The former Jewish School for Girls is open again, for the first time in ten years. But the beeping metal detector at the entrance is a reminder that it remains a highly charged place. The beeping blends in with the sound of doors slamming. Down the corridor is a gymnasium, at the centre of which stands another room, the walls of which open and close, while doors set into them close with a loud bang. You can enter the room and inspect the simple motorized mechanism – there’s nothing mysterious about it – yet this machine chills you to the bone by the way it hints at the organized destruction of life. In recent times Paul McCarthy has become the Dionysian anti-Disney, but here he feels like an artist again, with a sense of means and scale. If Bang-Bang Room hadn’t been made in 1992, you would have guessed it had been specially commissioned for this show.
Not all works in the school – the most remarkable of the venues for this biennial, curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick – managed to live up to the difficult historic aura, as opposed to just living off it. A Beuysian patina of age and decay could be found here and there, but with the building’s plaster and paint peeling off, and traces of its use as a secondary school during former communist times still evident, this just doubled a romantic sense of gloom that was already tangible. Nevertheless, the decision to use such a space was not just another version of the 1990s’ glamorization of dilapidated East German buildings (as some parts of the local art crowd claimed): instead of celebrating the promise of new uses for old spaces, it unremittingly evoked their ‘old’ use, and the aftermath of trauma.
With an air of paranoia, depression and the uncanny throughout, this biennial felt rather like a themed exhibition. Suspicions that the curatorial trio’s concept might get bogged down with generalizations about human suffering (it had been announced the show would be called ‘Of Mice and Men’ and deal with ‘birth, life and death’) and touristy takes on Berlin’s Mitte (the exhibition stretches along Auguststrasse, from a church at one end to a cemetery at the other) were largely proved wrong. There were some blunders, but all in all the triumvirate settled quite unsentimentally on one of the central tenets of psychoanalysis and Surrealism: that the threat of pandemonium and conspiracy lurking behind normality needs to be taken seriously.
Perhaps it was because of this that the dominating motif of the exhibition was the face – turned away, covered, distorted, refusing identification. Saul Fletcher’s small photographic self-portraits and still lifes of moments of discontent shared this with the late Francesca Woodman’s videos and photos from the 1970s of blurred, naked goings-on in empty middle-class rooms. And if anyone considered this kind of work mere psychological flummery, they should have watched Thomas Bayrle’s brilliant 16mm Autobahnkopf (Motorway Head, 1988–9), in which an Archimboldian head composed of nothing but photocopied shots of cars on the motorway is stuck in endless animated motion.
The motif of distorted faces was taken up again in Kunst-Werke, with the central juxtaposition of Michael Schmidt’s EIN-HEIT (U-NI-TY, 1991–4), the artist’s photographic magnum opus detecting the aftermath of Germany’s partition in the ruinous faces of its protagonists, and Thomas Schütte’s towering sculptural trio of bald-headed ghosts which look as though they are snarling commands at long-lost armies (The Capacity Men, 2005). The motif continued with Cathy Wilkes’ untitled, scattered installation, dominated by a super-slim shop-window mannequin with a small painting of an embryo affixed to her face. All of these works suggested isolation, a feeling of being trapped by expectation.
These judicious selections felt compromised by instances of obscurantism, such as Mark Manders’ shamanist arrangements of tea bags and clay figures. Andro Wekua’s black monolithic mausoleum with a ghostly woman on top (Boy Oh Boy, 2005–6), placed in an empty church, felt like mysticism for mysticism’s sake. To resist the lure of the esoteric, however, there was the cool wit of Erik van Lieshout, whose Rotterdam–Rostock (2005–6) compressed a long bike tour through racist rural Germany into 17 minutes of slapstick horror. Robert Kusmirowki’s life-size replica of a box van (Wagon, 2006), placed on the fifth floor of the school, took the fact that in the immediate vicinity the Nazis established a major collection point for Jews to be transported to Auschwitz as a mere excuse for its daft trompe-l’oeil tricks (‘how did he do it?’).
While works such as these threatened to invite criticism of the show as a flippant ghost train ride – when in fact it was the first of the four Berlin biennials actually to touch on the Jewish presence in Auguststrasse – Pawel Althamer’s work did the opposite. Visually, it consisted of nothing but a single shoe on the floor and a photocopied letter to Berlin’s Home Secretary, petitioning him to grant right of residence to a Turkish single mother and her five children. Althamer’s decision to use his budget for this during the course of the exhibition leans precariously towards the chivalrous, as its title (Fairy Tale, 2006) suggests. The refusal to explain and visualize more than absolutely necessary here prevents art from being turned into a sanitized, ersatz form of actual political engagement. It’s a heightened awareness of this risk that the curators, one of whom is himself a practising artist, share with many of those included in the show – even at, at times, risking mysticism themselves.