You relax knocking – sadly engrossed – above a door that isn’t there at all: you push it but it was opened…

Battisti-Pannella, The Appearance


Potemkin Lock expresses in a symptomatic way the poetic of Bert Theis and, at the same time, carries an inaugural value. It is a work that embodies all the idiosyncrasies of Theis, beginning from the erudite reference to Prince Potemkin, and at the same time it moves with disarming effectiveness in the context of relational art.

In substance, the structure of the work, presented in the prestigious context of the Venice Biennial (in particular, the 1995 edition was its centennial celebration) consisted in a false facade of the (false) Luxembourg Pavillion located between the Belgian and the Dutch Pavillions. Behind the false facade, conceived as a backstage theater, there was an open space; passing through the entrance, visitors found lounge chairs in this space and were enveloped by rap music; many, invited by the relaxing situation did not hesistate to enjoy the sun, while others took it upon themselves to discover the “real meaning” of the work, the artistic quid that was meant to characterize it.

First, let’s begin with the title, dedicated to the well known favorite of Catherine the Great, Prince Potemkin, who, for the eyes of his majesty the Czarina, built villages of canvas and cardboard in the Ukraine in order to transform a desert into a flourishing landscape. The fact that Adolf Loos, already in his diatribe against Austrian architecture at the end of the eighteen hundreds (1898) cited this case as emblematic of the fact that, in the modern era, the false takes the place of the “true”, and that the buildings of the fin de siecle Vienna, in Renassaiance and Baroque style, “weren’t even made with the material with which they appeared to have been built” is indicative. However, even more indicative is the fact that Loos launches his criticism against the “Potemkin spirit” precisely in the last years of the XIX century, rather more or less when the Venice Biennale’s national pavillions were built from that, one could quite easily deduce that on the latter Potemkin’s spirit descended straight away, a good century before Theis commemorated the ghost of the likeable Russian aristocratic.

This should give us a clue as to the meaning of the work that we have in front of us. In fact, at first glance – that which whoever saw the Centennial Biennale made the Luxemburg pavillion was placed with perfect architectural coherence, chromatic and stylistic harmony between the modern Dutch pavillion and the Belgian Pavillion; however, with a more attentive glance, it appeared as a false pavillion, a pavillion that was not there, a non-pavillion, in the middle of “real” brick and mortar edifices. The extreme irony of the thing can’t escape a deeper reasoning, given that the same national pavillions, edifices which in any case are not functional, nor habitable nor put to use as productive tasks, but uniquely destined for hosting exhibitions (and at that only for one season, and only every two years!) they are nonedifices, they are “real” things whose reality is deeply connected to their “theatrical” nature, like a backstage needed to offer refuge to the works of art and not so much from external agents (with ever greater frequency contemporary art produces works en plein air, etc.), but from interpretative ambiguity, almost in order to protect the work from incomprehension.The first to “truly” not be architectonic edifices, the “swindlers swindled” that Loos speaks of, therefore, are already the Venetian pavillions which, not only for their name (the meaning of “pavillion” comes from tent, awning, curtain, from the latin papilionem, which means butterfly), but also because of their function, they are entirely “fictional”.

It follows that Potemkin Lock is not a false architectural structure between two real ones, but a true-false between two false-true pavillions; in other words, it is something which is truly false that reveals, in contrast, the false truth of that which surrounds it. By taking this point of view it’s best not to read Lock with an understanding of the postmodern as simply simulation; Lock is not a simulacrum in the “normal” postmodern sense, precisely because it doesn’t limit itself to placing in opposition a fictional structure and functional logic, but rather, in a dialectic sense, it reveals its own fictitous structure, the one we believe to be real – and in that sense it seems to reaffirm, but also to go beyond, the situationist thesis of “the truth is a moment of falseness”.


The rap music which was heard in the space behind the fake facade a la Potemkin was not just any old piece. Instead, Theis mixed his own rap music from fragments of an interview of Duchamp, broadcast on French radio in the ‘60s. With this gift to one of the greatest contemporary artists (that was never invited to the Venice Biennial), Lock pays hommage to the logic of art as “work in context”. Duchamp is, in fact, unanimously considered more than any other artist the one to have diminished the meaning of a work (text), reducing it to a tiny piece of the »real«, in favor of the location in which it was set (context). All things considered, that which such analysis overlooks is the actual value of the context, that usually comes to be understood – perhaps mistakenly by way of Gestalt psychology – as a perceived context or at best a cultural one. Potemkin Lock intends, however, to draw our attention to a more profound meaning of the notion of “context”. The “a la Potemkin” villages were not created just to satisfy the gestalt whim of the beautiful empress of all Russia, but to confirm her idea of enlightened good governance and to demonstrate to foreign visitors the prosperous state of the imperial country (not unlike what happened later with the totalitarian regimes’ theatrical architectonic staging, not only in Russia but in Europe).

