They sat on tree trunks at the entrance to the Giardini as Eastern Church stylites did once on pillars. Instead of practicing asceticism in the name of religion, they showed their fear. A fear they didn't want to give to anyone. Christoph Schlingensief, enfant terrible of a global stage that extended its feelers into the art world, positioned them here in 2003, on the occasion of the 50th Venice Art Biennial. Those sitting there were more than just people atop pillars, they were "pillar saints" of a new church. For at one end of the sprawling site of the former Venetian navy arsenal, in the middle of the equally chaotic and lively "Utopia Station", Schlingensief installed a small wooden church similar to those found in rural communities in Africa or America. He called it the "Church of Fear". And under the motto "We no longer believe anything/We have lost our faith", he went out in search of that universally-lost foothold.
The question of whether, when and how Schlingensief, even after his death, has become a stylite of a politics of fear or fearlessness may be answered in the German Pavilion at the 54th Art Biennial, which will officially open its doors to the public on June 4. Somewhere between homage, monument, remembrance and transfiguration. Others take different paths. Beyond Africa, sometimes more, sometimes less theatrical.
Among the other artists, Thomas Hirschhorn is looking to transform the Swiss Pavilion into a "Crystal of Resistance", Markus Schinwald wants to make the Austrian Pavilion a claustrophobic labyrinth. In the Polish Pavilion, Israeli artist Yael Bartana will explore anti-Semitism in Poland, in the Russian the philosopher and curator Boris Groys will stage a retrospective of "Moscow Romantic Conceptualism", and in front of the US Pavilion, the Cuban-American artist duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla is set to transform a tank into a training machine for professional track-and-field athletes. And in her show "ILLUMinazioni – ILLUMinations", Bice Curiger, Biennial Director, seeks to question contemporary art regarding its value, which must be defended.
We will see what transpires. Yet what is already clear is that art has become popular. It spreads out its sometimes serious, sometimes ironic, sometimes lighthearted games and bulky installations against wide horizons. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for reports on whether the artists at the Biennial look at the state of the world with great fear or great confidence and hope, whether we should show resistance or outrage, whether form, or even beauty plays a role, whether enlightenment or rather transfiguration are key themes.