Isa Genzken has already awarded herself an Oscar. But will she win the Golden Bear for the best pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year? A small brass plate, with "Best Film 2007" decorates a pedestal with a 40-centimeter-high Oscar trophy. This is just one of the many small details from her installation "Oil" which fills the large exhibition space and small side chambers in the Germany Pavilion, redesigned by the Nazis in 1938.
The 59-year-old Genzken, who describes herself as a sculptor, is shy and tends to hide behind her work. She is Germany's official representative at the 52nd Biennale in Venice, which starts this weekend. For the "Oil" installation she delved once again into her bag of tricks, one that includes trash, space-age glamor, decorative surfaces and everyday objects.
A mirrored wall prevents immediate entry into the interior of the pavilion. Once inside, visitors find a collection of different types of boxes: trolleys, suitcases, first aid boxes, and toolboxes. All of them are absurdly decorated with a variety of objects: from guitars to water pipes, Rembrandt placards and kitsch posters of dogs and cats. Stuffed owls enthrone pieces of luggage in symbolic and surreal ways. Only one item, a simple red hard-cover case, is not decorated. One thing is certain: Isa Genzken is not interested in banal decoration.
Visitors can take their time to mull over the idea that an unattended piece of luggage can mutate into an explosive weapon. And with this thought suddenly the potential meaning of all the other objects starts to gradually unfold. What is the idea behind the hangman's ropes that are dangling from the ceiling, from which stuffed animals and rubber reptiles rotate? Perhaps the execution of Saddam Hussein and his followers? But of course that is never explicitly stated. itt would be too obvious and Genzken is just a bit more subtle than that.
Genzken has placed terrifying rubber masks with protruding eyes on columns, which makes them look like trophies. And she has covered them with kitsch decorative masks from the Venetian Carnival, ones that can be picked up in any tourist shop: an obvious comment by someone who has distanced herself from the world of consumerism, souvenir shops and cheap leisure activities.
But she is also making a comment about the current policies of the United States. Astronaut suits -- once a symbol of the invulnerable superpower -- hang like flabby shells from the 12-meter-high ceiling.
Genzken's world is as bizarre as it is calculated. She uses stainless steel, Plexiglas and silver foil to create a world full of allusions to the dubious temptations of the consumer world and the destructive power of global power politics in the age of the slowly dwindling natural resources. The title "Oil" is no accident.
Only 25 visitors are allowed into the German Pavilion at any one time. The building is almost unrecognizable, covered in a scaffolding of orange mesh that is used on Italian building sites. It is a way to create long queues and and show just how much in demand you are.
Sex, Desire and Female Sensitivity
France and Great Britain have the pavilions next door to Germany's, and the two countries are also sending established artists to this year's Biennale. Tracey Emin, 44, once the female figurehead of the Young British Artists (YBA), became famous for exhibiting unmade beds and sticking the names of her former lovers onto a wool blanket. In the British Pavilion her art has an almost museum-like noble quality, with framed drawings and early water colors neatly exhibited in a row. The one time "Bad Girl" has become an established artist. But Emin's themes are the same as ever: sex, desire, the war of the genders and traumatic abortion experiences.
Sophie Calle, born in 1953, tells a very French tale in the pavilion next door. What happens when a woman receives a letter from a man who wants to break up with her? The role is taken on by 107 French women, some very famous, who react in very different ways to the fictitious proclamation "It's over!" What emerges is a visually diverse album full of emotion, questioning, grief, violability, pride, and melancholy. Video projections, texts and photos add to a panoptic of female sensitivity. This is exactly in tune with Rober Storr's motto for this year's Biennale "Think with the senses -- Feel with the mind."
Club of the Dead Artists
Storr, a New York curator and art critic, is this year's artistic director and, as well as curating an exhibition at the Arsenale, he is also in charge of an international pavilion. The art here is wonderfully political, accusatory and global. The show begins with 81-year-old American artist Nancy Spero's 2007 work "Maypole/Take No Prisoners." Colorful ribbons of material hang from a white aluminum pole, on which bloody heads of screaming men and women dangle.
Jenny Holzer, 57, is known for her light projections and LED treadmills, with aphorisms and political and feminist phrases. For her Biennale work she managed to find the National Security Archive (NSA) autopsy reports and fingerprints of prisoners in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq, who died in unclear circumstances.
Transformed into large oil paintings to make them more accessible to a wider public, this work is an obvious denunciation of the American actions in the war on terror. The print of one hand where the top finger joints are missing both disturbs and admonishes. The biggest critics of the US policies are perhaps the Americans themselves.
But Storr has contrasted the work of his fellow Americans with art from completely different worlds. The work by the man Storr describes as the "African Andy Warhol," Congolese painter Cheri Samba, combine popular, colorful painting with a striking, anti-Western message about Sept. 11 and the AIDS problem in Africa.
By passing through a glittering curtain of pearls by the American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of AIDS in 1996, one enters the Club of the Dead Artists. The chapel-like space includes the work of the German icon Martin Kippenberger, as well as the threads of wool stretched over a corner by the American conceptual artist Fred Sandback. Opposite are wall drawings in pencil by late minimal artist Sol LeWitt. In the next room, there are current works by the big living legends of post-war art: Gerhard Richter, Bruce Naumann, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Ryman.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a curators' favorite for years, is also being honored posthumously in the American Pavilion. His offset print series of posters with melancholy clouds or black borders can be viewed alongside over 360 liquorice sweets that are spread across a giant rectangle on the floor.
Even if many critics have called for the national character of the exhibition to be dumped, it is this national competition, with 31 entries this year, that has formed the core of the Biennale since its inauguration in 1895.
This is where there is the most pushing and shoving on opening day. And it is where the thickest catalogues are handed out and the most important purchasing decisions are made ahead of Art Basel, which starts next Tuesday. Nevertheless, outside of the competition there are now 76 national or transnational projects in the various palazzos, workshops or factory halls spread across Venice. A new record, and one that shows just how international the art business has become.