Paul Teasdale Aside from Hito Steyerl’s vibrant film installation Factory of the Sun (2015), the German pavilion – a group presentation featuring Steyerl, Olaf Nicolai, Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk and Tobias Zielony – was pretty lacklustre fare this year. With the title Fabrik, curator Florian Ebner intended to turn the pavilion into ‘a factory of political narratives’ – a productive ambition?
Pablo Larios Ebner’s attempt was well-meaning and topical, but instead of the intended ‘productive profanation’ what resulted was a certain aesthetics of distraction and deception. Take the sheen of Steyerl’s video installation. The visual allure of her spoof video game – a reaching mix of motion capture, technological virtualization, even a fictionalized drone attack launched by Deutsche Bank – contributed to what put me off about the work. Given how present conditions of war have been similarly virtualized (in their interfaces, but not their effects) I was left wondering why this project couldn’t take a form that more truthfully bridges ‘real’ and ‘spoof’ interfaces – an actual video game, say. Instead, the would-be ‘factory’ produced just another toy; the pavilion proved to be just another temple.
PT An actual video game would have jumped straight to the conclusion, the product, whereas I read Steyerl as teasing out, albeit goofily, the political realities that underscore screen-based ecologies. The film’s lustre, and our easy seduction, makes us complicit in the questionable politics it harbours. It was irritating but interesting. The concept of ‘sunlight’ she uses, somewhat ironically – as a generative and emancipatory metaphor: the immateriality of light, a cipher for digital ‘reality’, the speed of light, instantaneous networked connectivity – shines through the pavilion. Ebner’s description of Nicolai’s project as ‘a shadow economy under the blazing sun’ pointed to the sun as burden, the toil of the labourer under its hot rays. Metwaly and Rizk also used the ‘work’ of sunlight too, with the floor installation of sun-baked clay tiles (Draw It Like This, 2015) replacing the pavilion’s marble floor, and with the drawn floorplan of the ‘factory’ from the film they also showed, Out on the Street (2015).
PL For me the tired metaphors of ‘light’ ironically obscured the works’ legibility. By design there is a highly interesting ontology of representation in every technological product – one reliant on illusion and obscurity. What’s to distinguish here the sun-blinded work of art from the product it refers to, or the scripted version of a Deutsche Bank press officer from the obscurantism of a Foxconn executive? Today, the simple-seeming product, the ‘real’ infomercial, the drone photograph all come out superior precisely on the aesthetic level, making the art ‘about’ it pale in comparison unless it is smarter in its techniques. Art has to go the other direction if it stands a chance in presenting its own artifice. We’re back to Marinetti and his racing car.
PT Tobias Zielony’s urgent, well-meaning project The Citizen (2015) presented the very ‘reality’ quotient you refer to: photographs of African migrants in Berlin and Hamburg laid out in the style of a newspaper, while in the middle of the room display boards showed articles on the plight of such migrants published in newspapers from their countries of origin. Stacks of the newspaper Zielony himself produced featured interviews with some of the migrants he had photographed. Zielony seemed to be pointing admirably to the moral dimension implicit in the media depictions of migrants, how images are never neutral, but his display overload seemed cold and disengaged. Similarly with Metwaly and Rizk’s low-fi film Out on the Street (2015). A group of local men were asked to perform imagined work scenarios in a fictional factory – which looked like the set of Lars von Trier’s 2003 film Dogville – that has been privatized and then closed. It seemed an interesting platform to speak to power relationships and the specific political realities in Egypt, but with what outcome?
PL I shared this feeling of disengagement with what should have been interesting material. Perhaps it was a curatorial question of combination and scale: the sheer quantity of Zielony’s images and text, albeit engaging with media surplus and circulation, made the eye gloss over. Or, optimistically, maybe that was his point: disengagement as a critical tool.
PT Speaking of disengagement, Olaf Nicolai’s GIRO (2015) was nowhere to be seen. Apparently it consists of a group of people working on the roof of the pavilion for the duration of the biennale fabricating ‘boomerangs’ and occasionally tossing them out into the Giardini. Every week a number of these objects will be given to local street hawkers to sell. It seems that the retreat to the roof resisted ‘engaging’ with the spectacle of the event, the audience, the curator’s expectations. Work as a form of shy resistance. I quite liked that.
PL Instead of resistance, the Swiss Pavilion, in contrast, presented a rather dubious uniformity. In the context of the neighbouring main exhibition that grappled with a kind of graceful failure with questions of pluralism, underrepresentation, amalgamation, race and itinerancy, Pamela Rosenkranz’s title felt coolly ignorant from the get-go – Our Product. Just who is this ‘we’, and who determines such a grouping? I might have read Rosenkranz’s bubbling pool of ‘flesh’-toned pink liquid – derived from the skin tones of Rennaissance paintings – as a comment on racial homogeny. Instead, the accompanying booklet reverted to Fascist-sounding sci-fi poetry that didn’t hold water: ‘It’s taken millions of years for nature to build us’; ‘our common foundation’; ‘burn off the surplus’. The work seems to invite the viewer to engage in a sensory experience, but it’s so burdened with its own absolutist thinking it bars any reading outside of the artist’s dogma.
PT Heimo Zobernig’s Austrian pavilion, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more open. It had a kind of macho diffidence to it: a quick look at the architectural blueprints, a grumpy line here, another one there. Done. Don’t bother me till May.
PL Zobernig’s ‘floating’ ceiling construction veiled historicizing details of Hoffmann and Kramreiter’s 1934 Austrian pavilion. He also installed a new floor that levelled the pavilion into one clean, black plane, supporting four aggressively plain white benches. In the blank denial of history through this mausoleum-like intervention, the work pointed to problems of representation in a pavilion context that seems increasingly anachronistic. Quietly self-negating, it was among the better national pavilions this year.
PT It seemed a rather funny refusal of any form of expected showmanship or egotism tied to representing one’s nation at Venice. ‘Let them sit and admire the garden. The weather will be nice, it will be an enjoyable experience.’ He was right.