PRINT September 2013

Daniel Birnbaum

View of Jeremy Deller’s “English Magic,” 2013, British pavilion, Venice. Foreground: I searched for form and land for years and years I roamed, 2013. Background: A Good Day for Cyclists, 2013. Photo: Cristano Corte.

JUST WHAT IS GOING ON at the top of that little hill? There, on the far crest of the Giardini, is where the power triangle—the UK, Germany, France—have their pavilions. It seems Old Europe is hoping to revive itself, whether through rejuvenating infusions from more vigorous parts of the globe, or by means of a return to occult sources believed to still be vital. One of Europe’s most precious cultural crystal balls since 1895, the Venice Biennale this year is filled with esoteric visions. A humorless Swiss variety is clearly in dominance (e.g., Carl Jung’s Red Book), but thank God Jeremy Deller introduces a special “English Magic” (the title of his exhibition and his film in the British pavilion) and creates one of the wittiest and most delightful national contributions I can remember.

Deller’s visual essay deals with a few chapters of his nation’s self-mythology via art, music, politics, hunting, money, and even teatime. Here divine justice is dealt through the inexplicable intervention of higher forces, willing to punish British royalty—Prince Harry doesn’t escape unscathed—and Russian oligarchs alike. The monstrous luxury yacht of Roman Abramovich, among the world’s wealthiest men, infuriated many of us visiting the Biennale several years ago when it shamelessly intruded into the public space of the promenade outside the Giardini. Now it is thrown into the lagoon. This imaginary act of nemesis divina, captured in a large wall painting, is performed by none other than legendary nineteenth-century British socialist artist and theorist William Morris, who returns as an infuriated giant. Justice at last!

When Old Europe struggles to understand itself, the results are usually entertaining. Such was the case this May when, in a brief article in Libération, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben revisited a political memo written in 1945 by Alexandre Kojève, a speculative thinker as well as a high-ranking civil servant involved in the construction of what would become the European Union. Kojève famously believed that mankind had already reached the so-called end of history—and with it the end of the nation-state, revolution, class struggle—and saw two new non-European possibilities emerge: on the one hand, the “American way of life,” a capitalist wilderness without history, and on the other, the ritualized and archaic cultural forms of Japan, which he divined as a fascinating form of “snobbery.” In his memo, however, Kojève surprisingly hints at other possibilities for postwar Europe; thus Agamben’s renewed interest. Kojève imagined future empires within Europe divided by and loyal to language affinities, with Germany leading an inevitable “Anglo-Saxon” economic dominance that might only be challenged by a “Latin” empire of France, Spain, and Italy; in 2013, to the great irritation of the German intelligentsia, Agamben has nodded approvingly. In a recent conversation with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Agamben made clear that it isn’t Germany but rather the broad paradigm ofhomo economicus that he wants to question, and no doubt he would be sympathetic to Deller’s colossus returning from the grave to defend the public sphere from the increasingly totalizing forces of private capital.

Clearly some Kojève-like ambition was behind the decision (on the ministry level) for France and Germany to swap pavilions. What is offered up through a series of subsequent curatorial decisions are exhibitions that have no clear relationship to the nations actually financing them. Thus the French state organized a show with Berlin-based Albanian artist Anri Sala, in that difficult German pavilion famously rebuilt by the Nazis. Most German artists have had problems dealing with its architectural pedigree: Some have tried to ignore its history (and have been criticized for not paying attention to the past); others have decided to attack it, as Hans Haacke did in 1993; and still others have exaggerated the political complexities involved in representing Germany at such a site, as Christoph Schlingensief posthumously did with his Wagnerian extravaganza.

Yet somehow this daunting catch-22 dissolves in Sala’s soft and elegant form of exorcism. His installation, which includes the 2013 works Ravel Ravel and Unravel, might seem almost too subtle for a chaotic biennial. Ravel Ravel forms a space in which we experience two renderings of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand, a work originally commissioned in 1929 by the one-handed Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher and, if not the most important pianist on the Continent, then certainly the wealthiest. (Wittgenstein had lost his right arm in World War I.) At the center of the perfectly muted space—its acoustically primed walls forming a kind of stalactite cave with no echoes or other site-specific noises—we see two screens, each showing one hand at a piano performing the same Ravel piece, the tempi fine-tuned so as to glide in and out of sync à la Minimalist phasing. What is created is a kind of sensorial drag: a time-space slipped between the temporal tracks described by the moving hands, the respective versions of the concerto that one hears, and the composition’s own dramatic time-signature shifts. In an adjacent room, a two-channel video projection shows a DJ mixing each concerto recording in Unravel, attempting to bring them into sync and thus make a harmonious whole without the inner acoustic fracture that constantly threatens to pull the space apart again.

Jeremy Deller, We Sit Starving Amidst our Gold, 2013, wall drawing, 9' 10 1/8“ x 24' 7 1/2”. Painted by Stuart Sam Hughes.

The pavilion’s curator, Christine Macel, cites another great early-modernist composer in this context, Igor Stravinsky, who insisted on the necessity of movement and gesture for the full appreciation of music, a visualization that operates at every level of Sala’s work. Yet what we witness—Ravel Ravel’s insistent doubling—refuses to sync with any preordained associations, just as the two left hands in the films never make a coordinated pair, and just as the concerto’s original collaboration between French and German artists doesn’t quite match the present narrative of a pavilion swap between France and Germany. In its evacuation of meaning, Sala’s visualization places him in a more recognizably French context with artists such as Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, whose film and installation work often chases a kind of anechoic chamber of profound emptiness at the center of perception: more exhibition space than signifying art object. Sala’s transplanting of an unmistakably French acoustic void into the architectural severity of the German pavilion seems to me a necessary injection of ambient nothingness into the heavy house of meaning.

In light of the current renegotiations of European identity, in which we might rightly expect a star player to display some humble interest in the broader field, the postnational group show at the German pavilion—which is in fact housed in the French pavilion—has unmistakably good intentions. Juxtaposed with the pathetic and outmoded nationalisms often displayed in the Giardini, it is sympathetic indeed. Even a bit touching. And yet, in spite of the obvious talent of the four artists involved—Ai Weiwei, Romuald Karmakar, Santu Mofokeng, and Dayanita Singh—the show lacks the kind of luster that makes one want to return.

Any one of these figures could stand alone: Ai certainly knows how to fill a space, creating a sprawling sculpture out of 886 antique three-legged stools that reference both ancient and contemporary life in China; Singh’s melancholic photographs, including her riveting portrait of a eunuch living at a cemetery in New Delhi, could have constituted a show, as could Mofokeng’s documents of a disappearing South African landscape; and Karmakar’s film in which an actor reads the transcripts of sermons given in 2000 in Hamburg’s radical Islamic community, which were heard by operatives involved in 9/11, would be a fascinating starting point for a show exploring how events occurring in the nation-state of Germany have repercussions throughout the world. But taken together on the level of a group exhibition, these works don’t have anything more to offer beyond collectively representing “international contemporary art.” Epitomizing one’s nation may be dull without some added magic, but representing the global condition is perhaps duller.

All this does not necessarily mean that the nation-state is obsolete—perhaps just the opposite. For Old and New Europe alike, reshuffling the deck is a welcome change; all the more disappointing, then, that Germany couldn’t make more of its promising hand. In light of the solemn themes under scrutiny in its scattered show—totalitarianism, global terror, the disappearance of rooted life—it may seem frivolous to ask for such things as joy of the unexpected. And yet, that’s what is missing.

Daniel Birnbaum is director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and a contributing editor of Artforum. He was the curator of the 53rd Venice Biennale.