Are Today’s Art Biennials Facing an Impasse?

Susanne von Falkenhausen on this summer’s 10th Berlin Biennale, Manifesta 12 and the future of biennials

BY Susanne von Falkenhausen in Features | 24 AUG 18

Recently, I came across an example of curator speak: the kind of litany that has become a creed for the curatorial profession. ‘To displace the notion of the centre, to move the margins, to question borders, categories and hierarchies’, it began. I confess that I can’t hear it anymore. The phrase contains all of the curatorial catchwords that obscure the concreteness of artistic practice. And this, I suppose, was what Gabi Ngcobo, the chief curator of the 10th Berlin Biennale, wanted to work against: ‘avoiding the about-ness’, as she curtly said. Art is a vague enough category already without vague projections of ‘about-ness’. 

In response to ritualized expectations such as these, today’s art biennials are facing an impasse. Since the 1990s, identity politics have centred on visibility as political capital. This has given visual art an astonishing pull outside the art system, decentring not only the hegemonic West but the art system itself. Art is no longer confined to a small community concerned with the disciplinary rigour of aesthetic judgement and the specific skills of the trade. With a global circuit of roughly 200 biennials, art has become an important factor in city marketing and in filtering political discourse for a wider public. Increasingly, biennials are becoming a social commons – less for visitors than for an expanding global network of cultural collaborators, curators and municipal officers. 

After the opening of the Berlin Biennale, a critic in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung asked: ‘Can the promise of a non-Western history of art be fulfilled here?’ Identity-driven expectations such as these were Ngcobo’s main problem. They arise from feelings of Western guilt and desires for (ab)solutions from the aggrieved. What made last year’s documenta 14 so embarrassing was the art of externally identified, and thereby exoticized, others presented as stand-ins for Western guilt. In the Berlin Biennale, it is not only a problem of who tells the story of postcolonial racism, injustice and migration: migrants and artists from the ‘Global South’ or Western artists reporting on them. In a move I’ll call post-identitarian, Ngcobo – with curators Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Yvette Mutumba and Thiago de Paula Souza – wanted to counter the expectation of even having to tell these stories at all.

Mario Pfeifer, Again/Noch einmal, 2018, video still. Courtesy: © Mario Pfeifer Studio and KOW, Berlin/VG Bild-Kunst

Which does not imply that what is shown is apolitical. Many of the works have political intentions and are perceived as such. But it’s symptomatic that the two most visible artworks motivated by racially grounded discrimination and violence are documentary-style videos by artists from Germany. In Natasha A. Kelly’s Milli’s Awakening (2018), Afro-German women discuss daily racism in their lives and their emancipation from it. Mario Pfeifer’s dual-channel video Again/Noch einmal (2018) re-enacts a court case related to racially motivated violence in a German province. In contrast, the greater part of the works by African, Asian and Latin American artists, many of them women, were, I believe, selected to express the artists’ right to be free to work as they damn well please without being boxed in by duties to represent an identity or a cause.

There are a lot of paintings, prints, collages, some installations and a few sculptures, such as a golden water fountain by Luke Willis Thompson (Untitled, 2015) paraphrasing Marcel Duchamp’s (and Sherrie Levine’s) Fountain (1917 and 1991). The classical genres of European 20th-century modernism predominate and the show’s elegant but conventional hang shows this to be a curatorial choice. Johanna Unzueta, a Chilean artist living in Brooklyn, became known for her installations of industrial objects handmade from felt. But, at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste (AdK), we see a series of free-standing drawings (such as May 2016 NY, 2016) based on the geometrical structures of embroidery hoops. Even Ana Mendieta, one of the historical anchor positions, is present at AdK not with one of her combative, feminist, body-related works but with small drawings of plants from the early 1980s. Academic painterly training manifests in portraits by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, while Sam Samiee turns ‘wild’ figurative painting into a room-filling installation (The Unfinished Copernican Revolution, 2018). The result is somewhat paradoxical. We see numerous paintings in styles referring to the history of European painting between 1950 and 1990, from informel (Herman Mbamba) to colour field (Moshekwa Langa) to neo-expressive figuration (Samiee). The works show the skills of (Western) academic training of old; pictorial values and artistic signatures abound. And, under the circumstances, this is, in itself, a political choice.

