The Ankersentrum by Natascha Sadr Haghighian

at the German Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale: a journey through the ruins of the world.

by Elda Oreto

In classical mythology, we speak of catabasis when the protagonist descends into the underworld for an inner renewal. Natascha Süder Happelmann, a stone head on a human body, can look back on a journey stretching from the refugee center of Donauwörth, Germany, to the port of Trapani, Italy. We can follow her on social media as she crosses the desolate countryside where people collect tomatoes illicitly in order to earn a living. At the port of Trapani, Natascha sees the IUVENTA, a ship owned by the NGO “JUGEND RETTET” (Youth saves) saving those who flee from Africa to Europe. Natascha stops, does not go back nor does she travel back to her country of origin, she decides to stay inside an irreparable tear. The artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian has played out her own metamorphosis to represent Germany at the respective Pavilion, curated by Franciska Zólyom, at the 58th Venice Biennale. The Pavilion has provocatively become the Ankersentrum (surviving in the ruinous ruin), a reception center for asylum seekers in Germany. This expression, ironically and paradoxically, indicates a place of transition and confinement within a society. A society built on the ruins. That is, indeed, perpetually ruined.

Natascha Süder Happelmann, re., und ihre Sprecherin Helene Duldung, li., vor dem Auswärtigen Amt, 2018, Foto ©Jasper Kettner

The front door of the Pavilion is closed, but it can be accessed through a side entrance. The space is divided into two. On one side, there is “Tribute to Whistle”, 2019, a high and intricate framework on which loudspeakers reproduce whistling compositions, imitating the “clandestine” communication system of immigrants. On the other side, there is a false concrete dam from which, through a small hole, a rivulet runs down to wet the rubble. What characterizes the installation is the concert of whistles that crosses the wall, escaping the obstacle, unpredictably.

In another room, there is a sculpture made from the remains of scaffolding, a street poster, and plastic containers for transporting tomatoes. The sculpture, which recalls the countless deaths of illegally employed immigrants, seems stationary; however, it is imperceptibly in motion. In Ankersentrum, everything loses its connotations, merges, becomes invisible, changes its name. Mohamed becomes Sammy. Abdullah becomes Tony. And Natascha Sadr Haghighian becomes Natascha Süder Happelmann.

Helene Duldung, played by Susanne Sachsse – who collaborated in the Pavilion with Jessica Ekomane, Maurice Louca, DJ Marfox, Jako Maron, Tisha Mukarji, Elnaz Seyedi, Maziyar Pahlevan, Sina Ahmadi, Jasper Kettner, and many more — is her speaker.  However, the voice that speaks on somebody’s behalf, sometimes betrays. “Die Duldung” is the certificate of suspension of deportation, meaning “to show someone tolerance” in German: to endure something unpleasant.

At the press conference and presentation, Frau Duldung speaks for Natascha and reads Rosa Luxemburg. To divide and conquer is necessary to create a capitalist society, perpetually in ruins, structured in favor of the few and in favor of privatization and accumulation of goods; this is the origin of borders and nations. 

Pavilion of GERMANY, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, MayYou Live In Interesting Times – Photo by Jasper Kettner
Pavilion of GERMANY, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, MayYou Live In Interesting Times – Photo by Jasper Kettner

Happelmann, aka Haghighian, indicates that today’s transhumance is a sign of change as described in the philosophic ideas of Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, and Graham Harman. She describes this change and how to stay in this irreparable rift, intertwining a collective experience with the crucial stages of her artistic journey.  Together with the exhibition, a series of lectures titled Beyond Repair are organized in collaboration with IUAV and the Hochschule für Künste of Bremen. By stripping her own identity, Natascha Sadr Haghighian becomes a “person-thing” that, amid many others, shares the same story.

Ankersentrum summarizes the crucial moments of her practice, an heir to relational art, from Jorge Pardo to Tobias Rheinsberger. In its evolution, it recalls the art as political activism of Hans Haacke. Haghighian calls it a “constant process of research, manipulation and doubt” which begins with the cancellation of her own identity, originating from “bioswop.de”, 2004: a platform to exchange life stories. Her research embraces different methods: installations, sounds, text and images, the collaboration with other artists also plays a fundamental role. Among the many projects implemented in about three decades, we can mention “Die Krankheiten des Uhus und ihre Bedeutung für die Wiedereinbürgerung in die Bundesrepublik Deutschland” from 2003 (The Horned Owl’s Diseases and their Significance for its Re-Naturalisation in the Federal Republic of Germany), a sound installation that imitates a bird imprisoned in a room. The sound element, characteristic of her work, is used to distort what is taken for granted; in Robbie Williams – Show Only (2014), the collaboration with Mixed Media, a company that produces works for other artists, is the object of the work itself.

Pavilion of GERMANY, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, MayYou Live In Interesting Times – Photo by Jasper Kettner
Pavilion of GERMANY, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, MayYou Live In Interesting Times – Photo by Jasper Kettner

For Documenta 13, the artist created d (13) pfad / d (13) trail with Pola Sieverding, a path made of debris from Second World War, surrounding the Ehrenmal, a war memorial. From the bushes around the park emerge the onomatopoeic verses of animals in different languages. pssst LEOPARD 2A7 + (2013) is a prototype that imitates a tank of wood and lego pallets with plugged-in headphones and installed testimonies about Germany’s role in the production of weapons.

In the book published by Archive Books, Franciska Zólyom writes “to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the witness only becomes a witness when he communicates to others what he has seen and experienced. (…) In this way it is not the witness or the narrator who is immortal, but ‘The very story of repetition, a story that, repeated at least twice, is not individual”.

Pavilion of GERMANY, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, MayYou Live In Interesting Times – Photo by Jasper Kettner
Pavilion of GERMANY, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, MayYou Live In Interesting Times – Photo by Jasper Kettner
Pavilion of GERMANY, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, MayYou Live In Interesting Times – Photo by Jasper Kettner