BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 25 MAY 13
Featured in
Issue 155

Lip Service

From the Vatican to the Venice Biennale: the limits to symbolic acts of altruism

BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 25 MAY 13

On Maundy Thursday, the new Pope Francis – formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires – washed the feet of 12 juvenile inmates, including one young Muslim woman, at a detention centre in Rome. In the weeks since his inauguration, Bergoglio has sent out signals of change by the minute. His election immediately heralded a new start: the first South American and the first Jesuit to be elected Pope, he is also the first to be named after St. Francis of Assisi, who chose to live in poverty, nursed lepers and spoke to the birds. Accordingly, Bergoglio rejected the red leather loafers of his predecessors, and refused to move into the Papal Palace, preferring a humble apartment in the Vatican guesthouse. In another unprecedented move, he allowed his pre-election sermon to be publicized; in it, he described the Catholic Church as being in danger of becoming too ‘self-referential’, of suffering from a ‘spiritual worldliness’, saying that it should ‘go to the peripheries, not only in the geographical sense’ but also in an ‘existential’ way, regarding ‘the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and religious indifference, of thought, of all misery’.

Bergoglio’s demonstration of humility and compassion comes, however, with arch-conservative baggage: in 2009, he described same-sex marriage as a ‘machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God’; in 2007, he called abortion a ‘death penalty for the unborn’. In his first speech to the cardinals, quoting the French writer Léon Bloy, Bergoglio declared that, ‘He who does not pray to God prays to the Devil.’ (I didn’t know it was that easy to become a Satanist!)

Perhaps Bergoglio’s obsession with the devil stems from the years of Argentina’s Dirty War – waged by the military junta that ruled the country between 1976 and 1983 – when he was head of the Argentinian Jesuit Order (1973–80). Allegations that the new Pope was somehow complicit in the military’s abduction and torture of two Jesuit priests working in the favelas in 1976 have been refuted by one of the victims, Father Francisco Jalics, who after Bergoglio’s election stated: ‘I am reconciled to the events.’ (Although not, it would seem, with Bergoglio.) According to a 1997 testimony by the other priest, Orlando Yorio (who died in 2000), Bergoglio expelled them at the time from the Jesuit Order, thus effectively making them fair game for the junta’s crackdown on resistance in the favelas. In March, The New York Times reported that, ‘even as the head of the Argentine Conference of Bishops from 2005 to 2011, Bergoglio resisted issuing a formal apology for the church’s actions during the Dirty War’. Symbolic spectacles – such as a pope named Francis humbly kissing the tattooed feet of prisoners, with the cameras running – are inevitably overshadowed by a failure to come clean about the events in Argentina which, ironically, involved a Jesuit called Francisco living with the poor and being imprisoned. Is Bergoglio involved in a guilt-ridden re-enactment routine? Despite his demonstrations of humility, he still needs to prove whether he can live up to his chosen name. Papal musings on the significance of the Turin Shroud, broadcast on Italian television on Holy Saturday, will not suffice.

I’m not suggesting that the art world is equivalent to the Vatican, even though – with its loafers, elaborate liturgies, sermons and behind-the-scene power plays – it can sometimes feel like it. But the art world does share the Vatican’s taste for symbolic gestures and demonstrative acts of naming. Take, for example, the forthcoming Venice Biennale and, in particular, the German Pavilion. Transformed into a church at the last Biennale with the work of the late Christoph Schlingensief (a devoted, though decidedly unorthodox, Catholic), this year curator Susanne Gaensheimer and her French counterpart Christine Marcel have opted for a more secular act of re-dedication: the German and French Pavilions – which face each other in the Giardini – will swap.

I’m looking forward to the confusions that might occur with Anri Sala – who was born in Albania, is Paris-based, but has also lived in Berlin – showing in the demanding German Pavilion as France’s representative. (Is this Germany or France, and does it matter?) With Gaensheimer’s nomination of four artists, however, it’s even more complicated. Out of the four – the filmmaker Romuald Karmakar, the photographers Santu Mofokeng and Dayanita Singh, and artist and activist Ai Weiwei – Karmakar is the only one who is a resident of Germany. All of these are good artists and their nomination is obviously meant to send out a bold signal to go beyond self-referential chauvinism. But the question is how precisely this plays out: as an actual exhibition, and as a statement about national identities.

Though this is certainly the first time national pavilions in the Giardini have been swapped, in recent years a few countries have chosen foreigners to represent them: in 1993, for example, Andrea Fraser, who is American, and Christian Philipp Müller, who is Swiss, were selected for the Austrian Pavilion; in 2009, the British artist Liam Gillick was chosen to represent Germany; in 2011, Yael Bartana, who is Israeli, represented Poland; and, in the same year, Greek curator Katerina Gregos organized an international group show, ‘Speech Matters’, about freedom of speech for the Danish Pavilion. Aside from the obvious intention of deconstructing national stereotypes, one would hope that these choices reflect on the actual politics and realities of a respective country. ‘Speech Matters’, for example, touched on the neuralgic point of a nation that went through a crisis in the wake of the Muhammad cartoon controversy, and Bartana, amongst other issues, tackled Polish anti-Semitism.

Of the four artists nominated by Gaensheimer, only Karmakar has a history of in-depth engagement with German history. Why should Ai be so inclined to reflect upon Germany, when his main concern as a dissident in China is obviously to confront his own country’s political oppression and censorship? And what does that tell us about Germany’s highly restrictive policies on immigration and citizenship, or its economic interests in China, which are routinely flanked by a few warm words about ‘humanitarian’ causes? Perhaps Ai will tackle these issues, but the optimistic statement made in the German Pavilion’s press release – that ‘an art world in which the dialogue between cultural spheres has much greater influence than the impermeability of national borders’ – strikes a bitter note, considering that Ai is still forbidden to leave China. As the artists are expected – to quote again from the press release – ‘to expand our perspectives and give us access to the view of the other’, one starts to wonder who is supposed to play the ‘other’ to whose ‘self’.

What I find disconcerting is the way Gaensheimer’s nomination of the four artists covers ground: one artist is from South Africa, one from India, one from China, and one is French-Iranian, yet – despite their lack of relationship – they’ve all been thrown together, as if curating a national pavilion is akin to casting a pop group. It’s as though demonstrative transnationality should be about having delegates from different regions picked and arranged like flowers for a bouquet. These artists have been reduced to acting as representatives of a respective otherness, which seems ironic given that the intention, one would assume, is to transcend defining art by supposed geographical or ‘ethnic’ identities. This may provoke the artists to make great work confronting these very problems, but the nomination itself will still smack of guilt-ridden window-dressing, as if to say: ‘Look how tolerant and altruistic Germany has become!’

All of which brings me back to Pope Francis. I’m not trying to draw any direct parallels between his views and those of the curators of the German and French Pavilions this year. But there is a correlation between how nomination, naming and demonstrative acts of altruism can be deceptive, and deserve to be backed up by real, structural change. After all – to quote a phrase said to have originated with Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercian order – the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.