Venice/Biennale 56: A Conversation in situ. Part 1: The Austrian Pavilion (Heimo Zobernig)

Markus Klammer, Stefan Neuner, Niels Olsen, Pathmini Ukwattage
56th Venice Biennale, 12.08.2015

zobernigFig. 1

Upon the invitation of the Salon Suisse 2015 which accompanies the 56th Venice Art Biennale with the program S.O.S. DADA – The World Is A Mess the editors of Terpentin together with Markus Klammer travelled to the lagoon city. The exhibition was the subject of a panel discussion we held on 4 June 2015 at the Palazzo Trevisan. In the following we publish the conversation we had in front of the art works during a walk through the Giardini on the same day.    

Stefan Neuner: We start our short tour with the Austrian Pavilion. The exhibition was designed—or rather the Pavillion was redesigned—by Heimo Zobernig. At first one has the impression of a very subtle, nonintrusive intervention. It merely consists in the installation of a floor in the somewhat lower side rooms of the pavilion creating a unified walking level in all spatial compartments, as well as the installation of an element in the ceiling that substantially reduces the volume of the spaces. The latter also intersects the columns at the passageways to the laterally arranged rooms and thus obstructs our view of the round arches over the columns. As a further intervening element, we come upon a planting in the small garden behind the building, which was specifically conceived for this site by the landscape architecture office, Auböck und Kárász. I think this intervention takes up a structure that is distinctive of Josef Hoffmann’s and Robert Kramreiter’s design as a typical pavilion architecture: the opening of the interior to the outdoors. It derives from the corridor in the center of the building that visually connects the garden and the facade. The installation of the dark elements that rob the actual exhibition rooms of light from above overemphasizes this structural feature in a decisive way. A corridor bathed in light that simultaneously establishes a sight line between the green areas in front of and behind the pavilion sets itself off  from the annex spaces lying in the shadows. This amounts to an analysis of the architecture, dissecting it into two spatial milieus, or also axes. On the one hand, the main axis in the center of the building that already from a distance offers a view to the garden and which we can quickly traverse coming from the park; on the other hand, the darkened abutments of the lateral rooms, the context of which, as a lateral axis, emphasizes the intervention. That would be my descriptive stocktaking of the work.

Markus Klammer: To add to your description: The black ceiling is seamless, continuous, probably made of plywood panels painted black or laminated, while the floorboards reveal their original boundaries. You see the screws attaching them to the floor. So the view to the ceiling glides along a homogenous surface and doesn’t halt at joints. And what we see is not just a ceiling, but an enormous volume that at the sides circumscribing the ceiling is also edged by black perpendicular surfaces. This volume pretty much fills the top half of the interior space. It is conceived as a hovering mold, as the negative of the empty space of the pavilion. Inside, one initially perceives it only as a plane, lowered ceiling. But its sheer volume does become visible under certain conditions, for example, when standing in front of the pavilion and noticing the continuous black surfaces behind the circumferential band of windows, rounding off the building to the top; or, when you are inside and look at the joints between the surface of the black ceiling and the original structural shell. At some points light enters from above through narrow interstices, supporting the impression of suspension and floating that counters the burdening black of the ceiling.

Stefan, you spoke of the two axes, the central axis connecting the Giardini side with the garden and the axis established by the two wings. What is striking, are the two long white benches in the rear part of the wings open to the garden—we are currently sitting on one of them—because they seem to create a peculiar mirror relation. They are precisely opposite of each other and are perfectly identical, so that the central axis of the building becomes a kind of mirror axis. The elegant benches are reminiscent of Minimal objects, but they are foremost benches set up for the viewers. So one spontaneously asks: What is there to see? And what we see are the other viewers sitting on the opposite side or standing around, and who are, of course, not exact mirror images. However, in a specific sociological respect, they actually are. The audience itself becomes the spectacle in a certain sense, and it disturbs the symmetry of the two benches in the wings, or maybe it enlivens this symmetry.

zobernigFig. 2

Pathmini Ukwattage: So to sum it up, one could say that Zobernig’s intervention references the architecture in terms of its formal conception in that the lateral and longitudinal axes were brought to the fore and now lend the building its decisive structure. On the other hand, with the white benches set up by the artist and inviting the visitors to take a seat, it shifts the focus to the function of the pavilion as an exhibition space. But when looking at the rooms, they ask themselves where the exhibits are in this pronounced gallery setting. All one sees are other visitors— mirrored on the opposite bench—or the garden.

MK: Maybe the color also has to do with this. The black, this neutrality, what do you think?

PU: The black seems to all but absorb everything taking place in these spaces.

Niels Olsen: I found your notion of the mirror stage exciting, it reminds me of Dan Graham’s ur-pavilion, Public Space/Two Audiences, shown at the 37th Biennale in 1976. It was a space divided in the middle by a soundproof pane of glass that could be entered from both sides. There was a wall-size mirror one back wall, while the other was simply white. It just reminds me of this funny and strange situation we have now, that we are once again mirrored and the other viewers are our mirror image.

