Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the opening ceremony of the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

10.05.2017 - Speech

Ms Pfeffer,
Ms Imhof,
Members of the German Bundestag,
My dear colleague, Ms Grütters,
Ms Seiler-Albring,
Mr Grätz,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to be able to be in Venice with you all today to open the German Pavilion at this year’s Art Biennale.

There are many people we should thank for making this opening ceremony possible by working so hard over the last few months.

First and foremost, Ms Pfeffer who curated the German Pavilion this year. And of course her colleagues, especially those working at the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations who are represented today by their President and Secretary General.

Countless helpers have worked hard for months in the planning and execution of this event. Thank you very much to all of you.

I would also like to extend our warmest thanks to our many sponsors, friends and partners. We at the Federal Foreign Office, as part of the Government, with the full support of our Parliament, have played our role, but it would simply not have been possible without our sponsors.

And of course I would like to give a special thanks to our artist. Thank you so much, Anne Imhof, that you put so much energy and creativity into this project and presented us with something so intriguing, thought-provoking and exciting.

Ladies and gentlemen,

You are certainly very intrigued to see what Ms Pfeffer and Ms Imhof will be presenting today after working so long and hard on this. A great deal has already been written about it, which is surely a good sign. So we are all waiting with bated breath to see what will be unveiled. I think we will be struck by the visual power and artistic depth that have been harnessed into the various elements of this work.

I will limit myself to just a few things that must be said about where we find ourselves.

We are standing today in front of the German Pavilion at the Giardini di Castello, an artistic focal point. A place that, if we take a step back, will allow us to take a break from our busy everyday lives.

However, despite its uniqueness, this place is not an isolated oasis. Far from it. The art we find here did not arrive vacuum-packed but is rooted in a real political context.

And this is reflected not just in Anne Imhof’s work but in all works that help us to better understand our society and its centres of power. Artists give us the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. For example, for those of us involved in politics, this can serve as a wake‑up call, remind us of things that we might not notice otherwise.

These echoes can be found in the building itself. A building that cannot hide the fact that it became a victim of National Socialist ideological zeal.

But this building no longer feels threatening today. Its massive columns are framed by Anne Imhof’s glass creation. And they stand on a base of more than seventy years’ freedom in Europe.

Yet the past still resonates in the building. It is part of this space that we are visiting and that we are interpreting in a new way in this performance. The claim to absolute truth made by a national or even nationalistic understanding of art can still be clearly seen in the imposing façade of this pavilion.

An understanding, or should I say a misguided understanding, based on the tenet that art must, above all, demonstrate our national superiority over the art forms of our neighbouring countries. An understanding of art that confines and excludes. Misplaced superiority and arrogance instead of dialogue, an exchange of ideas and open communication.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Such an understanding invites a narrow focus on the nation. It sets borders, first in our minds, but ultimately between individuals, societies and countries.

And we are experiencing a revival of such a mentality today. It is perhaps not so prevalent in our art, but it colours our society, public opinion and certainly also our politics. We can see that here in Europe, there is a tendency today to take the facile nationalistic approach and to attempt to find simple solutions to complex problems. Populists are throwing slogans about that would have us believe that individual states can recoup their lost glory by cutting themselves off from an interlinked Europe and a globalised world.

In my opinion, if we want to avoid such mistakes, we must ensure that our political, social and artistic horizons that Europe broadened after the Second World War do not shrink back to hem us into our own little nations.

We cannot find solutions by insisting there is only one right way for culture. Or that “our” cultural standards are better than “theirs”. Letting the majority decide on a narrow definition of culture is only one small step away from cultural ignorance or even intolerance. If we refer to individual countries as “cultural nations”, we are putting them in a false position of superiority. You cannot have a successful dialogue on culture if you start by taking provocative and narrow positions.

I must admit that my political understanding of the definition of culture is very straightforward: “Arts and sciences, research and teaching shall be free”. This is what it says in Article 5 of the German Basic Law, our constitution. I think that we Germans are lucky that we can have an open debate about our cultural identity. That is because we had parents and grandparents that had a good understanding of our cultural identity. This is reflected in the first 20 articles of our constitution. If you read it, you can see and understand everything you need to know about how to live in a sensible, peaceful and culturally open manner, not just within your own country but also in your relations with all other nations in the world. We should thank all those who drew the right conclusions from buildings such as this one.

Article 5 gives politics a clear mandate, i.e. we must not set limits to art. Our constitution clearly sets us a political mission to protect and support the freedom of art.

And it is a subject that artists also explore. It is not by chance that Anne Imhof challenges preconceived notions of borders and exclusions in her art, or that she is willing to work in difficult spaces such as the German Pavilion here in Venice.

Total freedom is needed to work with such artistic concepts. Christine Macel, curator of this year’s main art exhibition at the Biennale, stresses in her project description that “art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom and for fundamental questions”.

We follow this very approach in our cultural and education policy at the Federal Foreign Office.

And I am taking the opportunity to say this at the opening of our “national” Pavilion here in Venice. This Pavilion is no longer just a place to glorify our national art, just like our cultural and education policy no longer enshrines such an attitude.

It is much more than that – it is a place where we create and protect freedom. A space that teaches us about different narratives, reflects the stories, pictures and attitudes passed down the generations, and encourages us to talk about what has shaped us and what challenges we are facing in our societies. It is not a narrowing of vision to the national level, rather, it is an invitation to communicate openly and enter into a dialogue.

That is why I believe that Anne Imhof’s work will have a great effect on us here and now. From what I have seen of her work so far, she does not lay claim to creating “the right art” and she will not simplify a complex world for us. I am certain that she will instead challenge and provoke us, maybe even confront us with harsh realities; she will definitely encourage us to explore our freedom in this space and to discover the treasure enshrined in Article 5 of our constitution.

Once again – my sincere thanks to all who have been involved in the creation of this work.

And now I wish for us all – despite all these ruminations – to simply enjoy this amazing exhibition here in Venice.

Thank you!

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