BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 01 JAN 99
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Issue 44

Berlin Biennale

BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 01 JAN 99

So now Berlin has a Biennale. But what for? The exhibition title 'Berlin/Berlin' gives some indication: the project aims to present Berlin once again as Germany's cultural capital, as a 'city on the move'. Curators Klaus Biesenbach, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Nancy Spector (the latter two retreated into an advisory capacity a few weeks before the opening), attempted to show the metropolis as a home for 'hybrid' culture. Thus a good third of the participants come from the worlds of design, architecture, film, fashion, music and literature.

The exhibition catalogue reflects this interdisciplinary claim. Designed like a town guide, it contains some information about the Biennale, but mainly comprises instructive material about Berlin: literary texts, contributions by artists and essays on architecture, history and politics. But the contributions to the exhibitions from non-art disciplines didn't make much of an impact: video presentations of fashion shows by Jürgen Frisch, John de Maya and Bless, for example, along with the odd architectural model, remained foreign bodies in a context that is quite unambiguously (despite the complete omission of painting) that of a pure art exhibition.

The Biennale's survey of the Berlin art scene is not really comprehensive. Certainly many of the artists shown can be seen in Berlin, but the majority of them are present because of Berlin institutions, prominent galleries, or DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service. It is certainly not possible to say that they are all part of a specific Berlin scene. The list of artists - to mention just a few of the better-known names: Gabriel Orozco, Douglas Gordon, Carsten Höller, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Fabrice Hybert, Pipilotti Rist - only goes to show that Berlin is an increasingly well-frequented transit station for the international art business.

The exhibition venues were obviously chosen to illustrate the fact that the city is still a building-site: the Kunst-Werke is an old building whose expensive renovation was not completed until shortly before the Biennale opened, while the nearby Postfuhramt, which used to house mail-coaches, and the Akademie der Künste (just near the Brandenburg Gate) are prestigious but dilapidated buildings still waiting to be refurbished. This half-monstrous, half-charming aesthetic of temporary architecture is further accentuated by Walter Musacchi's contribution: flat wooden walkways leading to the entrances of the Akademie and the Kunst-Werke and through the various rooms in the Postfuhramt.

Much more successful than the Berlin theme, especially in the Postfuhramt, is the notion of 'ambient space', a strategy which involves creating a scenario that transforms the exhibition space into an evocation of a certain emotional condition. Jonathan Meese's installation Ahoi de Angst (Fear Ahoy, 1998) turns the gallery into an intricate system made up of different levels, steps and balustrades, stuffed to the ceiling, like shops in Carnaby Street or Camden, with subcultural devotional objects - including large posters of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Klaus Kinski, Nina Hagen, Little Joe and Oscar Wilde. These are scribbled with statements like 'Ich bin de Urmarquis de Sade' (I am the primeval Marquis de Sade). Accompanied by DAF's early 80s, hammering, martial, electric-punk single Verschwende Deine Jugend ('Waste Your Youth'), this work brings to mind the nervous turmoil of pubescent identity-building.

Dominique Gonzales-Foerster worked with considerably greater economy of means, transforming part of her exhibition space into a film set: two adjacent walls painted brown framed a brown carpet on the floor and brown furniture. A shiny, silver-foil frieze is mounted at hip level and the light is muted, creating the atmosphere of a dodgy hotel - erotically charged, intimate and disreputable. It's a scenario that could have come from Fassbinder's iconography - his portrait appears in this work too, hanging in a darkened corner of the room.

These works establish direct contact with a pop-cultural iconography that became conventional long ago (Teenage Angst, Seedy Glamour and Weltschmerz) - but each recharges it with meaning. This is a new approach to the appropriation and restaging of cultural icons: not deconstructing them in order to instruct and inform, but reclaiming them emotionally and intensifying them imaginatively within the space. In this sense 'Berlin/Berlin' does, on one level, set up an exchange of ideas - even if they aren't necessarily about Berlin.

Translated by Michael Robinson

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.