Georges Adéagbo: The Story of the Lion

«Venise d’hier et Venise d’aujourd’hui»

La Biennale di Venezia, dAPPERTutto,
June 10, 1999, Campo dell’Arsenale
Concept and Coordination: Stephan Köhler

Georges Adéagbo’s first installation in public space,
awarded by the biennale jury with the "premio della giuria"

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Georges Adéagbo’s installation piece for the Campo dell’Arsenale merged into an alloy with the historic site
and induced the visitors to think about the origin of mankind, his evolution, Africa’s contribution as source
of inspiration and the history of Venice in particular. Also, the position and instructive contents of the
installation contrasted many of the works exhibited in the Biennale venues and raised questions, why African
nations have never had a pavilion and what has caused their under-representation. Adeagbo’s intervention
amplified the stories embedded in the stones of Venice by matching them with sculptures, paintings, books,
texts, found objects, which he had chosen for this particular situation. At the same time he made clear
comments about African culture, not from a white ethnologist’s, but from a native thinker’s point of view.
Georges articulates clearly the essential momentum of his origin. By harmonizing ideas represented through
elements from Africa with those found on location, Georges Adéagbo intends to create a neutral bridge for
mutual understanding, and refrains from favoring any race.

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Georges calibrated the entire square by carefully arranging the elements of his installation in about fifteen
clusters; in front of the four lion statues(3-6), along the canal of the Arsenale(8), below and on wooden panels
disguising a bridge under construction(13,15,16 and 17), in front of a tree and along the walls of the houses lining the south and west sides of the Campo.(9-12)In the middle of the square, Georges installed two fields of elements (5,7,20 and 21), the largest about 10 x 3 meters, leaving ample space for people to pass through and look at the installation from all sides.

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So far, Georges had realized installations in well protected exhibition rooms, of generic gallery format, with
days of undisturbed preparation. However, this work in public demanded from the artist a dialogue with a
unique historic spot, which no artist had been allowed to occupy before. Georges dived into a mental
simulation process, a virtual installation, before having a one-day-only-chance to open the oeuvre like a
parachute on June 9th. The act of installing in public attracted observers, who witnessed the Campo and its
monuments appear in focus, shed off the fuzziness of everyday life, ready to host new questions and
investigation into past, presence and future. Taken down on June 13, now a photo, showing one detail of
the installation, represents Georges’ installation in the dAPPERTutto space ‘Corderie’ during the entire
duration of the 48th Biennale.

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Usually Georges Adéagbo needs several months to prepare a site specific installation, studying the history
and geography of the location he is invited to carefully. In the case of Venice, within few weeks Georges
managed to launch one of his biggest pieces, without having had a chance to visit Venice beforehand. The
project for the Campo dell’Arsenale was proposed to Georges in mid March by an independent curator as a
parallel project to the Biennale. Harald Szeemann extended his invitation to include this installation as an
official contribution of the dAPPERTutto in mid April 1999. Using the photos of the Campo and books on
Venice sent to Benin, Georges began to commission paintings, carvings and his texts painted on glass from
the craftsmen he works with regularly in his hometown. In addition, he acquired wooden sculptures and
more than a dozen old bronzes as well collected related objects on his walks through Cotonou.

May 20 the curator joined Georges in Cotonou to plan the realization of the project in detail and arrange
logistics of transport and travel. (1) The two arrived in Venice May 29th.(2) There Georges collected and bought
further elements to complement those he had sent from Benin. Everyday he visited the Campo dell’Arsenale
to visualize the location for the hundreds of pieces to be installed within one day only.
“We are moving on citizens’ territory, and also find ourselves in front of the entrance to the Marine. It is my
biggest concern not to inhibit the daily activities of the people living here. If an art work is imposed
forcefully into a context, it is not an artwork. On the other hand, I do not want to loose against the power of
this history charged environment. My work is about creating harmony and making people understand, that
mutual respect for each other’s territory will keep peace in the world.”

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Various aspects of the public pulse of the open square manifested themselves during the preparation and
realization of the work. In spite of professional night guards being hired, two books and four paintings
disappeared. The artist commented:
“Fortunately the thieves did not have the intelligence to read my installation and choose the works which
are the key to its lecture, such as the painting of Pope Jean Paul II with the text : ‘Could an African be the
successor of Jean Paul II?’ (18 and 19) What they took can be seen as the city of Venice taking its share to show her
acceptance of our work.”

While all of the works in the Biennale were only accessible to those holding a pass for the very exclusive
private preview, the installation by Georges Adéagbo could be accessed freely by anyone. It might therefore
be seen as the only official contribution, which fulfilled the stipulation formulated by Harald Szeemann’s title
dAPPERTutto- ‘overture everywhere’ also in the literal sense. Curated and financed independently, the
project symbolized a harmonious symbiosis between a well established organization with a long-standing
tradition and a recently formed team of an artist and his advisor-sponsor.

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To introduce Georges’ way of thinking and to commemorate this one day installation, a T-shirt (edition 300)
with a philosophical text (‘rappelez-vous, que les astres influencent, mais ne déterminent pas et que le libre
arbitre permet à l’homme de forger son destin’ remember that the stars influence, but do not determine and
that the free judge allows man to forge his own destiny) and image of ‘Le passeur’, the ferryman, was given
away during preparation and the opening ceremony on the afternoon of June 10th. (14)

Johannes Gachnang, former director of the Kunsthalle Bern and co-director of Dokumenta with Rudi
Fuchs, welcomed the guests of the vernissage with a speech about general aspects of collecting and
classifying objects and events. Just about as the guests had enough time to read the work, a thunderstorm
with it’s short rain shower blessed the installation and made the risk and trust in nature with which the artist
and his supporters had worked with ever more evident. (22) The broken umbrella, which Georges had found in
Venice and included in his installation on the Campo dell’Arsenale, then seemed like an accurate prophecy.

At the opening ceremony of the Biennale on June 12th, Georges work was awarded one of four honorary
mentionings by the international jury. (23) It might not be mistaken to say, that Adéagbo’s work was the first
individual contribution to the Biennale by an artist from Africa and the first African to win a prize. Rather
than seeing his personal benefit, Georges hopes that his participation has unlocked a door and will facilitate
other artists from his continent to be included into future Biennales.

The magnitude of this installation, participation at the Biennale and acknowledgment with a prize meant for
Georges’ oeuvre the step into a new era. Freed from categorization by clichés and exoticism, such as
‘African Art’ ‘Recuperation’ and ‘Installation-art’, the public began to perceive the universal statement of a
man who articulates clearly his philosophical insights, gained while suffering in solitude unrecognized for
decades. His performance in Venice triggered the process for his oeuvre to be eventually ranked even with
the importance of Broodthaers, Boltansky, Beuys and Byars.

An artist's book (edition 325, of which 15 copies are signed by the artist and include a special insert for
collectors) will be available at the end of September from CTL Press Hamburg. ctlhamburg@compuserve

copyright: Georges Adéagbo and Stephan Koehler, Summer 1999, use of images or texts of this page only with written consent of the authors
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© 1999 Joint Adventures Art Projects
For further information:
Stephan Köhler
Fax +81-52-955 0121, Tel. +81-575-34 8335

Contact & orders for the book: CTL Press Hamburg, Tel: +49-40-3990 2223; Fax 3990 2224