PRINT May 2006



AT FIRST GLANCE, Pawel Althamer’s Fairy Tale, 2006—perhaps the most iconoclastic work in the current Berlin Biennial—is an activist project: the artist leveraging the power of institutions (in this instance, the biennial, with its visibility and prestige) for social change. Entering a run-down former stable in the courtyard of a disused post office, viewers find themselves in a room that’s empty except for a single sneaker. On the door is a photocopied text on biennial stationery: a letter from Althamer to Berlin’s interior minister, Erhart Körting, pleading with him to grant a residence permit to an eighteen-year-old boy, Besir Oclay. The letter reveals that Oclay, who moved to Germany from Turkey when he was a baby, is being threatened with deportation (just as his younger siblings will be when they turn eighteen and lose the protections due them as minors). Severely depressed, he is under suicide watch at a local hospital.

But Fairy Tale is more subtle and complex than such a results-oriented summary would suggest. In Althamer’s work, social collaboration follows from a mode of self-portraiture in which the artist replays, or “corrects,” his own experience, often through identification with so-called outsiders. The project is also a performance in real time: As works like The Motion Picture, 2000 (for which he hired actors to perform everyday activities in one of Ljubljana’s public squares) attest, Althamer is interested in directing reality, constructing narratives that develop without his knowing their outcome. This impulse is acutely apparent in Fairy Tale, which began as a proposal to find a person who could not legally be part of German society and to change that person’s life—to make someone “feel like a princess/prince.” The implementation of this proposal proved extremely complicated and fraught with difficulties, a journey more reminiscent of an epic quest like “The Lord of the Rings” than the fast-track magic of “Cinderella.”

Claire Bishop


IN GERMANY, you can’t simply be an “immigrant.” There are all these different status levels—legal, half-legal, 30 percent legal—craziness! I first came here as a black-market worker. I remember the immigration office—I met a lot of very depressed people. With Fairy Tale, I was hoping to find a person and say, “Come on, let’s go, I have money and a flat and a lawyer for you; we can change things.”

But I discovered very quickly that although you design the fairy tale, you’re also designed by it. We arrived in Berlin on March 14, and on the 15th we visited the immigration office. The idea was for me and my assistant, Matea, to go there with Zdravka Bajović, the assistant curator of the biennial. We wanted to find a princess—a woman, because females are particularly discriminated against. The first person we found was a beautiful gypsy girl, by herself, very sad. We followed her around the office for more than two hours, thinking of how to bring up the subject, and then she disappeared.

It really was like a fairy tale: How did she disappear? Someone told me there was a little-used door leading to the adjacent building. So we went next door, and we finally found her, but before we’d introduced ourselves two boys came up to her and started talking in Polish! For me it was a sign—okay, that’s not the person we’re looking for. I’d already decided that the protagonist would not be Polish, because then it would look as if I was helping the person because of our shared nationality, which I would be totally against.

So we decided that maybe this office wasn’t the best starting point. We had addresses for places where immigrants have meetings—social clubs, etc. We started visiting them and eventually found someone I could tell right away would be important for the project: Walid Chahrour. He was Palestinian, and he was recommended by the social services office as their top person on tough immigration issues. We met him just two days before the opening. When we told him what we wanted to do, he said it could take two months. I said, No, we have two days! If we don’t find someone in that time we’ll lose money, power, and support. So he showed us a letter saying, Walid, we need your help immediately, we have a friend from Afghanistan, he’s been living with us for a long time, and he will be deported in just a few days. But after making some phone calls Walid said, It’s too difficult, because there is already someone trying to help—and because there is too much fear. I’ll find you someone else.

Now the story starts to get complicated. After the meeting with Walid, I really felt depressed. And in the subway there was a woman playing the keyboards and singing “Wonderful World.” She was a Russian musician called Eugenia, busking to make money to study here. I started to speak with her in Russian and explained what we were doing, thinking that if Walid couldn’t find anyone for us, we could help Eugenia. But that evening, Walid rang. It was a dramatic situation. He told us, We have a Kurdish family and they need immediate support. The son is in a hospital, he’s eighteen, his name is Besir, he came to Berlin when he was a year old, and he doesn’t want to be deported to Turkey, where he’ll have to serve in the military. He is seriously depressed, he’s in the hospital.

So now I had to find a way not to trash Eugenia. I commissioned her to compose a song about Fairy Tale—Gallery Neugerriemschneider is paying for it!—and now she’s singing about Besir on the subway.

By the time all this was finally settled it was one day before the opening. And there was also the pressure of the art-world context, the pressure to answer the question, How can we represent this project? For me, how it would be represented wasn’t especially important, but it was important that it would be represented. So I decided, Okay, let’s have one of Besir’s shoes, because “Cinderella” is a well-known fairy tale. There’s also a Polish saying: When you feel like you’re really living somebody else’s life, you’ve stepped into their shoes.

Now I think the project has achieved a certain stability. If I leave Berlin, I’m sure Walid will keep it going. I believe we can use every institution. My impression is that most institutions for social change are not spectacular enough. If you put the spotlight on a situation, bring it to the attention of journalists and the general public, it puts more pressure on the people who make decisions. Fairy Tale isn’t activist art, though, because it’s very private; it’s a self-portrait. I remember very clearly the feeling of being extremely depressed by the way the police treated me, or by having to stand in a special line with a different passport—by being separated from the rest of the world. I like the idea that with this work the process is represented as documentation, but I’d like it if Eugenia’s song could function as a representation too, as a memory. And if people trust and believe in it, then the story is much more than a fairy tale.