The colour scheme inside the entrance to the German Pavilion never strayed from that of a Nazi banner. On a tall stretch of red wall, which operated like a screen to obscure the interior view, Hans Haacke had placed an enlarged black and white photograph of Adolf Hitler, taken at the time of his meeting Benito Mussolini in Venice in 1934 – his first ever state visit. Underneath the image, a simple text: ‘La Biennale di Venezia 1934’. As Germany’s Chancellor, Hitler had visited the Giardini to tour the Venice Biennale, just 16 days before The Night of the Long Knives: the murderous power grab that would set him on a path to becoming the supreme leader of the German people. Clearly locating him inside a gallery, surrounded by artworks, the photograph served as a reminder that Hitler had once stood on the same spot as you.
Above the main doorway on the pavilion’s exterior, Haacke had installed an outsized Deutsche Mark coin, picked out from its surroundings with a spotlight. Made from plastic, it nevertheless looked imposing. Both the photograph of Hitler, displayed just inside the main entrance, and the coin overhead were intended to recall events that would ultimately lead to the postwar division of Germany and its subsequent reunification, as signified by the date on the coin: 1990. Moreover, the Deutsche Mark was strategically placed in the same spot above the pavilion’s doorway where a swastika and eagle were installed during the Nazi era. The two key elements of Haacke’s display, that of Germany’s past and present – as embodied by a building that Hitler had ordered remodelled by Munich architect Ernst Haiger in 1938 – were now set.
Turning a corner, the interior immediately revealed itself as having been smashed to pieces, as though an almighty fist had pounded the floor time and time again. Dust seemed to hang in the air. Marble slabs, so clearly belonging to the fascist redesign, littered the central exhibition hall like shards of glass. Countless mental images were thrown up – scenes of endless destruction, ruination and obliterated cities. At first, the installation could be read as a triumph of a single artist over a Nazi edifice; then came the realization that a conflict ending in total war and the destruction of millions lay behind Haacke’s thinking. Some were reminded of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting The Sea of Ice (1823–24), an image of a shipwreck frozen in the jaws of jagged sheet ice. Where Friedrich may have courted associations with an Arctic Sublime, Haacke’s Germania extracted an exhilarating yet sobering experience from the resonant trauma encapsulated by the surrounding building – a building that had conspicuously remained unaltered since its redesign.
The main installation, while initially overwhelming, had an uncanny knack of inviting people to feel good about smashing the place up – that you were welcome to participate in the destruction of this otherwise austere environment seemed nothing short of miraculous. In amongst the controlled anarchy, Haacke also set in train a slow-burning anxiety about the future, stemming from the symbolism of the Deutsche Mark which, in 1990, would become the official currency of a unified Germany. As West Germany set out to absorb the former DDR in its own image, Haacke’s economic inference suggested a surrogate world order, where hard currencies crossed borders under cover of night. What might follow in the wake of reunification – a process that was still very much ongoing at the time of Haacke’s installation – remained uncertain, begging the question of how we might view the work with hindsight given the recent rise of nationalism. (There’s a connection to be made between the rubble in Haacke’s exhibition and the little hill on which the German Pavilion sits. Falling within the grounds of the Giardini, the hill was created as a result of the displaced rubble from the collapse of the city’s main bell tower, the Campanile in St Mark’s Square, in 1902. An unforeseen correlation, then, that the Campanile would be rebuilt exactly as it had been prior to its structural disintegration.) In the present-day, using Haacke’s exhibition as a model with which to resist the present, especially given a resurgent far right, it’s possible to see how this particular piece just keeps on working.
As a final twist, Germania was inscribed in elegant black letters across the curved back wall in the main space, echoing the exterior signage where ‘Germania’ had originally been chiselled into the frieze above the main portico. Whereas the delicate wording outside would have indicated the nationality of the pavilion to a local Italian audience, on the inside Haacke flipped its meaning, returning the word to the name given by Hitler to his gleaming citadel and failed plans for a new Berlin, which he referred to as Germania. This was, perhaps, Haacke’s ultimate coup – to use the German Pavilion to entomb Hitler’s legacy. To taunt the memory of the former artist-turned-dictator using the Venice Biennale – an international art exposition of the highest order, of which Hitler was fully cognisant in his lifetime. Furthermore, Haacke would re-orientate a pavilion that had been intentionally designed to serve as a projection of Nazi cultural policy and transform it into a mausoleum for the dead ideal. The word ‘Germania’ watching over an idealized order, presently being disrupted, vandalized and sacked by the public.
Sifting through documentation of that year’s pavilion reveals little of the immersive nature of Haacke’s installation. (It should also be mentioned that the artist shared the German Pavilion with Nam June Paik, whose video sculptures were exhibited both in the side galleries and outdoors.) Grainy photographs will never capture the sharp white light or the smell of the broken marble. Sadly, Germania remains stuck in that liminal space between the analogue and digital, that neglected period between the late 1980s and early ’90s, which results in online images popping up in various shades of depressing mushroom. Rarely do people appear in these photographs, which is absolutely not how the work should be remembered. Nor should it be forgotten how exciting it was to wobble over a jutting slab. Equally missing from the visual documentation is the sound of the piece; the space sporadically filled with ‘clunk-clunk’ as visitors rocked back and forth on large plates or kicked chunks of marble. It sounded like a building site, with people shakily making their way over the ruins and snapping tiles, razing everything to dust. To be inside that space was a liberating experience, eliciting a range of emotions, even an empathy for those who had just come out of their own political construct, such as the DDR or West Germany – or, for that matter, anyone coming to the end of any fabricated state.
In the run-up to the Venice Biennale, I imagine Haacke drew comparisons with his days spent as a student, working as an art handler and invigilator on documenta 2 in Kassel in 1959. (In his 1995 text ‘Gondola! Gondola!’, Haacke compares international art events such as the Venice Biennale with the ‘desire for a global love-in’.) Having been annihilated during the war, Kassel would become eager to reconstitute itself under its new cultural flagship.
In 2015, the Venice Biennale’s artistic director Okwui Enwezor underlined the significance of Germania, both within the setting of the 1993 biennial and, ultimately, his own. At the time of the Venice Biennale’s 120th anniversary, Enwezor would stress how Haacke was the first to use a national pavilion, not just as a gallery in which to place objects, but as a contested space – a site of true enquiry. Which is why Germania will always remain a touchstone for artists and curators alike, especially at a time when art has become increasingly imbued with an air of activism. What Haacke successfully achieved was to show how politically motivated art might intersect with an immersive experience that truly values its audience. Moreover, his ethical approach toward his chosen subject matter has become increasingly prescient, serving as a reminder of how we might tackle such thorny topics as post-truth, land rights, nationhood and colonization, to name but a few. Germania continues to offer readings that are by no means confined to 20th-century Germany history. It truly goes beyond.
First published in Issue 200