Under/Current Magazine: Bienalle di Venezia2011, Church of Fear

Getting a little reminiscent about the Venice Bienalle… it was so fun! Exactly one year till the next…

I wrote this article last year, originally published in Under/Current magazine. Pictures by Jackson D Ferguson

The international participations at the 54th Venice Biennale were as strikingly unusual as they were diverse. A real car crash (minus casualties) was plonked in the Hungarian Pavilion alongside a bizarre accompanying opera, whilst in the Great Britain Pavilion viewers wondered through an almost Stanislavskian reproduction of an entire abandoned Istanbul building – from corrugated bricks plastered over the existing structure, right down to stamped out Turkish fag butts.

The latter, created by Mike Nelson, was profound not only in his craftsmanship, but also in the eerie ‘secret hideout’ atmosphere and disorientation it evoked. A couple of buildings away from this intense artwork was, in contrast, the vibrant, kooky Korean Pavilion by Lee Yongbaek. In this playful exhibition, friendly ‘angel soldiers’ in flowery uniforms pottered about, camouflaged into a matching flowery background.

Despite all these weird and wonderful participations, it was Germany that best impressed the 2011 Biennale judging panel. The late Christoph Schlingensief, who passed away last summer from lung cancer, deservedly scooped the Golden Lion for best National Participation with a collection of his works, entitled ‘Church of Fear vs the Alien Inside’. On speaking to The Art Newspaper, the curator Susanne Gaensheimer revealed that Schlingensief – who died before the work was completed – was invited to shake up the German Pavilion which had in recent years “reached an endpoint”. The exciting multidisciplinary art did just this with a bold gothic swipe at politics and culture, whilst drawing a parallel with the artist’s own illness and impending death.

While Nelson occupied the British Pavilion with an entire structural replica, Gaensheimer, along with Schlingensief’s wife Annie Laberenz, took the decision to convert the whole German Pavilion into a church. On stepping out of the blazing Venetian sunshine, viewers sat within the cool wooden benches looking up at the altar and stained glass windows. Yet in contrast to the sanctified interior, disturbing black and white projections flashed across the building and onto a centralised screen which hung above the alter, just over a suspended Masonic ring of lights. Occult-like imagery from a selection of Schlingensief’s films, such as bats being fingered and processions led by humans in animal heads, flickered across the screens. These excerpts were taken from the artist’s penultimate film, United Trash, as well as his Germany trilogy of 100 Jahre Adolf Hitler, The German Chainsaw Massacre, and Terror 2000. In acknowledging the background circumstances, the setting almost felt like a funeral for the art.

Aside from its obvious spiritual exploration, the piece seemed to be preoccupied with modern-day conspiracy theories. Perhaps the most blunt and slightly amusing example of this was the video projection of a small, sinister pope in a dingy guided through a lily pond by businessmen, hinting at corporate corruption and the Vatican, and encircled within the band of lights.

The poignancy of the artwork’s heritage shouldn’t be overlooked. Germany is the birthplace of modern occultism and the place where the Nazis are said in other conspiracy theories to have been followers of such movements with Hitler as the ‘Messiah’. Above the entrance to the pavilion, EGO is angrily scrawled in black graffiti over the GER in ‘Germania’. It is plausible that this, along with the other dark social and political references, relate to ‘the alien inside’, the cancerous amalgamation and decay that was taking place inside the artist himself. Sources tell me there was grumbling amongst other pavilions that Schlingensief was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion, with one country even alleging Germany had paid off the panel and had unoriginally delved into religious themes. However, upon conceptual dissection, one can see this pavilion not only had great scope, but was a brave and edgy surprise in what is often described as a ‘bourgeois’ affair.

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