On Friday, Venice Biennale director Daniel Birnbaum announced the title for his 2009 exhibition will be Making Worlds. Carrying on from his thinking for the Turin Triennale, 50 Moons of Saturn, which opens Wednesday night, Birnbaum appears set to continue his longstanding interest in the metaphysics of space and time. In the opening passage of CHRONOLOGY (Sternberg Press: 2005) he writes, “I tend to return – eternally – to the Eternal Return.”
The life of Johann Dieter Wassmann (1841-1898) was one similarly preoccupied by the metaphysical qualities of space and time – both in his art, as well as in his professional role as a sewerage engineer. In this, the International Year of Sanitation, there are some surprising parallels to be drawn between the field of sewerage management that Johann Dieter Wassmann personified in the nineteenth century and the current art climate that Birnbaum will be divulging with Making Worlds.
Out of the miasma
Until the microbiological discoveries of Robert Koch in Germany, Louis Pasteur in France and John Snow in the UK, among others, disease was seen to spread from miasmatic causes, arising from poisonous exhalations exuded by putrefying animal remains, rotting vegetation and stagnant water: bad environments generated bad air, which then turned pestilential.
The great sanitation works of the mid-century, many of which Wassmann was involved in engineering on the Continent, were directed at expunging waste in order that air might be cleared of miasmas. As the English social reformer Edwin Chadwick described it, “All smell is, if it be intense, immediate, acute disease.” While these engineering works made significant gains in improving the health of urban dwellers, it was not, as Wassmann, Chadwick and others believed at the time, a result of their elimination of miasmas.
Koch’s landmark discovery of microbiological causes for diseases such as tuberculosis (1882) and cholera (1883) led to the most radical paradigm shift in the history of modern sanitation engineering. (It should be noted that these were also the years Wassmann began in earnest his boxed constructions.) No longer was plague and fever attributable to a spatial and temporal presence of this veil of miasma, rather disease was defined microscopically by the presence of bacteria transferable by contaminated water supplies or direct contagion. Suddenly and irrevocably the engineer was forced to cease thinking in the broad, indefinite and expansive terms of the miasma, instead focusing his efforts on the microscopic and definitive world of bacterium.
In our current climate of economic despair and recession, it could be said that the collapse of the global financial system has thankfully lifted a similar miasmatic veil from the art world – one which for too many years has painfully led to a wholesale and myopic belief in the corrupted values of the commercial art market. With this miasma now clearing, it is indeed a critical moment in space and time for Daniel Birnbaum to be exploring the constructed worlds of those artists whose integrity has remained intact through these years of deceit and folly.
Here at MuseumZeitraum Leipzig, we anticipate with earnest Daniel Birnbaum’s vision of a post-miasmatic world.
50 Moons of Saturn
Curator: Daniel Birnbaum
6 November 2008 – 1 February 2009
Director: Daniel Birnbaum
La Biennale di Venezia
7 June 2009 – 22 November 2009