BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 11 NOV 02
Featured in
Issue 71

5th Werkleitz Biennial

Various Venues, Germany

BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 11 NOV 02

In 1993 a group of media students moved to Werkleitz, a small village in the East German state of Sachsen Anhalt, and organized an extensive exhibition. Since 1996 this exhibition has become a biennial. This year's installment lasted for five days, during which works were shown in public spaces in Werkleitz and nearby Tornitz, as well as in temporary venues such as the local civic centre. The village pub was turned into a cinema, in which a documentary film programme was presented parallel to the exhibition.

In the field of research-based art practices the biennial was probably one of the most interesting and most carefully curated exhibitions in Germany this year. The underlying idea was to contrast the spirit of internationalism projected by the Socialism of the former German Democratic Republic with the restrictive immigration policy of the reunited Germany, which is designed to limit entry to skilled professionals who add to the growth of the national economy (hence the biennial's title, 'Zugewinngemeinschaft': Community of Surplus). To allow this idea to take concrete form, the curatorial team defined three symbolic reference points for the exhibition: the 10th World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin in 1973, the film Whity (1970), by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (screened as part of the exhibition's film programme), and the statement 'Open Frontiers?'.

Not all of the works in the show explicitly engaged with the central theme. Those that did, however, turned out to be intriguing. Ina Rossow and Renate Lorenz, for instance, compiled an archive with photos, videos and audio material from the 10th World Festival. It documented how the young people flooding the city took the promise of internationalism much more literally than the state had intended and created a socialist Woodstock. Other works proposed a reassessment of the culture of the GDR: Henrik Olesen showed amateur films by an East Berlin gay group called HIB from the 1970s. Johanna and Helmut Kandl presented the installation Auf der Insel Bella Lella (On the Island Bella Lella, 2002), a collection of holiday snapshots by citizens of the Federal Republic and the GDR. The fact that photographs from the beaches of Spain or Yugoslavia depict the same smiling faces challenged the Western myth that life behind the iron curtain was all dull.

The installation Nach Olympia (After Olympia, 2000-2), by Wiebke Grösch and Frank Metzger, illustrated through photos and texts the fate of Olympic villages once the games are over. Often they become social ghettos; the athletes' apartments in Lake Placid, for example, are used as a prison camp. The video installation Leben in Deutschland - mein Nachbar ist Deutscher (Life in Germany - My Neighbour is German, 2002) also identified the camp as the flipside of the global village. African immigrants from a nearby refugee camp were invited to record statements about their living conditions and duly criticized the policy of isolating asylum seekers in camps in the middle of nowhere for long periods of time. They stressed that keeping up morale, while being the hardest challenge facing them, was the only survival strategy to fight the state-controlled depression of camp life.

The exhibition's refined discourse about global politics naturally seemed somewhat out of place in a rural context. Previous biennials sought to bridge this gap by initiating more community-based art projects. To criticize the relative lack of such endeavours in this year's show, however, would be unfair. First of all, the very existence of the biennial gave evidence of continued local support. Moreover, the strength of the show could be seen to lie precisely in the displacement it effected by taking politics out of parliament and art out of the museum - to bring them together in the unlikely setting of Werkleitz. To intensify tensions instead of feigning a harmonic reconciliation of art and society might, after all, be the most effective way to engage with contemporary political realities.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.