “should be preserved as a monument.”
The artist has titled her show “Relocating a Structure,” and invited us to imagine it getting carted off, at least temporarily. However, her full project suggests a broader reading of her title. Offering very little to see inside the pavilion, the exhibition instead points viewers outside, into the city, to remember the struggles and losses that occurred there.
Right now, untold amounts of time and money are flowing through the Biennale structure. Eichhorn seems to ask, Could at least part of that structure be relocated—redirected—to other, urgent matters?
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