Bringing together more than 50 international artists and collectives across three sites – Museen Dahlem (an ethnological museum), Haus am Waldsee (formerly a private villa, which now houses a contemporary art institution), and KW Institute for Contemporary Art (an urban art centre, which was also home to Greek architect Andreas Angelidakis’s specially commissioned Crash Pad room/installation) – the 8th Berlin Biennial demonstrated how the assimilation of critical site-specificity by the contexts it critiques has rendered it all but innocuous.
Haus am Waldsee housed a selection of contemporary works labelled ‘A Private Collection’, tastefully hung as though they were the belongings of a moneyed owner. Reduced to plush decor, they could not help but simplify the historical context they were given to criticize. Here, Christodoulos Panayiotou’s gold-leaf monochromes (all Untitled, 2013–14) signified the hollowness of value. His mosaics function as landscapes as well as colour-field abstractions, signs for ‘ethnic’ as well as ‘modern’ art. But within the Haus am Waldsee such ambiguities seemed to have been coerced by the biennial’s curator, Juan A. Gaitán, into representing indulgence or theft. These were gnomic hints compared to more heavy-handed references to colonialism: Carla Zaccagnini’s Le Quintor des Nègres, encore (2014) – a carbon copy of the score of Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s ‘Quintet of the Negros’ from the ballet Paul and Virginie (c. 1882) – is a provocative reference, slickly mounted. Matts Leiderstam’s photographs of the fronts and backs of 16th-century paintings from Berlin’s museum collections (The Connoisseur’s Eye, 2014) reduced the paintings to stamped, labelled holdings.
Though KW is a venue specifically for contemporary art, Judy Radul’s Look, Look Away, Look Back (2014) remained true to the biennial’s museological trope: a monitor showing the South Seas collection at the ethnological museum in Dahlem was presented beside another one rigged to closed-circuit cameras around vitrines containing ship’s rope at KW. David Zink Yi’s film The Strangers (2014) contrasts rocky terrain with subterranean mine works, as though, deprived of a more historically-charged site to react against, the controversial context becomes that of nature. Silence is jarred by mechanical roars, nature contends with man, the unadulterated against the usurped. But look again, and the rubble seems discoloured, polluted. What is being mined? The film insinuates environmental corruption that it never fully confirms. Irene Kopelman’s taxonomic gouaches extend the space between nature and representation until the cellular patterning through which she interprets leaves and branches registers a beat before they come into pictorial focus.
In Dahlem, Gaitán inserted contemporary works into the museum’s collection. The historical density of a hall of Mesoamerican archaeological relics contrasted with the cool veneer of Iman Issa’s po-faced play on museological etiquettes (‘Lexicon’, 2012–ongoing): formalistic sculptures placed under plaques describing unspecified historical art works to suggest the symbolically disassociated binary of form and its naming. If there was at least humour in Wolfgang Tillmans’s placement of a high-viz Nike hightop in a vitrine next to a wall text from the permanent displays on ‘Cultural Change through European Influences’, it was nevertheless facetious.
Vitrines were everywhere – rhetorically empty, or full of fake library cards, pseudo-botanical vignettes or old jeans – their function reduced to an all-purpose frame for the dubious cultural capital of their contents. Mario Garcia Torres’s installation, Sounds Like Isolation to Me (2014), a room devoted to the composer Conlan Nancarrow, was full of them: the artist transformed salvaged artefacts into a narrative about his own relation to his subject. Torres’s letter to Nancarrow gushes about being ‘conscious of the silence that surrounds [him]’. Was this awkward personalizing intended to place inverted commas around its claim to critique its own documentary medium? Or was Torres thrusting himself into the spotlight on the stage he had so painstakingly constructed for Nancarrow?
I wandered from Torres’s installation into a room of Korean Joseon Dynasty vases from the permanent collection, their stillness and dignity concentrated by comparison. The presentation was immaculate; the biennial was reduced to a peripheral clamour. I thought: here are objects that know how to occupy a vitrine.