in Reviews | 31 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 5

Berlin Biennale 7

Different Locations

in Reviews | 31 MAY 12

Joanna Rajkowska, Born in Berlin, 2012, Film still

There are two key moments in this Biennale. Both have to do with proportions and viewpoints. The first: entering Kunst-Werke (KW)on the ground floor, you come to a railing and look down into the basement-level white cube below. There you see a miniature tent encampment housing a few representatives of Spain’s indignado activists but mainly the periphery of the German Occupy movement. The specific construction of the space forces visitors to look down on the non-artists as if they were polar bears in an enclosure. Even when you go down among the tents, this first impression cannot be erased. Why did the artist-curator Artur Żmijewski and his co-curator Joanna Warsza (the associate curators from the Voina artists’ collective were apparently unable to leave Russia due to legal problems) present the invited (not occupying) activists in this particular way and place? Either the zoo effect was a blunder or something they were deliberately aiming for.

The second key moment: you go up to the KW’s first floor and find the head of the world’s largest statue of Jesus, erected by Mirosław Patecki in 2010 in Świebodzin in western Poland and reproduced as a full-scale copy in expanded polystyrene by the artist (Christ The King, 2012). The original statue is ultra-pompous and warlike, its outstretched arms more of a threat than an invitation. The artist is clearly at home examining the heart of Polish nationalism and arch-Catholicism. It’s as if Żmijewski wanted to say: Look, right-wing populists can do this – why can’t we left-wing artists do it, too?

As a whole, this Biennale, with its motto Forget Fear, seems to owe a great deal to Żmijewski’s state of mind. In his foreword to the accompanying book, he complains of his ‘repeated disappointment with artistic propositions’, saying he feels ‘lassitude and a mood verging on depression’ in view of the everyday art business in galleries, the curatorial practice of ‘administering art objects’ and the attendant ‘intellectual discourse that frames them’. He contrasts this malaise with a search for art that ‘acts and functions in effective processes of change’.

The Biennale must be credited with forcing people to judge it in terms of its own ethical and political rhetoric, rather than merely reaching a taste-based verdict. In one room, under the title Breaking the News, videos show far-right demonstrations against Roma people in the Czech Republic, street battles in Athens, feminist actions by the FEMEN group in Ukraine or scenes from post-revo­lutionary Egypt, but the question is not whether one finds this or that video ‘better’. Instead, it is whether the room delivers what it promises – the stimulating, cacophonic representation of a global left-wing public counter-movement as shown on videos spread on the Internet. In the Arab Spring, the need to make a militant stand against autocratic regimes was beyond doubt. But this does not justify placing the main emphasis here on the visual scanning of street battles and hand-to-hand fighting – as if backgrounds and structures had nothing to do with politics (accordingly, the room has little to say about the financial crisis). The visible struggles become symbolic fodder for art that craves radicality.

The situation is similar concerning Jonas Staal’s project announced under the title New World Summit as ‘an alternative parliament of political and juridical representatives of organizations placed on international terrorist lists’. The question is not whether it works in aesthetic terms to have the flags of all these organizations hanging from the ceiling in the Kunst-Werke like veils – but rather what it means in this context that the groups in question (from the IRA via Hezbollah to al-Qaeda or the Philippine Abu Sayyaf) are not actually named in the space. The list is given on the website for this project (, which took place as a congress on the 4 and 5 May, but the descriptions of the individual groups are scanty. If the aim was to highlight human rights violations in view of Guantanamo and state terrorism, then such an information policy is alarmingly stupid. And if it was about aestheticizing clandestinity, then it is even stupider.

Khaled Jarrar, State of Palestine, 2012

Another example: visitors can have a Palestinian state stamp designed by Khaled Jarrar with its Palestine Sunbird symbol stamped into their passports. This work constitutes a justified critique of Israel’s harassment of Palestinians at its borders. But a wall text about the work notes that the project ‘refuses the division of Palestine since 1947’ – which is nothing less than a denial by Jarrar of Israel’s right to exist. Why is this information not stated clearly? Perhaps because no one thought about it. Perhaps because this way there will be more approval from liberal art-lovers. These are precisely the kind of covering up tactics and ideological warping of reality which are so common among populist politicians.

The artist Żmijewski applies his well-tried strategies of social collage (not social sculpture) to the Biennale as a whole, with four distinct kinds of transplantation in evidence: showing non-artists as artists and political groups as ready-mades; showing historical events as re-enactments (the 1945 battle for Berlin performed by 50 Polish non-professional actors in the Spreepark and initiated by Maciej Mielecki); inserting right-wing, reactionary and/or naive art into the context of left-wing and liberal contemporary art (the Jesus statue; the stained-glass windows and coats of arms of the predominantly right-wing associations representing those expelled from Germany’s former eastern territories, in the Deutschlandhaus); and the literal transplanting of life, as in Łucasz Surowiec’s ultra-kitschy Berlin-Birkenau (2012), for which he brought 320 young birch trees (Birke in German) from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Berlin, or in Joanna Rajkowska’s Born in Berlin (2012), which documents the birth of the artist’s daughter in Berlin, including surgical details and the burial of the placenta in front of the Reichstag.

One of the few convincing works in this Biennale is actually by Teresa Margolles, of all people, who has in the past cast stillborn foetuses in concrete (Entierro/Burial, 1999). Like a Hanne Darboven hanging, Margolles’s PM 2010 (2010) lines up title pages of the Mexican tabloid PM from the drug-war-plagued border city of Ciudad Juárez – and almost every one shows pictures of mutilated corpses alongside saucy pin-ups. One may find such repeated presentation of this obscene circumstance an obscenity in itself, but it does enable Margolles to illustrate the mechanism of the sexualization of violence directly. For once, this simple repetition actually makes present a political issue instead of just dabbling in commentary or symbolization.

But even Margolles’s work fits the overall pattern if one reduces it to gawping at monstrosities. Taken together, Żmijewski’s strategies of transplantation reveal the mindset of an art that longs in equal measure for monumentality and naivety, for power and punishment. Criticism of such an oedipal-patriarchal psychological structure is of course anticipated within the mindset itself – not as an opportunity for self-reflection, but as stimulus and incitement. So does this Biennale do political art a service or a disservice? I would argue for the former: it frees art from a central illusion. It shows once and for all that art for which politics primarily means the spectacle of physical intensity ultimately leads either to the harmlessness of hollow gestures of radicality or to what the Dead Kennedys once referred to as Zen fascism. After that, it can only get better.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell