The trailer for Battle of Berlin ’45 was certainly promising. This slick, cinematic preview for one of the 7th Berlin Biennale’s opening events, a restaging of the eponymous battle by a Polish World War II re-enactment group, featured bombed-out buildings with real tanks and dramatic gunfights. The re-enactment itself, which took place a few days after the biennial’s official opening, turned out to be a small staging in an abandoned fun park amidst plastic dinosaurs and defunct snack kiosks. From behind a wooden fence, viewers strained to see a few costumed men exchanging fake bullets. The battle lasted only a few minutes, after which the ‘soldiers’ gladly posed for pictures with visitors. Battle of Berlin ’45 was, inadvertently, an apt metaphor for the 7th Berlin Biennale as a whole. Titled ‘Forget Fear’, it presented a staging of conflict under controlled conditions, drained of spontaneity or urgency – a performance of politics rather than politics itself.
According to curator Artur Żmijewski: ‘The concept of the 7th Berlin Biennale is quite straightforward and can be condensed into a single sentence: we present art that actually works, makes its mark on reality, and opens a space where politics can be performed.’ But the claim is anything but straightforward. Like much of the rhetoric produced by Żmijewski and co-curators Joanna Warsza and Russian collective Voina, it presumes a false dichotomy between art that ‘works’ and art that doesn’t, between art ‘objects’ and art ‘actions’ – a binary that ignores large swathes of contemporary artistic practice. Furthermore, Żmijewski’s notion of politics being ‘performed’ is ambiguous: the definition of ‘performance’ could imply efficiency and efficacy; or, on the other hand, a rehearsal or staging. The latter hews closer to Żmijewski’s own art works (one of which, Berek, Game of Tag, 1999 – a group of naked Poles playing a game of tag in a former gas chamber – is included in the show), which play out under conditions he dictates. The ambiguity speaks of the greater ambivalence that plagues this biennial: it strives to be politically engaged while including all voices; it advocates art that ‘works’ while not specifying to what ends; it wants the benefits of imposing the frame of the biennial but the radicality of working outside of it.
‘Forget Fear’ endeavours to perform two curatorial feats at once: presenting art works that enter into the realm of politics or ‘real life’, while also ‘exhibiting’ real political actions. The former attempt produces hypothetical movements as political acts, which fail as politics, or projects so plagued by heavy-handed symbolism (see Łukasz Surowiec’s re-planting of 320 saplings collected from Auschwitz-Birkenau) or so earnestly democratic that they fail as art (see Paweł Althamer’s Draftsmen’s Congress, 2012). The attempt to frame political movements within an art exhibition, as in the oxymoronic ‘invitation’ extended to members of Occupy and the Indignados to inhabit the ground floor of KW, neutralizes their activism by filtering it through the lens of representation, rendering their action less urgent and their presence more harmless.
These attempts to frame art works as political activism, and vice-versa, make it apparent that the boundary between the two realms is less ‘blurred’ than so many press releases and curatorial statements would have it. If a political movement fails, it is considered a failure, with tangible consequences: a politician is not elected, government funds are squandered, a bill is not passed, rights are not granted. But if an art work fails at being political, it does not necessarily fail as an art work. Several of the grander projects included in the biennial fall into this gap: Yael Bartana’s Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, her attempt to convince three million Jews to return to Poland; Public Movement’s ‘Rebranding European Muslims’ campaign; or the Institute for Human Activities’ ‘Gentrification Programme’ in the Congo. All of these will most likely fall short of their aims, though we do not have criteria by which to judge their relative success or failure. What makes them unsuccessful as political movements or social activism – the idea that failure is built in to their counterintuitive, hypothetical propositions – is also what makes them resonant or poignant as works of art.
But the curators do not choose to frame these projects as such. Instead, they believe that by declaring the works political, they immediately become so – the equivalent of announcing that you’re running for office without being on the ballot. The change they call for is more change, the action they ask for is more action. Amid the confusing amount of rhetoric surrounding the exhibition, the overlapping spray-painted protest slogans in the KW, and multiple screens in ‘Breaking the News’, a curated selection of videos shot by artists and journalists showing protests from Neo-Nazi rallies in Magdeburg to anti-government protests in Athens, the curators have created an inclusive cacophony of voices rather than a single message to their audience.
As Żmijewski himself admits, the difference between politics and art is that the stakes art plays for are ‘purely symbolic’. As failed symbolism is far less catastrophic than a failed political movement, the performances of politics that play out across ‘Forget Fear’, ultimately, have no real stakes; they restage, reconstruct and reverse-engineer real political conditions into metaphors, but the show as a whole risks no real failure. Seeing the room of documentation in the concurrent exhibition of ‘Pacific Standard Time’ at Martin-Gropius-Bau – which records California artists’ organization of, and participation in, protests against the Vietnam War – proves how artists can mobilize in the service of a single political aim. That reality is still an exciting proposition, and for that reason I wanted to see ‘Forget Fear’ succeed. But I wish the curators had been more explicit about what success would have meant to them. The incisive interviews in the catalogue are already one promising facet, and it will take just one project that creates a dialogue, exposes an underlying issue, or sparks a change inside or outside of the art world for the biennial to partially achieve its aim. But I’m not sure if the Berlin Biennale – an exhibition funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation and BMW, in a city to which artists still flock for cheap studio space – is a context that can produce enough friction. If the underlying conditions for political uprising are present, this biennial has so far failed to provide an infrastructure to mobilize them. Like Battle of Berlin ’45, the 7th Berlin Biennale has so far generated more smoke than fire.