It’s difficult to judge the 8th Berlin Biennale outside of the context created by its predecessor. Two years ago, Artur Żmjiewski endeavoured to substitute activism for art with World War II reenactments, ‘politkitsch’ and Occupy as theatre. I didn’t much care for that Biennale – its attempt to tear down the barricades of the art world through direct action felt too obvious, it was trying too hard to be provocative and many of the works were politically over-simplified, some dangerously so. And yet the Żmjiewski biennale casts a shadow over this year’s event, curated by Juan A. Gaitán. Making the rounds of the three exhibition spaces (the Dahlem Museums – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; the old mansion at the Haus am Waldsee museum and the exhibition’s traditional headquarters at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art), it was nearly impossible to characterize the over-intellectualized thoughtfulness of this biennale, its retreat into museums and its long-winded self-reflexivity, as any- thing but a reaction to Żmjiewski crude political spectacle.
Even viewing Gaitán’s biennale as a stand-alone event and not as an antidote to the fallout of the previous iteration – in other words, leaving aside the squirming, but ultimately open question of whether such a tame follow-up was enough to ensure future funding – Gaitán’s exhibition falls apart at the seams. It ambles aimlessly between overarching concept and the lack of it. It denies itself a strong curatorial hand but doesn’t trust the art enough to forgo an apologetically vague framework: postcolonial intersections and representational politics in museums. In the catalogue, Gaitán identifies Berlin as exemplary of ‘a larger tendency around the world to mobilize history in order to reinforce the hegemony of certain dominant narratives’ – a tendency, he goes on, ‘to move history onto centre stage and to disavow the last century.’ But at the same time, it was important to him ‘to keep the curatorial approach to Berlin on a tentative level.’
This careful approach compelled many of the installations to burrow deep into intricate references, to dive beneath opaque surfaces or to conduct pure artistic research without knowledge as the outcome. Shilpa Gupta employs diary excerpts, drawings, videos and photographs to poetically document everday life on the contested Indian-Bangladeshi border (Untitled, 2013–14); Li Xiaofei stoically presents the work day in Chinese factories in his multi-channel video installation Assembly Line (2010–ongoing). Cynthia Gutiérrez presents two marble busts facing each other – one of Benito Mussolini and one of Haile Selassie I – and hangs a wall tapestry that depicts the return of the Obelisk of Axum to Ethiopia after it was stolen by Italian fascists (Diálogo entre naciones and Partial Death, both 2012).
Sometimes, significant contextual information is simply hidden. As is the case in Matts Leiderstam’s work exhibited in the Haus am Waldsee museum. Showing photographs of artworks by anonymous artists from the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, Leiderstam arranged them so that their backs (also photographed) were visible – the works’ labels showing ownership and attribution. The key remaining details about the squabbles over provenances, however, are only available in a PDF buried in the biennale’s website. Very few of the exhibition’s installations interact directly with the permanent collection of the Dahlem Museums – exceptions are Tarek Atoui’s music recitals using historic instruments from the ethnological collection (Dahlem Sessions, 2013–ongoing) and Mariana Castillo Deball’s replicas of pieces from the Mesoamerican collection that was partially lost in World War II (You have time to show yourself before other eyes, 2014). In general the installation reflected a conscious curatorial decision toward detachment: for the most part the works didn’t interact with the ethnological collections, but rather were presented in wings emptied for this purpose.
Not many works relied on purely visual or formal categories; there are no paintings, for example. Only a few pieces tried to work outside of the context of Gaitán’s implicitly given thematic directions. And for those rare pieces that do break the mould – like Leonor Antunes’ knot, rope and weaving ensemble that encompasses an entire floor of the KW (a secluded and pleasant land. in this land I wish to dwell, 2014) – one wonders how they found their way into the biennale in the first place. Most of the contributions use a discursive, research-based approach, rely on reference or employ an ethnological gaze in the broadest sense of the term. In Szondi/Eden (Variations of a Floor Ornament from a Shopping Mall in Berlin-Lichtenberg) (2014), for example, Olaf Nicolai turned his attention to a mall in east Berlin that has been cleared for demolition. He transferred its floor mosaic into the Dahlem Museum’s entrance hall, making one of the exhibition’s only references to Berlin’s proclivity for finding temporary uses for the city’s empty buildings. Past Biennales have employed this strategy successfully and, as admitted by Gaitán in the catalogue, the mall was initially mooted as a venue for this biennale. Alberto Baraya’s Expedition Berlin, Herbarium of Artificial Plants (2013–ongoing) also attempts to redirect the ethnologic gaze – but is unsuccessful. Displaying artificial flowers as precious originals in classic museum displays is all too trite.
Just how tentative and careful – read superficial – this Biennale’s relationship is to the city (and therefore its immediate environment) becomes painfully clear in cases where a more direct approach could have produced a valid (political) contribution. For example, the ethnological collection will move from the Dahlem Museums to the Humboldt Forum within the rebuilt Berlin Schloss (slated for completion in 2019). This contentious decision – migrating an ethnological collection into a newly constructed building with a reconstructed colonial-era façade – was hardly discussed. Only Judy Radul’s installation Look. Look Away. Look Back (2014) in the KW explicitly approached the subject. She rebuilt the Dahlem Museum’s colourful displays of the Oceania collection. Additionally, monitors showed live footage from cameras installed at KW as well as recorded footage from Dahlem. In the end there isn’t much to see and the purpose of additional plaques with short poetic texts and references to Judith Butler housed in display cabinets with rope wasn’t clear either.
I’ll say it again: no one expects the biennale to be political or to necessarily focus on Berlin. Given the concerns of previous editions, it’s fine if all that is left behind. Indeed that might allow space for the art to unfold itself – but that’s not what happened here. Terrified of being reduced to political symbolism, this biennale demotes its location to a mere backdrop. In the end it felt as if the biennale locked its different elements in the Ethnological Museum one night to ruminate on Eurocentrism, human transgressions and missteps in representational politics; until they emerged bleary-eyed with something unrecognizable and obscured of meaning.
Translated by Yana Vierboom