Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic’s vision for the 5th Berlin Biennale is a defensively pragmatic one. Big spiels for big shows invariably get flamed: accordingly, the only declared premise in this exhibition – subtitled ‘When things cast no shadow’ – is its ‘open structure in five movements without a plot’. Berlin hums with history: therefore, contra The Wrong Gallery’s nostalgic edition in 2006, now the metropolis’s past is left to function as animating ambience. There is new work aplenty here from lesser-known artists; a regularly rotated display in the Schinkel Pavilion, a 1950s modernist/neoclassical amalgam that is one of four main venues; and (comprising the nocturnal side of the show’s dialectic, ‘Day & Night’, with over 100 artists and cultural producers to the daytime section’s 50) a 63-night programme of performances, screenings and workshops. All of which, however, merely shows Szymczyk and Filipovic to be adept observers of grand-show entropy.
Going to a town that has already been burnt down, they’ve torched the obviously shaky tenets of biennial making (oracular theoretical aspirations, parades of big-name artists, domineering regional specificity and static displays), but what remains – their internationalist taste, the lineaments of tone and associations – makes for a great show. Like few biennials in recent memory, it’s driven by mood: a mix of wiry and weary that feels wholly contemporary but, ironically, is clearly audible in the narration of Melvin Moti’s video ESP (2007), culled from J.W. Dunne’s 1927 avowal of temporal simultaneity, An Experiment with Time. Over slowed visuals of a soap bubble dissolving into mercurial fragments then reforming into a far-off facsimile of its former self, the English writer recalls both the precognitive dreams he experienced in previous decades, and his inability to influence the reality they predicted. There are many pasts in this biennial, and the holdovers are hard to hold onto.
In the Neue Nationalgalerie, a Mies van der Rohe-designed glassy icon of contestation in postwar cultural skirmishes, disappeared moments fade again, or twinkle obliquely across a great divide: the dusty conflations of ancient and modern objects (coins, cracked vases, keys, scissors) that Paul Sietsema’s camera patiently anatomises in his 16mm film Figure 3 (2008), for example, or the half-revived remnants of antiquity in films, photographs and a floor-based Perspex mimicry of a frieze of charioteers in Lucy Skaer and Rosalind Nashashibi’s installation Pygmalion (2008). These works can’t restore the certainties those times appeared to enjoy. What we might do now, this show quietly infers, is evolve towards an acceptance of the restlessly incommensurate: the melding of moods in, say, If You Like It, Thank You, If You Don’t Like It, I Am Sorry. Enjoy Anyway (2007), Paola Pivi’s rhinestone-encrusted portcullis, which dangles like an exuberant intimidation. As happens in each venue, artists vibe off the building’s insinuations: Pivi’s piece ushers one towards sculptures aspiring to a condition of display, including Goshka Macuga’s over-elaborate glassed stands for draped material and Gabriel Kuri’s vaguely modernist, yellow-painted L-shaped stands which double as a cloakroom and are draped with coats. And it is here that, beyond the implication that we’re doomed epigones, the biennial’s sense of the moment’s necessities establishes itself against the multitude of histories that populate the show.
If little in the exhibition makes grandiose claims, the pose is frequently tactical. At the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, with its history as a ‘cultural laboratory’, socio-political concerns emerge when couched in diffidence: Ahmet Ögüt’s tarmacking of an otherwise empty gallery space references asphalt’s emblematizing of governmental modernization projects in his native Turkey. Tris Vonna-Michell’s sprawl of slide projections, audio from a VHS copy of Robocop (1987) and city maps (Studio, 2008), opens slowly onto both contemporary Detroit’s travails and the arcs of mass-cultural products, from cars to futuristic movies. Unsustainable pasts ghost their present aftermaths repeatedly, unhappily, as when David Maljkovic´ collages imagery from the successful Zagreb World Fair in the 1960s onto photographs of the now-decrepit pavilion in which it was housed (Lost Memories from these Days, 2006–8); or when Ania Molska pairs a film of collective labour in Poland with another of tennis balls bouncing around a court (P=W:T (power), 2007–8). Molska’s metal sculpture materializes in the show’s most resonant stretch: the grouping in the newly inaugurated Sculpturenpark Berlin Zentrum, dividing the Kreuzberg and Berlin-Mitte areas of the city. Known, when the Wall went up in 1961, as the Death Strip, now it is an atmospheric wasteland of smashed concrete and wild grasses, hemmed in by flats, waiting for speculators. Subtitled ‘a structure for readings’, Aleana Egan’s steel sculpture, like an oversized, seatless, tubular chair, is a chameleonic thing – echoing nearby curves of a streetlight and the grids of steel fencing – that wants to be useful but seems unsure of how.
Likewise Cyprien Gaillard’s tubular system of light masts, stranded in the farthest field and poised between welcome and threat (The Arena and the Wasteland, 2008). Meanwhile, at quarter-hour intervals, Susan Hiller’s carillon of synthetic notes rises like a benediction from a central mass of rubble (What every gardener knows, 2003). Again that admixture of registers, asking to be understood: it’s lonesome and warming, and drifts over a scatter of objects which, however provisional and imperfect they might look, feel like green shoots.