MK: Except that Zobernig doesn’t use optical illusion machines like mirrors or cameras, which one later finds with Graham. That makes his work so elegant. He creates a mirror situation, but dispenses with the media dispositif of doubling and mirroring. It is only this pavilion, only these panels and benches, that’s it. And yet a situation arises—not only as a historical echo, those mirror situations—in which the viewer loses his or her structural invisibility in regard to the artwork and becomes a “tableau,” as Lacan would say. He or she offers the viewers on the opposite side the spectacle of his or her gestures and becomes a “figure” in the modernist setting of the pavilion. The same thing happens to the viewers on the other side. They, too, are always already objects of the others’ gaze. It is not the private process of perception in face of serial, stereometric objects that is addressed—as in Minimal Art; instead, the reciprocal public mirroring of bodies and physiognomies of viewers is staged in an ironic way.

zobernig Fig. 3

SN: I would now ask: Is there really nothing to see? Is it really just about the event of an audience that becomes conscious of itself? One could indeed suggest that the viewers are offered a coloristic spectacle. Inside, one encounters the colorless abstractions of black and white, but outside, the intensive green of the leaves sets itself off—should I say “emphatically”? And there are “figures,” if you like, in the garden, namely, trees with quite individual shapes. If I do find something problematic about the pavilion, it is the Patio für Heimo Zobernig with this complex concept we can read on a sign: The trees are from various regions of the world, they were already “gathered” in 2014 at the Architecture Biennale, they “travel” (talk is of a “Journey of the Trees” on the sign), they have made a stop here, and will ultimately be “scattered” across the Giardini grounds. Here, everything gets quite complicated and, in view of the fate of these “tree migrants” of whom we are told, in some way expressive, too ... This confronts us with an aspect that cannot be subsumed under what we have just been discussing. The removal of figuration on the inside of the pavilion, but then in the garden this sophisticated, allegorical figuration of trees created by the gardeners.

PU: Just a short question: We are aware of this, because we read it on the sign. But is it at all readable without prior knowledge? I ask myself whether one’s attention is drawn to the fact that the garden was arranged according to specific design principles. After all, it is a characteristic feature of the Biennale grounds that it contains partially uncontrolled nature, but also laid-out plantings. And the small trees are not really alone here, either. When looking at the garden from the central axis, the treetops merge with the leaves of the small “woods” behind the limiting wall, so that at least in visual terms it is connected to the Biennale grounds.

MK: I don’t know how you see it, but I thought the small garden was composed, because the highest tree is standing in the middle of the line of vision that Stefan described at the beginning. Then you have these two—let’s call them “maple trees” to the left and right as the second tallest trees, mediated by somewhat lower bushes. A tamed, arranged nature, then, where the trees are trees, but simultaneously function as signs or characters of a language. Their pyramidal arrangement counters a romanticizing notion of nature and possibly refers to the structure and history of central perspective. This nature is merely a gesture. I like that.

PU: Yes, I would agree. The trees appear quite artificially placed and the effect of the garden in general not at all organic or picturesque. They indeed appear quite symbolic. But everything is arranged in a very reserved way, there are the spaces and then there is the garden; and the benches are not facing the garden.

NO: In addition to the garden, which is an important pictorial aspect of the pavilion, I think that these benches are crucial elements. They assert themselves in the central room as sculptures, and their white color sets them off from the black architecture. The benches could be a classical “Zobernig piece.” I have in mind his repertoire of racks, chairs, and tables that are reminiscent of post-Minimal sculptures with an ironic twist, embodying a combination of IKEA aesthetic and Donald Judd’s Minimal Art. The entire architectural intervention functions as a sculpture—the benches as miniatures in relations to the whole.

MK: When you say it’s not an architectural intervention but a sculpture, why is it important to make this distinction?

NO: I find it crucial to read Zobernig’s contribution as site-specific in regard to the pavilion. It principally works like an apparently pseudo-functional “bench sculpture” that is inflated.

zobernig Fig. 4

PU: We already noticed that mood and atmosphere seem to be a recurring topos at this Biennale. And I ask myself whether this might also be a theme here. Not sensory in the same way as with Pamela Rosenkranz in the Swiss Pavilion; I would instead say energetic. That may also have to do with my noticing references to Japanese architecture, for example, the intertwining of interior and exterior space, the dominance of the horizontal, the elongation of the rooms, or also the reduction of color—to me, that’s Japanese. And then the garden—I’m not that familiar with Zen gardens, but they probably have to do with the activity of forming natural elements and with contemplation, which both possess a meditative dimension.

MK: You talking about the karesansui, right? The Japanese rock gardens. The pebbles on site are maybe a bit larger.

PU: That would once more refer to the location in the main pavilion that Carlo Scarpa redesigned to a Japanese garden. It is also a kind of refuge.

