Welcome

Speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth on the occasion of the opening of the German pavilion at the 56th Biennale di Venezia

07.05.2015 - Speech

-- translation of advance text --

Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren, Ladies and Gentlemen,

herzlich willkommen zur Eröffnung des Deutschen Pavillons auf der diesjährigen Kunstbiennale in Venedig.

I’m glad to be here as a representative of the Federal Government to open the German pavilion. For me, this is a great honor – and a true premiere.

I am an enthusiastic fan of culture and an admirer of artists. I would have loved to become an artist but unfortunately I lacked the talent. So instead I chose to become a politician!

But still art remains an important source of inspiration, encouragement and creativity for my political life. It is always a pleasure for me to meet film directors, photographers, actors, authors, musicians or painters in order to exchange views with them.

This morning I had the great privilege of getting a sneak preview of the German pavilion. I was truly impressed by what I saw. Inspired by Florian Ebner and thanks to the great talent of the artists involved, the pavilion takes us on a journey through the political and material nature of images in our digital world.

Globalization and digitalization not only offer opportunities and openness worldwide but can also lead to suppression and surveillance. The German contribution has set itself the task of reflecting these different trends and looking at them from different perspectives.

This idea is absolutely up-to-date. There is no doubt: the world that we live in has changed dramatically over the past few years. Crisis mode has become the new norm. And digitalization and the rise of social media have changed the way we perceive these changes and how we react to them.

Digitalization and quick image transmission mean that the conflicts of Europe and of the rest of the world are brought to our attention much faster and more directly than in the past. Thanks to social media channels – notably Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram – we are confronted almost in real time with unfiltered images of natural disasters, civil wars and human tragedies.

These images are brought directly to our TV screens, computers, tablets and smartphones. Just one click away – there is almost no possibility of looking away. The horrible images of the dead after the earthquake in Nepal, of drowning refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, of the victims of the civil war in Syria – to cite just a few examples – are all too familiar to all of us.

So what does this mean for politics and democracy in Europe and on the global stage?

All this affects the way politics must deal with events. What is expected from us politicians is an immediate response. We must decide, take measures, even send troops. Instantly. We cannot ignore the unmistakable calls that are reaching us from all directions: “Do something! Stop the war! Stop the suffering!” But where is the room for careful thought and consideration? Where is the time to step back and look at the whole picture from a distance?

This trend also has another dimension:

I am convinced that the rise of social media plays an important role in strengthening civil society. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram enable citizens to easily and efficiently organize grass-root protest – if necessary out of the reach of governments and those who they wish to protest against.

Protestors can send their uncensored messages and images directly to the world and to our screens. These new modes of organization empower civil society and therefore make democracy stronger and more vivid.

This has been recognized by the world’s powerful, including undemocratic and authoritarian regimes who regard social media as a threat. In the past, books were burned and artworks were confiscated when a regime felt challenged. Today, when autocrats feel threatened, they attempt to shut down Twitter and Facebook.

What do these developments mean for culture and art?

In order to find solutions we need to enhance our understanding of the world. And this is where I see an important role for culture and artists. Artists can help us see beyond the surface and change our perspective.

It is a truly cultural task to improve our understanding of different positions, to help us understand foreign ways of life, to force us to confront our own contradictions and question our political choices.

In the words of the great French visual artist Annette Messager: “An artist doesn’t create anything but is there to sort out, to show, to point out what already exists, to put it into form and sometimes reformulate it.”

Art should not only aim at being decorative and pleasant. Art should intervene and provide a basis for reflection on the great questions of life and the state of the world. The German pavilion is a perfect illustration of this ambitious approach.

As a simple politician, I do not expect favors from artists. Instead, I would like them to have the courage and the creativity to intervene confidently in our debates, to raise critical questions and to formulate expectations.

I think that the composition of the German pavilion has accomplished this most impressively and innovatively:

Olaf Nicolai, who takes a critical look at the mechanisms of the shadow economy in a globalized world,

Hito Steyerl who visualizes through her video-installation the deadly potential of the internet,

Tobias Zielony who deals with the destiny of African refugees, one of the great political questions currently faced by Europe,

Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk who, through their video- and sound-installation, protest against neoliberalism, humiliation and despotism in Egypt.

I would like to thank curator Florian Ebner and the artists Jasmina Metwaly, Philip Rizk, Olaf Nicolai, Hito Steyerl and Topbia Zielony for their exciting and moving contributions to the German Pavilion.

My thanks go also to the entire team of the German Pavilion, the Institute for Foreign Affairs (ifa), the sponsors, supporters and partners like the Cultural fund of the German Sparkassen- and Giro-Association, the Krupp foundation, the RWE foundation and the Mercator foundation as well as the ifa friends of the German Pavilion and the Museum Folkwang in Essen.

I am delighted that, thanks to the Federal Foreign Office’s long-standing support of the German Pavilion, we can contribute to the success of the Venice Biennale.

The French photographer and street artist JR once said: “Art can change the way we see the world.”

So let’s question traditional points of view. Let’s stop and reflect for a moment. Let’s gain new insights and continue to be curious.

The organizers and artists of the Biennale give us the strength and inspiration to do so, thank you for this!

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