Liam Gillick, the British artist representing Germany, outlines the challenges of working in a “problematic Fascist building”
By Louisa Buck. Published online: 29 May 2009
One of the more surprising decisions of the 53rd Venice Biennale has been the selection of Liam Gillick, an English artist based in London and New York, to occupy the German pavilion. However, this apparent challenge to national sensibilities seems to have attracted a surprisingly sanguine response. Apart from a few dissenting voices—such as that of Walter Bornsen, culture spokesman for the Christian Democrat parliamentary party who in May last year condemned the decision as “quite simply wrong…national pavilions are a showcase for the creative output of their countries and Gillick doesn’t have any significant relationship to our country”—there have been few objections raised. And let’s not forget that Gillick is not the first non-German national to occupy the German Pavilion: in 1993 Korean born Nam June Paik not only showed in the German Pavilion but he also won the Golden Lion.
For his part, Gillick considers himself to be “a foreigner but not a stranger” and he doesn’t consider his selection to be a statement about otherness. “There could have been a more didactic political point made about difference and foreignness by inviting, say, a Turkish collective,” he says. “I have worked a lot in Germany in the last 20 years, it’s where I’ve done most shows and the critical context has been very central to how I’ve developed. I think that I am symbolic of a certain generation of artists who have worked comfortably in a post-Shengen Agreement [European borderless zone] Europe.”
The selection of Gillick was made by Nicolaus Schafhausen, the Düsseldorf-born German Pavilion curator and director at Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. Unlike other countries, Germany has no committee system for choosing its national representative and sole responsibility lies with the curator, who is appointed by the Federal Foreign Office. Mr Schafhausen, who also chose Isa Genzken to occupy the German Pavilion at the last Biennale, has a long association with Gillick: according to the Witte de With website the two have had “a continuous dialogue since the end of the 1980s” and he curated Gillick’s mid-career retrospective at Witte de With last year. “Our relationship has always been based on a degree of proximity mixed up with the fact that he tries to put me in tricky situations that reflect back on him in a complicated way,” states Gillick.
So how is Gillick rising to the challenge of the German pavilion? “I made the decision fairly early on not to cover it up, not to turn it into anything else, to paint it purple or to knock it down,” he says. “You will be able to see the building clearly.” The main problem, it seems, is not the building’s history but its form. “It’s one of many problematic Fascist buildings I’ve shown in, but the problem is that it is a renovated version of the Bavarian Pavilion and they kept its basic shape, which is rather church-like and extremely difficult for me to function in.”
Although his investigations have included unearthing unrealised designs made in 1958 for a “rather modest” new building, Gillick is not revealing much of his own plans for the pavilion. And he has devised an effective strategy to keep the pavilion’s contents a secret: “I’ve decided to decide a lot of things at the last minute; it’s a bit like a bad spy movie where you can’t tell the enemy the secrets because you don’t know them yourself.”
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