Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the opening of the Deutschland 8 exhibition in Beijing

17.09.2017 - Speech

Professor Fan Dian,
Professor Smerling,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour and pleasure for me to open the Deutschland 8 exhibition here with you in this special place, in what was once the Forbidden City, against the backdrop of the magnificent Taimiao, the Imperial Ancestral Temple.

In particular, I would like to thank the Chinese Government, but also the exhibition organisers and the sponsors, for giving us the opportunity to open the doors to contemporary art and cultural dialogue in this formerly closed city. I think this is a beautiful symbol. China’s economy has been opening up for years. And the country also has great political responsibility in the world. As regards a cultural opening, there is no better place than here in the Forbidden City.

Even in Germany itself, there is nothing like the Deutschland 8 exhibition in China.

Nowhere in the world, including our homeland, will you find so much contemporary art concentrated in one place and over a long period, an exhibition that features all the artists who have made contemporary art from Germany internationally renowned.

Deutschland 8 is the latest response in this cultural dialogue between Germany and China. It ties in directly with the China 8 exhibition, the first major contemporary Chinese art show in Germany, which was held two years ago in eight different locations in Land North Rhine‑Westphalia. At the time, I also had the honour to be invited by Professor Smerling to open the exhibition. I still have a vivid memory of the ceremony at Duisburg Inner Harbour, in what you might say is our ancestral gallery – the steel town of Duisburg in Germany’s industrial heartland. And the fact that the ceremony took place in Duisburg, at the Inner Harbour, was also a special symbol of the new Silk Road, which the Chinese President had inaugurated just a short time before with the arrival of the first freight train from China in Duisburg.

And now pictures and contemporary art have made their way in the opposite direction from Duisburg to Beijing via the new Silk Road. China 8 was a great success in Germany. At the time, it was the largest exhibition of contemporary Chinese art ever shown in museums abroad. Almost 120,000 people visited the exhibitions in eight different locations in Germany’s industrial heartland. That figure is perhaps not particularly impressive in China compared with the size of the country’s population. I’m not sure if 120,000 people count as a city or a village here. But in Germany, this number of visitors was really extraordinarily high. And what makes me even happier is that the exhibition attracted a particularly large number of young people. Almost 40 percent of the visitors were aged under 35 – proof that the exhibition whetted people’s interest in China. And nothing is more important than interest in one another.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am confident that Deutschland 8 will prove popular in Beijing and that many people will take part in the dialogue. And I can also promise you that the exhibition truly shows the best that Germany has to offer in terms of contemporary art. In fact, a German art expert recently spoke to me about the exhibition in China and told me he would have to travel to Beijing simply to see it, as he could not see an exhibition of this kind in just one place in Germany.

However, I also see this exhibition project as a symbol of the constantly developing relations between China and Germany and the opening of new fields for direct communication and exchange. As you know, there is a huge amount of trade between Germany and China. Many people envy us for this. I think there is interest on both the Chinese and German side in developing these trade relations further, particularly at a time when new walls are being built in international trade or some people want to replace free world trade with protectionism. We also have a political dialogue that not only takes place at regular intervals, but also in a spirit of mutual trust. However, we do not want to leave it at that, as bilateral relations thrive on contacts between people from our two societies, not only between politicians, diplomats and business people. We launched the People‑to‑People Dialogue in May – a start that is likely to lead to many positive developments. Our relations will become even closer when young people learn more about the other country through exchanges and visits and when people have the opportunity to be impressed or inspired by the other country’s art or culture. That is how we see a living partnership. However, this type of partnership requires not only dedicated people, but also the right sort of policies. Above all, we need mutual openness and interest. But this openness and interest also mean that we need to confront our different – and sometimes conflicting – ideas, mentalities and values. We need to do so as equals who constantly endeavour to understand why the other person sees the world differently to us. We need to be open to what unites us, but also to be aware of differences and to learn how to deal with them. And of course we know that this sometimes causes problems. I have not forgotten the debate about the exhibition on the Enlightenment here in Beijing organised by Martin Roth, who sadly died far too young. Art can really serve as a good example for us. At times, it can be unsettling. It can hold up a mirror to society and politics – and indeed sometimes it must do so. In this role in particular, art does something important that only it can do. It can help to express the ineffable. It can help to reveal contradictions so that a society can be perceived in its entirety. It can help to make nuances visible and sometimes it also forces us politicians to change our perspective rather than looking at things in the same old way in the daily grind.

Dealing with art and culture forces us to change our point of view. And to do so, there must be freedom. Freedom of the arts and culture is the main requirement for their development. Art and culture foster exchange in society, but do not bow down to policymakers. That is why I am pleased that artistic and societal exchange is also continuing to grow between China and Germany.

What role do policymakers play in this? In my opinion, they should create the conditions whereby artistic and societal exchange is made possible and easier and the threshold for all those who want to get involved in cultural dialogue is as low as possible. And naturally, we also need to promote youth exchange and language training. By the way, it is amazing how many young people in Germany are learning Chinese at school or want to study it later at university. I think that is a very good sign for our future. We policymakers have a role to play here. And we are keen to do so. I think the fact that the Federal Foreign Office in Germany currently spends close to a billion euros on cultural relations and education policy is a good investment in our mutual peaceful future. We promote and initiate such projects, but of course we also need civil society, dedicated artists and people like Walter Smerling. In his case, I always have the impression that if a project sounds particularly utopian, you can be sure he will make it happen.

I also have the impression that cultural and societal contacts are most effective and authentic when they are not only steered by the state. I think Deutschland 8 is the best example of this, as it was non‑state actors who were particularly active in organising it. In particular, I would like to thank Professor Fan Dian, President of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and of course Professor Walter Smerling, Chairman of the Foundation for Art and Culture, whom I have already mentioned. This exhibition would not have come about without these two individuals and their personal commitment and conviction that what seems impossible can be made possible.

I would also like to thank the directors of the seven venues where the exhibition is being shown and naturally the guardian of this wonderful temple. However, the important non‑state actors also include the German and Chinese companies that made a vital contribution to funding the exhibition. I am particularly grateful to them. It would not have been possible to finance the exhibition without these companies from Germany and China. And in particular, I would like to thank the Chinese Government for making this project possible.

Ladies and gentlemen, sometimes it is enough to have one or two interpreters for an hour’s dialogue. But apparently, that was not enough for the organisers of Deutschland 8, as they have brought interpreters for 55 artists and 320 works of art as ambassadors and interpreters of cultural dialogue to Beijing. I thus hope there will be a particularly high level of understanding here. I also hope that all of us will enjoy a highly successful Deutschland 8 exhibition. And I am curious about what idea Professor Smerling will come up with next to foster cultural exchange between Germany and China.

Thank you very much.

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