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Issue 215

Why the Real 11th Berlin Biennale Happens Outside the Institution

The strongest components of the unusually dispersed exhibition "take art from the altar and into the vernacular"

BY Pablo Larios in EU Reviews , Reviews | 25 SEP 20

‘There are ten thousand ways of belonging to one’s time,’ the psychiatrist Nise da Silveira repeats, as though hypnotized. Eschewing practices of lobotomy and electrotherapy, and influenced by the psychological archetypes of Carl Jung, the Marxist Rio de Janeiro doctor held that illness could release unconscious drives. In 1952, the Museum of Unconscious Images was born.

In Gropius Bau – one of four venues hosting this year’s 11th Berlin Biennale – hang paintings by two of Da Silveira’s patients, Adelina Gomes and Carlos Pertuis, while Leon Hirszman’s 1988 documentary Images of Unconscious, depicting Da Silveira, screens alongside them. Made between the late 1940s and 1970s, the paintings are almost painful in their flatness, depicting unhinged family dynamics and fantastical scenes. Until recently, we may have naïvely labelled such canvases ‘outsider art’. Now, the label chafes. Outside is in. After all: ‘there are ten thousand ways of belonging to one’s time.’

'Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente', installation view, 11th Berlin Biennale, Gropius Bau, 2020. Courtesy: 11th Berlin Biennale; photograph: Mathias Völzke

This is one of the biennial’s many case studies, derived from the curators’ remarkable research, which resemble Michel Foucault’s historical excavations and his ideas of ‘biopower’: a rule over life through illness, stigma or imprisonment. The show’s art doesn’t simply unseat Western religious, colonial and patriarchal institutions. No, these demons are carefully, agonisingly exorcised. In the words of the exhibition’s title (a line by Egyptian poet Iman Mersal): ‘The crack begins within.’

This is an unusual biennial, deliberately so. ‘We were all conscious that the biennial model had to change,’ Agustín Pérez Rubio, one of its four co-curators, told me. When Pérez Rubio, with María Berríos, Renata Cervetto and Lisette Lagnado, came to Berlin, they didn’t tarry. They quietly staged the biennial’s inaugural show, ‘exp. 1 The Bones of the World’, in autumn 2019 at ExRotaprint, a space in working-class Berlin-Wedding that doubled as their HQ. Two more exhibitions followed. (The current show is conceived as an ‘epilogue’ to those three efforts.) ‘The Bones of the World’ was named after a 1930s travelogue by Flávio de Carvalho – a Brazilian artist, engineer, architect, furniture designer, writer, eccentric and erstwhile cross-dressing ballerina: a lodestar not only for this biennial but for this moment.

Andrés Pereira Paz, EGO FVLCIO COLLVMNAS EIVS [I FORTIFY YOUR COLUMNS], 2020, installation view, 11th Berlin Biennale, Gropius Bau, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Crisis Galería, Lima; Galería Isla Flotante, Buenos Aires; photograph: Mathias Völzke

Take, for instance, Carvalho’s infamous action at a Corpus Christi religious procession in São Paulo in 1931, where he incited the crowd and flaunted its devotion, sparking a small riot before, in his own words, almost being ‘lynched’. Like a contagion set free within a mass, his action – narrated in a book translated as part of the show – dealt with toxicity, scapegoating and religion. What none of the curators – nor anyone else – could have foretold is how the topics invoked by the show’s participating artists (contagion, control of the masses, exorcism, stigmatization) would be activated, writ large, by the current pandemic and the militarization of public space during this overheated summer of 2020.

Pedro Moraleida Bernardes, Young-jun Tak, Florencia Rodriguez Giles, installation view, 11th Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2020. Courtesy: the artists and 11th Berlin Biennale; photograph: Silke Briel

Through the Modern Artists’ Club that Carvalho founded in São Paulo in 1933, Brazil met the works of German modernist Käthe Kollwitz, who captured the struggles of workers and women (until her death in 1945). At Gropius Bau, Carvalho’s and Kollwitz’s drawings and etchings are reunited. ‘Carvalho travelled to Europe in the 1930s’, Lagnado told me, noting ‘the fanaticism of addressing the masses of that time.’ Yet, far more than fascist populism, the target for this biennial’s many détournages of ceremony, relic, reverence, toxicity and exorcism is Christianity, that fount of patriarchy and colonial violence.