The Venice Biennial itself, in so much as it is (according to the high-sounding subtitle) “International Art Exposition”, inserts itself fully within political rhetoric; this art exhibition is actually subdivided into pavillions dedicated to each country because, a bit along the lines of the Universal Expositions of the eighteen hundreds, its purpose is supposedly to proclaim artistic progress of every single country. However much all this nationalistic rhetoric may, in these days, appear decidedly long gone, it is far from being dead. The confirmation of its vitality remains in the fact that, when Theis asked the Dutch and Belgian functionaries for permission to insert his work of art near the pavillions of their respective countries, he encountered a complex series of “diplomatic” difficulties and was able to create Potemkin Lock only by appealing to a sort of extra-territorial aesthetic. Evidently, those in power at the respective culture ministries (perhaps every nation would have reacted in the same way) did not want, in any way, to be “gobbled up” by a “false Luxembourg” neighbor that could have been quite embarrassing (it should be noted that Belgium and Luxembourg are geographically confined countries, and that Luxembourg is part of the Economic Union of the Benelux, as are Holland and Belgium).

Theis’ Potemkin Lock causes us to reflect on the polical value of the so-called context; if it is true that its title harks back to Potemkin, it mustn’t be forgotten that on the false facade of the false venetian pavillion the word » LUXEMBOURG « stood out very visibly and was written in a typical “official” graphic style. Surely this writing was meant to function a bit like a perception trap for visitors, some of whom actually thought that, finally, even the little country of Luxembourg had built its own national pavillion – but once again this deceit tells us how much ideology there is in our mechanisms of perception. For an Italian visitor, for example, Luxembourg has a very hazy geopolitical consistency, compared to states like Lichtenstein or Malta, or Monaco (however much this last one takes pleasure in the invidious connotation of being a “fiscal paradise”, and having a media identity sustained by gossip about Prince Ranier’s numerous children). In a certain sense the “littleness” of Luxembourg exults by reflection the “magnanimity” of the Italian populace that permits even the smallest state to have its exhibition (=political) “space”. To get a better idea, if Theis had placed in the entrance of his false pavilion the letters “ USSR ”, maybe the ironic intent would have been much more evident. But if the work had been created before 1989, during the Cold War, perhaps the work would have been interpreted as an uncalled for show of soviet totalitarianism…

This seems to demonstrate how, in the contradiction between the political world and the artistic one, that the first tries in every way to “make use of” the second. But, rather, mustn’t we ask ourselves what the end of this “making use of” is? Reinforcing the meaning and the reasons of the form of the nation-state doesn’t do anything. How is it, then, possible that that form, in order to amplify its political importance, gives so much weight to purely aesthetic and artistic strategies?

Even if today we are convinced that the nation-state is obsolete, precisely because we consider it a fiction that has lost in great part its credibility, it continues to exercise its influence even more undisturbed. The character of aesthetic fiction is not secondary, but central in the ideological foundation of the state-form – in that it doesn’t make much sense to say, with postmodern disenchantment: “the nation states are simple fictions: look how the ex-Soviet Union or ex-Yugoslavia’s houses of ideological cards crumbled in just a few days!” To this reasoning tack on an important addition – the one to which Theis calls our attention – that we have to take great care of how we place, build, and show our fictions, because they are not really “simple”, but have magic and ineffable power to construct those “houses of cards” in which, then, everyone “ends up believing”. The situationist slogan, then, should be included in the hegelian dialectic according to which “the false constitutes a moment of trueness” – in summary, to say it in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “we are that which we pretend to be; so it is necessary to give much attention to that which we pretend to be”…

It is therefore clear that Theis does not limit himself to revealing the fundamental ideological aspect of every aesthetic operation (even by way of a “political denunciation”, as still occurs, even if at a certainly important level, in the works of Hans Haacke): because, on the other hand, that aspect is connected to the fundamental “aesthetisized”, fictional characteristic of every ideological operation.

Beyond the direct political denunciation and beyond the cynical postmodern unmasking, Potemkin Lock shows how, by now, ideology and aesthetics are the two inseparable faces of the same coin.