The curators’ foregrounding of these individual artists’ decisions presents what is not supposed to be represented: a slightly old-fashioned-looking overview of art from mainly non-Euro-American contexts. To highlight these skills is meant, I think, to testify to the individuality of the artists’ aesthetic choices, thereby defying Western expectations of identity-bound representations – and the generalized j’accuse directed against the former colonizer that occurred in documenta 14. Paradoxically, this is done by claiming, as an emancipatory act, just those skills that are somewhat out-of-date in European artistic training and practice. (A turn that once incited complaints by a conservative public about ‘deskilling’ in the arts.) The situation makes me recall November 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and East- German feminist art historians encountered calls from their Western colleagues to join their battles for a feminist art history and for equality in university employment. Their answer was: no, we want to widen our disciplinary skills and read up on research that has been off limits until now. That was the freedom they desired most. 

Ngcobo augmented this post-identitarian approach by providing no information about the artists’ place and year of birth or their education, thus giving no grounds for preconceptions. But this conscious choice of ‘opacity’ also hinders a key demand of feminist critiques of the knowledge system: to make the subject’s position of knowledge transparent – ‘situated knowledge’, as Donna Haraway termed it. When situated knowledge meets identity politics, as it frequently does, knowledge is forced into the straightjacket of preconceptions. Ngcobo’s post-identitarian strategy for dealing with this problem has another effect: unlike in documenta 14, there are no artists playing at being ethnographers. The artists from those global regions that are the theatres of observation for the Western artist-as-ethnographer do not turn the Western ethnographic gaze from ‘South’ to ‘West’. After all, why should artists from Haiti look at their country as a location for field study? 

Portia Zvavahera, Hapana Chitsva (All Is Ancient), 2018, installation view, 10th Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg; photograph: Timo Ohler

Post-identity may not be a bad thing for art but what about post-autonomy? ‘Art’s double character as both autonomous and fait social is incessantly reproduced on the level of its autonomy,’ wrote Theodor W. Adorno. Things have turned around a bit since the 1960s, when Adorno argued in his Aesthetic Theory that aesthetic form (in particular, abstraction) has a relationship to the social body. In Palermo, it’s not so much art’s relation to society that is in focus but society’s relation to art, and the 12th edition of Manifesta makes that very clear.

This year’s event offered its services to the city of Palermo, to the mayor’s ongoing campaign for a Mediterranean culture of hospitality and the global human right of mobility. The nomadic biennial, as its director Hedwig Fijen puts it, brings ‘the visual arts together with the urban, social, historical, economical, ecological and architectural context of each host city.’ Palermo was a brilliant choice for such a commitment, with its multi-millennial history of mixing cultures, turbulent present as a crossroads for immigration and ongoing battle against the Mafia. The city is an allegory for today’s most pressing conflicts – but also for its civil society’s incredible energy in trying to confront them, with projects such as Libera Terra (land confiscated from Mafia owners that is now farmed by co-operatives), Addio Pizzo (an organization of shop owners against racketeering) or the residents of Santa Chiara’s engagement with communities of African Palermitans. No biennial can hold its own against the fascination of this city. The mayor, Leoluca Orlando, calls Palermo a North African city in Europe, suggesting that African refugees are being welcomed as Palermitans with good reason. Behind this is also the idea of the Mediterranean as a region of syncretistic culture, with Palermo more a part of this Mediterranean than of Italy as a national territory.

Manifesta devised a complex structure of research and collaboration to engage with existing activities, groups and situations. Artists were commissioned to do the same. Since the role of the curator did not fit into this structure of communicating vessels between cultural, social and ecological realities, a team of ‘creative mediators’ (Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli and Mirjam Varadinis) was called in ‘to amplify the already existing energies of the city of Palermo’. They integrated the mostly commissioned art elegantly into the city’s neglected palaces, gardens and other areas, still showing the traces of gross urban neglect and corruption. Some are not art works per se but longer-term projects, such as the garden constructed by the inhabitants of the social housing complex, Zona Espansione Nord. 

