Beyond Surface Differences at the Venice Biennale

Ai WeiWei, Bang, 2013, installation. Photo Italo Rondinella, courtesy the Venice Biennale.


Germany and France have swapped pavilions at this year’s Venice Biennale to mark the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty, a pact of friendship between the two nations. Perhaps in keeping with this act, the curators of both pavilions seem to question notions of identity, national and otherwise.Inside the French pavilion, the German curator Susanne Gaensheimer, director of the Museum of Modern Art, Frankfurt am Main, has put together a group exhibition that attempts “to see national representation as an open format,” as she told She invited four international artists—Ai Weiwei from China, Romuald Karmakar from France, the South African Santu Mofokeng and India’s Dayanita Singh.

The central room is home to Ai’s Bang (2010-13), a sculpture of 886 linked three-legged wooden stools that fills the room, leaving only enough space for visitors to cautiously make their way to the other rooms. The stools may be a reference to how modernization in China erased many years of history by replacing the traditional wooden furniture with plastic or metal versions.

Identity is a theme that plays out among the other participants in Germany’s pavilion as well; Mofokeng’s photographs, for example, show sacred orspiritual sites in the Mpumalanga Province of northeastern South Africa that have been decimated by the mining industry’s exploitation of the mineral-rich land. Singh’s slide projections show the dispossessed, like a eunuch named Mona, who live outside of societal norms, and Karmakar’s films show how violent movements, like neo-Nazis, can no longer be defined along national borders. However, taken in the context of the current Eurozone financial crisis—where many see affluent Germany imposing its will on less well-off Southern Europe—one wonders if this diverse engagement with identity isn’t really about putting an internationalist face on a country that could use some effective cultural diplomacy.

Directly opposite the demure French pavilion, its larger-than-life German counterpart—curated by Christine Macel, chief curator at Paris’s Pompidou Center—seems to tower over the surrounding structures. But inside, the Albanian-born Anri Sala (who, for good measure, was educated at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and at Le Fresnoy, Studio National des Arts Contemporains in Tourcoing) has placed a video installation, with four screens in three rooms, together titled Ravel Ravel Unravel, that provides a subtle picture of how sound and space can evoke historical, architectural and musical pasts.

The first room contains Unravel (2013) and shows the head of a female DJ absorbed in trying to mix something barely audible, while in the main room, Ravel Ravel (2013) shows two video projections: one of Canadian pianist Louis Lortie playing Ravel’s Concerto in D for the Left Hand (1929-30), which was written for concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during World War I. In the second, French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays the same piece. The varying tempo of the two players creates the illusion that they are racing, but the beautiful jazzy rhythm of the concerto provides a powerfully emotional experience of time.

In the third and final room, a video projection (also titled Unravel 2013) shows the hands of the same DJ trying to synchronize record albums of the two pianists’ versions of the Concerto, failing to unify the two, even though they are so similar. Sala’s installation offers a suggestive metaphor for questions about the possibility of a unified identity. It’s less clear whether Germany’s co-opting of artists from other countries convincingly goes beyond a superficial challenge to the idea of national representation.