The notion of reality in the sphere of art is almost always connected to realism, or the depiction of the world as it presents itself to the human eye, without exaggeration or interpretation. It has its roots in the Enlightenment belief that truth can be perceived by our senses and expressed through visual or textual representations. The gap between the world as it ‘really’ is and the world as we perceive and describe it is something the German filmmaker Alexander Kluge has called the ‘hole in reality’, and is what the 6th Berlin Biennale, ‘What is Waiting Out There’, set out to examine and, perhaps in some ways, even to rectify.
The exhibition was spread across six venues: the Biennale’s usual home base at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Alte Nationalgalerie and, for the first time, four venues in the Kreuzberg district to the southeast of the city centre, including an abandoned department store on the Oranienplatz. Wandering around this last venue, which functioned as the main exhibition space, I could not help wondering why, whenever we talk about reality in the arts, we always seem to mean bleak, dreary, miserable realities. Is that really all that’s ‘waiting out there’? It seems as if war, economic injustice, protests, terrorism, environmental destruction and other sorts of advanced human mayhem are the order of the day. Not that these are not urgent problems, but video after video speaking of these evils seems excessively traumatic and overwrought. Then again, I am a sensitive soul.
In her catalogue essay, curator Kathrin Rhomberg stresses her conviction that art made today is mostly introspective and that formal and aesthetic concerns are leading in many cases to historicism, retrospection and revisionism. Her exhibition set out to counteract this via works that ‘insist on a realistic perception of our realities’. But to denigrate art works whose primary subjects are form, (art) history or aesthetics as escapist, apolitical or overly market-oriented seems exaggerated and unimaginative.
The Biennale’s bare-bones style made clear that it sought to avoid spectacle, that it didn’t want to please and that it certainly did not intend to entertain. Rhomberg’s curatorial insertions – including an empty white space on the second floor of KW, as well as the passages left empty in the middle of the show, and other such places of pause – created moments of irritation that broke up the flow and prevented any sense of harmony from being established.
Why must we necessarily feel closer to reality in the middle of Kreuzberg, an area plagued by social tensions, in a dilapidated department store? Why is this preferable to looking at the same art works in a conventional gallery space? The idea of ruin-as-exhibition-space – a constant in recent biennials – is annoying when the site competes for attention with the art works. Yet, to Rhomberg’s credit, a few remarkable works distinguished themselves from the rubble. One surprise hit was John Smith’s 1976 16mm film The Girl Chewing Gum, a humorous reflection on the relationship between art and reality and the dialogue between documentary and artifice. Set on a street corner in East London, we hear the artist giving directions to the pedestrians, and they seem to follow his orders, until the camera zooms out and we realize that Smith’s voice-over was added later, after the visuals had been shot.
Entering the Kreuzberg venue, one was confronted with Roman Ondák’s Zone (2010). The piece not only mimicked a museum coat-check, it actually operated as one, the only difference being that its size was so out of proportion for the venue that it would have been sufficient for Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on a busy day. Zone went far beyond the game of spotting what is art and what is not, reflecting the desires of the organizers to attract a big crowd while becoming something that the exhibition was specifically not about: a huge, beautiful, surreal sculpture that was entirely out of place in this potpourri of so-called realism.
Possibly the oddest, yet also the most wonderful moment of the Biennale was an exhibition-within-the-exhibition at the Alte Nationalgalerie, in which the eminent art historian Michael Fried curated a selection of paintings and works on paper by the 19th-century German artist Adolph Menzel. Not only did it bring contemporary art audiences into the Alte Nationalgalerie, a unique trove of pre-20th-century German art (including an astonishing number of first-rate Caspar David Friedrich paintings on the top floor), but it also offered art works that speak about everyday life with such precision and exquisite sense of form that the rest of the Biennale seemed like a footnote in the discussion of art committed to reality. Menzel’s modest and yet masterful chalk drawing Ungemachtes Bett (Unmade Bed, c.1845) creates a rare physical closeness to his subject that pulls the viewer right onto the paper.
The many film and video works in the Biennale speak about 20th-century dictators, Russian suburbs, global migration, foreign workers and troubled French teenagers. One remarkable video piece, Minerva Cuevas’ Dissidence v 2.0 (2010), is ostensibly a depiction of large-scale demonstrations in Mexico City, but it focuses mostly on the formal aspects of the banners, creating a kind of index of the various types of posters, signs, flags and slogans. In the end, a bit of ‘real’ reality snuck in: outside the Oranienplatz venue, local groups had put up posters protesting against the gentrification of the neighbourhood and singling out the Biennale as partly to blame. The irony was inescapable. Even as it inundated us with images of the troubled realities it tried to analyze and expose, the Biennale was ‘really’ part of – and a contributor to – a much larger system in which commercial interests always win.
The 6th Berlin Biennale was certainly consistent and tackled issues worth tackling. In the end, however, I must agree with Victor Hugo, a contemporary of Menzel, who famously stated: ‘The human soul has greater need of the ideal than of the real. It is by the real that we exist; it is by the ideal that we live.’