Presented in gloriously decayed spaces, video is the prevailing medium in Manifesta 12, its style mostly documentary (interviews, talking heads, reportage) with some aesthetic surplus justifying its inclusion in an artistic context – by now a standard format in biennials. But these spaces and, more so, the streets to which the spectators return, are far more intriguing than the videos. The artist as ethnographer is present again, too. In Whipping Zombie (2017), Yuri Ancarani tries to capture the dynamics of a Caribbean ritual remembering the brutalities of slavery, resulting in colourful exoticism. The problem of identity-bound expectations, which the Berlin Biennale’s curatorial team recognized and tried to confront, is blatantly ignored. As is another question: who makes the voices of those without a voice speak? And what does this do to those involved: the ones who speak and the ones who do the documenting?

Herman Mbamba, Until the Wind Blows for Another Time, 2017–18, acrylic on canvas, 2.1 x 3 m. Courtesy: the artist and blank projects, Cape Town; photograph: Edgar Bachel

In the case of Tania Bruguera, one of the few ‘stars’ in the show, this resulted in a problematic oversight. For Article 11 (2018), she collaborated with activists from a Sicilian village who are protesting against a nearby US Navy station that is controlling drones and unmanned aircraft. The work uses their archival material and integrates a wall-painting by Guglielmo Manenti (who is mentioned in the accompanying label), but, in the end, it circulates as Bruguera’s and basta. Activists become instruments of artistic capitalization. A fine line defines the success or failure of these participatory ambitions. 

The works shown at Manifesta 12 are tightly interwoven with its ambitious social, political and ecological engagement. Post-autonomy strikes when the works do not challenge the aesthetic standards of current art practice. Adorno’s balance (or struggle) between art’s dual character – both autonomous and fait social – is reduced to something single-minded. Aesthetically, the art at Manifesta does not risk much. That’s what makes it so pleasantly easy to consume – yet not so exciting either. It is more interesting to discuss the political implications of filming with drones than the aesthetic ones – which was what happened during the opening conference when Laura Poitras presented her video, Signal Flow (2018), about the presence of US military communications in Sicily. Manifesta’s content may have been controversial but its form certainly was not. The city itself offers more radical aesthetic confrontations.

With both biennials, I have the strong feeling that the exhibition is not their most important element. As a spectator, I felt like a visitor in a community of artists, curators, collaborators, activists, cultural operators and city administrators that established itself temporarily during the long process of putting the biennials together. At documenta 14 last year, my impression was different: the viewer was shouted at by loud and accusatory art. In comparison, the art of the 10th Berlin Biennale and Manifesta 12 is circumspect. Increasingly, art is becoming a pretext for whatever services biennials provide, whether civil debate or city PR. Manifesta combines both, and is very open about it. Art’s autonomy is of no value here. The artists operate within a framework of functionality and freedom comparable to that of designers commissioned for an image campaign or the layout of a book. The results profit from the training the artists received at art school. But these skills are now applied in a double sense: that of ‘applied art’ and that of post-autonomy.  

At the Berlin Biennale, in contrast, the autonomy of artistic expression is a value put forward on visual terms against the politics of identity. The result is artistically (and curatorially) somewhat conservative, but autonomy turned against the clichés of identity politics is at least a liberatory argument. In the long run, I prefer it to the idea of art as service provider – not just for art’s sake, but because I firmly believe that art’s complete integration into function will weaken it to such a degree that it stops being useful for precisely that function. This is one version of the dialectics of art Adorno taught us, reflected in the crossroads between post-autonomy and post-identity that biennials are confronting. A strategy like the one adopted by this year’s Manifesta might ultimately lead to the end of the biennial as a platform for political articulation and aesthetic engagement.

Main image: Pizzo Sella, Palermo, 2018. Courtesy: Manifesta; photograph: Cave Studio

Susanne von Falkenhausen is an art historian and professor emerita of modern and contemporary art history, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. Publications include Kugelbau­visionen (2008) and Praktiken des Sehens im Felde der Macht (2011).