Auschwitz at the Biennale: Polish Curator Lights a Fire under Berlin Art Scene

By Ulrike Knöfel

Part 2: 'Forget Fear'

Unlike other artists, he isn't interested in reflection, or in the idea of reality as a theoretical construct. He cares about real life.

And this is what real life looks like for him. Residents of a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank have built a giant key. It is a symbol of the return to Israel, their homeland, which remains off-limits to them. An artist born in Sarajevo is building a peace wall in Kreuzberg, a Berlin neighborhood where a bitter fight has been underway for years to protect the district's less affluent from being forced out by gentrification.

A Belarusian artist is publishing a newspaper in which she reports on the dictatorship in her country. An Israeli artist is hosting a conference on the subject of reviving a Jewish community in Poland. And a Hungarian curator wants to expedite the completion of the planned Berlin memorial to the Sinti and Roma murdered by the Nazis, which has been beset by delays. She is a member of this minority herself.

Breaking the Vicious Circle

Years ago, Zmijewski published a manifesto called "The Applied Social Arts." Now a book of interviews, titled "Forget Fear," has appeared to coincide with the Biennale. For Zmijewski, art, or rather the type of art he doesn't like, is a collection of mere ideas, a "vicious circle of creative omnipotence." Zmijewski wants to break the circle, and he wants powerful works. He also wants a public that is willing to be politicized. In return, for the first time in the history of the festival, entry to the Biennale will be free of charge.

Much of this sounds like yesterday's utopias, like the 1920s. Indeed, Zmijewski, though only 45, seems a little old-fashioned, and not as blasé as artists usually are. The impatience with which he reacts to questions and criticism is real.

Zmijewski grew up in the politically frozen climate of the Eastern Bloc, and he says that as a schoolboy he suffered greatly in the atmosphere of oppression. Later, he says, he had the feeling that he was finally being allowed to help shape reality, but he also realized that effective tools, political or artistic, are needed to do so.

His tools became the violation of taboos and deliberate tastelessness: deaf young people who sing a Bach cantata with great joy but completely off-key; a former concentration camp inmate who he convinced to have the faded number on his lower arm re-tattooed; and the group of naked people who he filmed playing tag in a gas chamber. "None of us are finished with history yet," he says. The Germans, he says, have developed a very touristic approach to commemorating the past, which he mistrusts.

Picking Fights

Sometimes it seems as if he were picking a fight merely to get attention. At the beginning of the year, one of his artists, Czech native Martin Zet, announced that he planned to collect 60,000 copies of Thilo Sarrazin's best-selling anti-Muslim polemic "Germany Does Itself In", work them into an installation and then "recycle" them. The project was sharply criticized in newspapers and in the art world, because of its alleged similarities to Nazi book-burning. Some of the accusations were exaggerated. But why would someone even want to add fuel to a debate in which all the arguments have already been exhausted a long time ago?

But wait, says Zmijewski. Is a foreign artist not allowed to conduct a discussion about this book in his own way, just because the Germans have already done it in their way? Is it appropriate that copies of Sarrazin's book are still available and are still turning a profit for the publishing house?

Artist Zet had set up collection points in the art associations of major German cities. But only a handful of copies, and one copy of the Koran, were dropped off. At the Biennale, Zet has created a sculpture in a room -- the donated books are pressed against the wall with a metal rod -- and will show a documentary about the dispute.

Zmijewski says that his Biennale, like its predecessors, will also look like an art exhibition. People shouldn't have false expectations, he says. But that's precisely the trick. Many of the people he has invited are not artists at all, or they hardly see themselves as such anymore. Zmijewski is using them to occupy the art world.

He shows the art world that it is superfluous. He shows it with each work, such as the head of Christ by the Polish sculptor Miroslaw Patecki, a work that wants to be art and yet, in this environment, merely serves to illustrate the ridiculous and anachronistic nature of art. Zmijewski and his allies are behaving in more polemical and penetrating ways that the art scene is accustomed to. But this is exactly what the art scene, with its love of scandal, wanted.

One could also say that Zmijewski is declaring war on the art world, at its own request. The art world, which alternates between self-love and self-hate, will be only too glad to accept this.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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