Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the German Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition “La Biennale di Venezia” in Venice

10.05.2019 - Speech

When you travel abroad as Foreign Minister to make a speech, people tell you beforehand that there’s a lot you can do wrong.

To begin with, there are lots of people who have to be greeted. A list of names, often foreign sounding, and titles like “His Excellency”, “Ambassador”, “Members of Parliament”.

Obviously, all strictly according to protocol.

And so even the start of a speech gives a few clues as to where and for what audience it is being delivered. And especially whose nose might be put out of joint.

After all, names reveal origins. Titles reveal where one belongs, one’s biography. These parameters create stability and also shape identity. On the one hand.

On the other hand, however, they also create something else: distinctions.

Identity often emerges from the distinctions we draw between ourselves and others – whether consciously or unconsciously.

Ladies and gentlemen,

What remains of a person if you take away the name, the title, the office?


Natascha Süder Happelmann, who is this year’s artist in the German Pavilion, rejects the idea of identity being defined in terms of origin or biography.

Ms Happelmann, allow me to take the liberty just now of describing you as a Budapest born, Munich based British woman from Tehran.

Ms Happelmann has decided to let her work take centre stage – something that cannot be said of many politicians. She feels that audiences should not be distracted by the artist’s biography. All attention should be focused on the art. That is why she deliberately changes her identity. And in doing so she relies on others. Her buzzword is collaboration. This reflects her conviction that things are better when they are the result of a collective effort. Mutual support and sociality are not by products of her art. Her art is an attempt to create trust.

Or, as her mouthpiece Helene Duldung summed it up: “Generally speaking, no one does anything on their own.”

It is also a matter of integration. Together with the curator, Franciska Zólyom, the artist Natascha Süder Happelmann considers the question of how new spaces can be opened up, new spaces where people can meet each other in a different way from usual. Free from discrimination through identity, free from hierarchies.

And where better to do that than here? The Biennale is exactly the right place.

President Baratta, please continue to use your ever so impressive energy and dedication to defend this free space. We will absolutely continue to support you to that end.

Opening up new spaces, and especially ensuring access to them, will be the central task of our cultural relations and education policy in the coming years. We need to create artistic, scientific and academic perspectives, especially for people from and in crisis regions.

That is why we have, for instance, launched grant programmes for persecuted scientists, academics and artists – such as the Philipp Schwartz Initiative and Martin Roth Initiative.

Because we must not look away when artistic freedom is under threat.

Think of Oleg Sentsov, or Jafar Panahi. But we don’t always have to think so far from home: even in our western societies, free space is shrinking wherever populists judge art and culture by whether it is useful or useless.

The social power of culture, of art – that is what we want to strengthen with our cultural relations and education policy, particularly in this day and age. Art is more than aesthetics. Art is society. And cultural policy is social policy.

That means opening up free space and future prospects for new interactions, while remembering that these spaces are not immune to outside influences. The future requires us to reflect and to remember the past.

This place is an excellent illustration of that. The German Pavilion was opened in 1909, 110 years ago. Back then it was called the Bavarian Pavilion.

I do not want to talk about what happened here less than 30 years later, when the German Pavilion was redesigned by the Nazis.

In other words, by those who used their concept of “German-ness” to shut out certain groups.

And who, in doing so, not only abused art and culture but also shattered the belief in Germany as a nation of culture and learning.

There are some in German politics again today who want to draw a distinction between our German identity and others; who are openly inciting against minorities; and who are incapable of seeing the beauty inherent in our diversity.

These same tendencies can be seen across Europe. Here in Italy, too, in Hungary, France and the UK, right wing populists and nationalists are buoyant.

In their view, identity is not an internal value. They are not trying to create cohesion. Rather, they want to use the issue of identity to shut people out. Not only metaphorically. But with walls and fences. Anyone who refuses to help seeking refuge here is betraying our values. And our identity.

The populists and nationalists are trying to tell us something else – especially now, three weeks before the European elections. Namely that the European Union wants to erase our national identities.

But one can, at the same time and without contradiction, be a proud citizen of Venice, of Italy and of Europe.

And after all, the great thing about our European identity is that it does not divide. Rather, it unites us in all our diversity.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This reminds me somehow of a song by Daft Punk, a French house duo. To hide their identities, they always appear in futuristic robot masks. The song goes:

“We are human after all. Much in common after all.”

Ultimately, only one thing will help shield against nationalism and isolation: travelling the world, opening one’s eyes to other cultures and thus discovering our shared humanity.

Art is the key here. And the Biennale places this key in our hand.

Thank you very much.


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