In this sense we can now understand why Potemkin Lock places itself in an “inaugural” dimension in the world of so-called “relational art”. In fact, this last one plays all of its worth not so much on the elaborate mimetic reconstruction of the aesthetic forms and of their ideologic surplus, as much as on the capacity to construct a context of relation with the creator. The artistic “house of cards” does not have any worth beyond the experience that the spectator can make of it, crossing its threshold, discovering its double meaning, savouring the sensation of revealing the spell.


All the same, the value of the aesthetic concept of »relation« is routinely redirected – as has recently happened in many places – to the idea of a rediscovered »shared truth« to which mankind has access through art. As if underneath it all, art had renounced all of its old and obsolete instruments (beauty, form, contemplation, etc.) in favor of a capacity to create »meeting« spaces in which it is still possible to encounter Reality, Truth, etc. An analysis of Potemkin Lock itself, however, brings a different piece of data to the fore, not to say a completely contrary one: the relation which gives way to this work, far from creating an »authentic« relationship between the beneficiaries, and between them and art, shows that the category of »relation« itself is the pròton pseudos, the very place of the staging of false-as-such.

Similar to what happens in another of Theis’ works, Broadway Fly (1996), which consists of a tower of steel tubes placed above an art fair, and brings the observer to see the pathetic mechanism of the »market of objects«, the relation that is brought into play is that between the levels of falsehood. That which seems real (the market in the case of Broadway Fly, the nation state in the case of Potemkin Lock) is revealed to be false (the wooden theatrical backdrop of Lock, rap, etc.) shows itself to be realer than the real, because it brings out the authentic sense of appearance as such, to which the sense of Art itself in the contemporary world is definitively reduced.

This fact is proof that even a typically postmodern subject, accustomed to the games of meaning in contemporary art, is ready to accept the insubstantiality of the old political values, and is then completely inert when faced with the effective absence of value – when faced with the disturbing discovery that even Art exists only as an ideological construction.

The »truth of the relation« that Theis brings into play resides precisely in the affirmation of the complete vacuity, of the false as such, of the appearance as the only substantial contemporary residue.

The implicit invitation in the reclining chairs placed in that kind of patio into which a portion of a serious and »labouring« international art exhibition had been transformed, is clearly that of taking a moment’s relaxation in order to be able to withstand the revelation of this »hole in the Real« – as if to say: »Relax. Take it easy: at least here there isn’t even a crumb of art!« A naturally paradoxical affirmation, or rather simultaneously true and false, in as much as it is expressed within that which we must, however, continue to consider a »work of art«.

This state of paradox is that which characterizes our relations – in other words, our relations are essentially enacted around this loop of paradox, and the relation which underlies all of Lock in the end is nothing other than an update of the well known Lacanian communication paradox »Why are you lying to me? «. In fact, when two Jewish merchants meet, and in reply to who asks: »Where are you going? «, the other answers »I’m going to Lemberg«, the reply of the former takes the paradoxical form: »Why are you lying to me? Why are you telling me that you’re going to Lemberg, to make me think that you are going to Krakov, if you are truly going to Lemberg? «

Beyond the postmodern apologia of simulation, but also beyond the desperate search of some »indisputable truth«, contemporary Art only has sense in so far as it manages to appropriate this paradoxical dialectic in which a truth cannot take the appearance of a lie, and it is a falsehood to reveal hidden truths; in which everything is shown in its contradictory true-false nature, including Art (and naturally whoever makes it, whoever looks at it – and whoever writes about it).

Exactly as occurs with Potemkin Lock.

Marco Senaldi  2003  (Venice)

Ph.D., philosopher, contemporary art theorist and independent researcher, has taught aesthetics, art and cinema in various academic institutions including the Academy of Fine Arts Carrara, Bergamo, IULM, Milan, Bicocca University, Milan and currently Brera Academy, Milan. He has curated international exhibitions and conferences and published numerous essays. He also introduced Slavoj Žižek‘s thought into the Italian theoretical debate. In the 1990s he was the author of television cultural programs of Canale 5 and RAI Tre; his articles and interventions are published by il manifesto, Corriere della Sera, D-donnala Repubblica, Interni, Alfabeta2, Flash Art and Artribune.

  1. “Il faut bien tuer son voisin pour survivre” is a sentence spoken by Duchamp which was inserted by Theis in his Venice Rap.

Published in

Florian Matzner, ed. Bert Theis. Some Works, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2003