Nine months ago, Franciska Zólyom, the director of the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst (Museum for Contemporary Art) Leipzig, was appointed curator of the German pavilion for next year’s 58th Venice Biennale. Ever since, rumours have circulated about who she would invite. Yesterday the secret was birthed. The announcement was made neither by the pavilion’s press officer, nor by Zólyom but by Helene Duldung, the artist's own spokeswoman: ‘The artist chosen for the presentation at the German Pavilion at the Biennale di Venezia 2019 is …. Natascha Süder Happelmann.’ No one had heard of the artist and she herself didn’t say a word, her head was hidden under a stone made of papier-maché.
Natascha Süder Happelmann is an intentional misspelling of Natascha Sadr Haghighian and those familiar with the artist’s work would have seen this coming. Trying to find definitive biographical detail on the artist is a fool’s errand. Press releases, the websites of her galleries and even Wikipedia state different things: Sadr Haghighian was possibly born in various cities around the world, possibly in different years. She lives and works either in Berlin, Kassel, Gutersloh, Santa Monica in the US or the Cotswolds in the UK. This tactic of assuming multiple identities – she releases a different CV for each show she participates in – goes back to the biography exchange platform the artist initiated in 2004, www.bioswap.net. Here, artists and other cultural workers can exchange CVs in order to release their résumés from their representative roles – aiming to ‘devaluate the notion of CVs altogether’ as Martin Herbert wrote in his 2013 feature on the artist published in frieze d/e. Facts and identities shift; given identities can be given away.
It is important to note that Natascha Süder Happelmann is not a pseudonym – such as Lutz Bacher, for example – but an adaption. While pseudonyms are used to avoid revealing one’s real identity, Süder Happelmann wants her name to be traced back to her real one. For this purpose, the artist evaluated collected misspellings and autocorrects of her name with which she had been addressed over the past 30 years and selected Natascha Süder Happelman to be ‘the proper name for this important task’ as her spokeswoman Duldung explained. In order to represent Germany at one of the most important exhibitions in the world, the artist considered it necessary to ‘integrate’ by using a more German-sounding with umlauts and ‘-mann’ suffix to her surname. It recalls the website of the Korean-born, Berlin-based artist Haegue Yang which is also a German adaptation of her name: www.heikejung.de. But for Sadr Haghighian, this adaptation reveals more than it seems at first glance.
But adopting the new name, Natascha Süder Happelmann makes a serious point about immigration, assimilation and identity, in Germany and elsewhere. Referencing the practice of migrants adapting their given names from their mother tongue to the national language to integrate, the pseudonym of the artist’s spokeswoman Helene Duldung makes further reference to the increasingly tense political climate in Germany and Europe with regard to migration: ‘Duldung’ translates as tolerance in English.
That the press conference was held in the German Historical Museum, which was originally an artillery arsenal, may be another indication of what we might expect from the artist in Venice. In 1875 the building was turned into a military museum and in 1943 it was at an exhibition opening at the museum where Rudolf von Gersdorrf attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Looking back at the work of Sadr Haghighian it’s obvious that this particular location is no coincidence. For her sound sculpture pssst Leopard 2A7+ (2013) installed at Johann König, Berlin, for example, the artist investigated the Leopard 2A7 main battle tank manufactured by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and included an archive of material on German arms exports and state-sanctioned forms of violence.
Any artist invited to occupy the German Pavilion can hardly escape its history: in 1993 Hans Haacke tore out the floor that Hitler and Mussolini had walked on; in 2007 Isa Genzken covered the house with scaffolding to negate its fascist architecture. Given Sadr Haghighian’s previous installations it must be reasonable to assume that engaging with the structure itself will be on her agenda. We’ll find out in seven months time.
Main image: Natascha Süder Happelmann (right), and her spokeswoman Helene Duldung (left), in front of the Federal Foreign Office, Berlin, 2018; photograph: Jasper Kettner