SN: This annex was originally a sculpture garden. – I think a basic question we could now raise is: What type of site-specificity are we dealing with here? At the last Austrian Pavilion designed by Matthias Poledna, the history of the pavilion, the year it was built, 1934, played an important role as a reference point. World history and politics were at issue. The approach here, I find, is not historical, but primarily formal, related to space and architecture. Zobernig chose a minimalistic approach. To what end? I have the impression that he takes up an interest in modernist architecture, which we can find with Dan Graham since the 1980s. And that interest is not revisionist. It is not about showing modernism’s fatal political entanglements in the era of fascism. Instead, it is about a positive view of modern architecture, a view that discovers a potential in it, which has to do with built structures like the Austrian Pavilion implying very specific modes of conduct, encouraging one, as it seems, to an undirected, rambling behavior in the space. In short, I believe that Zobernig’s intention is to bring this potential to the fore. Or did I miss something essential in the work? Does history play a role in the concept after all?

NO: Zobernig’s strategy of architectural intervention can be compared to Dan Flavin. Zobernig’s well-known work, Ohne Titel “Red”, an installation with exhibition spaces imbued with red, obviously refers to Flavin’s light pieces. Here in this pavilion, he altered the existing spaces in a similar way. One could argue that he makes reference to modernism and the specific, charged history of this pavilion. Yet I would propose viewing the work separately from this and autonomously—like the work with the red neon tubes that was displayed in the most various architectural contexts. Hence, the image and the formal aspect would be much more significant than the narrative of history.

MK: Well, I would argue then that Zobernig’s intervention can be speculatively related to Mathias Poledna’s work on view two years ago in the Austrian Pavilion. In a classical black box, which was installed in the rear part of the pavilion and blocked the central line of vision, Imitation of Life was shown, a hand-drawn animation film that Poledna realized with the means of the classical Disney production procedures, as they manifested themselves in the 1930s at the same time when fascism rose in Europe and the Austrian Pavilion was built. We know that Hitler was a big fan of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and that Leni Riefenstahl came to the United States in 1938 as Disney’s guest to propagate her infamous Olympics film. Poledna certainly played with this context. Zobernig breaks Poledna’s black cinema box apart. One still finds fragments of it in the formal features, the black side walls are folded up and down, as it were, and have become the ceiling and floor. The reopened vista through the central axis replaces the beam of the film projector. The spectacle is not drawn, animated nature now, but planted nature, the interior garden enclosed by a curved wall like a cinema screen. Ironic cinema of nature.

SN: What I find even more essential is that the garden was planted in such a way that it is impossible to step back far enough and distance oneself from the pavilion in order to gain an overall view of the quite massive installation of a large cubic volume in the ceiling. From here, from the garden, I can assess how high the installation is, but I can’t put it at a distance to gain an image. Firstly, this again reinforces the “figurativeness” or also the “pictorial quality” of this piece of nature, the small landscape of the tree garden, and secondly, it becomes clear to me that Zobernig has taken his intervention in something back, which I would not term “sculptural.” What we have is a truly architectural intervention. He creates spaces, to which I would count the benches as infrastructure, and not as objects.

zobernigFig. 5

PU: In regard to the architectural intervention, I would suggest that this building was originally a mélange, composed of classicist and modernist elements. Zobernig’s intervention has basically removed the classicist markers, such as the round arches, and strongly neutralized the space-time relations by means of these smooth, neutral floor and ceiling panels. The traces of the indecision and the politically problematic times characterizing Josef Hoffmann’s building have thus been eliminated.

MK: Perhaps Zobernig’s “political iconography” could be described as follows: The arches burdened with imperial connotations were cut. The differences in height between the central axis and the wings—something we noticed when walking through the pavilion—were leveled by installing floorboards. In other words, a lost utopian potential is evoked here, associated with modernism and the period between the two world wars, a potential that began to dwindle precisely during the years when the pavilion was built.

NO: To come back to the framing of the garden, the cinematic effect: One could compare it with Pamela Rosenkranz’s contribution, which also deals with the image and the framing of an isolated space.

Zobernig’s pavilion appears deliberately low key and unspectacular. Although it has this cinematic moment, it is not sensational. With Pamela Rosenkranz there is this unexpected moment when you say: Wow! You see the water, the flooded room, and ask: What will happen now? I think that’s an exciting contrast between these two works, which both operate with architectural shifts and spatial dramaturgy.

MK: Zobernig’s work is simply not immersive. There are no sounds, no perfumes, no colored spaces. Instead, cool distance prevails. In this respect, Zobernig continues the legacy of classical modernism employing the means of post-Minimal Art.


56th Venice Art Biennale
9 May - 22 Novembre 2015


Fig. 1-2
Heimo Zobernig, untitled, Austrian Pavillon, Giardini della Biennale, Venedig, 2015, installation view
Photo: Georg Petermichl

Fig. 3
Heimo Zobernig, untitled, Austrian Pavillon, Giardini della Biennale, Venedig, 2015, installation view
Photo: Stefan Neuner

Fig. 4
Heimo Zobernig, untitled, 2015, model photo
Photo: Archiv HZ

Fig. 5
Heimo Zobernig, untitled, 2015, front view
CAD Archiv HZ

Translation: Karl Hoffmann