BY Dominic Eichler in Reviews | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

Berlin Biennale 2

BY Dominic Eichler in Reviews | 09 SEP 01

The second Berlin Biennale ('BB2'), curated by Saskia Bos, Director of De Appel, Amsterdam, included 49 artists from 31 countries. Bos made a point of inviting a number of relatively unknown artists, some of whom work away from the main art centres. As a rule, large group exhibitions are notoriously indigestible, a mixture of compulsory and impossible viewing, and this one proved no exception. It was like responding to a groaning smorgasbord at an official function - you might admire the selection, but couldn't possibly consume everything. This problem seems worth mentioning because 'BB2' made all kinds of demands on, and presumptions about, viewers' preconceptions and prejudices without anticipating scepticism. The subtitle, 'Beyond the Self', and the catchwords 'relationality, concern and connectedness' indicated the show's main focus - young art trying to be socio-politically relevant. Accordingly, while the much flashier inaugural Berlin Biennale related to Berlin, this time the aim was 'global' and the overall mood sombre.

Video works abounded and most of the best, apart from being well installed, were linked by their astute mixing of documentary and fiction, or narrative and image. Aernout Mik's Glutinosity (2001), for example, depicts a staged, slow-moving, endless demonstration in which protesters and riot police act out a familiar but abstracted form of social choreography. Also in this category were

Darren Almond's compelling three-screen work Traction (1999), and Fiona Tan's double-sided Tuareg (1999). Almond interviewed his father about his industrial accidents, filmed his mother's non-verbal responses and placed grainy footage of a demolition site between them. Tan's work used two different soundtracks to profoundly colour some found footage of villagers preparing for a group portrait. Double-takes and direct confrontation could also be seen in Arturas Raila's chilling Unter der Fahne (Under the Flag, 2000) - a two-screen installation probing the visual comprehension of a group of neo-Nazis viewing video images of wooden shoes and drag queens. A world away was Kutlug

Ataman's moving documentary Never My Soul (2001), which explored the private life of a Turkish transexual.

Less effective were a number of participatory pieces that demanded physical involvement, offered services, take aways, or works that involved 'relational aesthetics', such as Surasi Kusolwong's Happy Berlin (Free Massage)(2001).

High-density art viewing takes a toll and after a while differences tend to dissolve: Katarzyna Józefowicz's Carpet (1997-2000) - a work composed of thousands of images of personalities cut out of magazines - demonstrated this feeling well. One of the obvious problems of 'BB2' was that its topography - despite the fact it was spread over four very different venues - didn't counteract this effect. For instance, much of the fatigue-inducing video work was grouped together in a grungy chain of dark rooms. Often installations seemed to be placed simply where the space allowed, and wall works appeared to be hung according to scale. With hindsight, it's difficult to think of any really inspired combinations.

Regardless, there were some engaging installations, including Octavian Trauttmandorff's Smoking - Non Smoking (Architecture) (1994-2001). It consisted of an improvised corridor made from a long developer-stained photograph, cracked casts of institutional seating, and a smartly crappy video depicting the wanton dismantling of a room in an Austrian halfway house. Another was The Glamour (2000) by Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan - a pasta-like marriage of barbed wire and pink fluorescent light with a mirrored backdrop. If the barbs in this work evoked harsh political realities elsewhere embedded in the glam side of art, then its iconoclastic undertones were not alone. The tail end of Liam Gillick's text piece for an attic meeting place, whileeuhweakeningumtheyouknowthekindofpowerofautonomyorwhatever (2001), was intended to be installed kilometres away, on the office tower of one of the exhibition's major sponsors. Christian Jankowski's video Rosa (2000) addressed 'fundamental questions in art' through a slick spoof made possible through an exchange of his art ideas for a film-maker's resources. But, apart from these, few were as economic and refined as Jonathan Monk's looped two films, one titled in part: SolLewittonehundredcubes ... (2000), which suggests an unwinnable contest between flickering abstract details of works from Sol Lewitt and Gerhard Richter.

Dominic Eichler is a Berlin-based writer, former contributing editor of frieze and now co-director of Silberkuppe, Berlin.