Nowhere is this clearer than at Kunst-Werke, whose central hall has been turned into an anti-church, graced with anti-patriarchal utopian scenes by Florencia Rodriguez Giles (Biodelica, 2018) and moments of queer religious pastiche. ‘Make your own Sistine Chapel’, exhorts Brazilian artist Pedro Moraleida Bernardes in his drawing series made in 1997–98, before his 1999 suicide. Six of his bondage and bestiality-filled pictures are arranged as a quasi-crucifix, ceiling to floor, titled Sentinto um cansaço mortal por representar o humano, sem fazer parte do humano (Feeling a Deadly Weariness of Representing Humans while not Being Part of Humanity, 1997). Nearby, Carlos Motta writhes demonically upside down in a chapel (in the video Inverted World, 2016) while in his REQUIEM (2016) an Argentinian theologian squares Catholic faith with queerness and difference.

Carlos Motta, REQUIEM, 2016, installation view, 11th Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2020. Courtesy: the artist, Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo; P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York and mor charpentier, Paris; photograph: Silke Briel

The risk, here, is that Christianity will be toppled just so secular saints can take its place. It’s a relief, then, that there’s no grand narrative, no new beautification. Ours is an age not only of artistic heterodoxy but of a proliferation of vulgates: the late anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber got at this when he said (in a 2012 interview with Artforum): ‘Some of the most radical, most revolutionary movements today base themselves in indigenous communities’, who are ‘traditionalists but think of tradition itself as a potentially radical thing.’ In this biennial we witness time and again the radicalism of tradition – even if, as viewers, we aren’t quite exorcised ourselves and are left hanging in an affective limbo, suspended somewhere between emotive release and cool contemplation.

The stars of the show? They’re spectral, near-unknown: virtual troubadours, illuminated on screens and projections, replete with song and dance like TikTok overflow. Take Naomi Rincón Gallardo’s humorous video of Mesoamerican mythology Resiliencia Tlacuache (Tlacuache Resilience, 2019), where DIY outfits and an Aztec goddess commingle with a possum and ‘sacramental ferments’ (mezcal). In Elena Tejada-Herrera’s three-channel They Sing, They Dance, They Fight (2020), dancing and dragging queens and mermaids lay out gleeful absurdities such as: ‘Life is eternal in five minutes.’ Equally lively is Ramita Seca, La Colonialidad Permanente (Dry Twig: The Permanent Coloniality, 2019), in which Coya artist (and Andean drag queen) Bartolina Xixa cavorts to music by folk singer Aldana Bello before a trash-laden background.

Sara Sejin Chang (Sara van der Heide), Four Months, Four Million Light Years, 2020, installation view, 11th Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2020. Courtesy: the artist; photograph:Silke Briel

But the overarching register is sombre. I enjoyed the sober clarity of Deanna Bowen’s God of Gods: A Canadian Play (2019/20) and its video documenting a workshop-style conversation between indigenous artists and writers. Sara Sejin Chang (Sara van der Heide)’s excellent video essay Four Months, Four Million Light Years (2020) – set in a sacred-seeming ritual chamber on the top floor of Kunst-Werke – movingly observes links between the Korean War, Christianity, colonialism and illegal adoption.

This is what decanonization may look like in practice: piecemeal, unauratic, full of diversions and cul-de-sacs. In this anti-canon, Noor Abuarafeh’s Am I the Ageless Object at the Museum? (2018) stole the show for me: a 15-minute video, set in zoos in Palestine, Switzerland and Egypt, reflecting on how and why the animals – hippos, lizards, owls – got there. In a research-heavy show, here was a welcome dose of symbolism – for colonial pillage, for the transfer of people, for containment.

Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende (MSSA), installation view, 11th Berlin Biennale, Gropius Bau, 2020. Courtesy: 11th Berlin Biennale; photograph: Mathias Völzke

The biennial concludes aloofly, with the tragic and excellent ‘Museo de Solidaridad Salvador Allende’ (1971–73): a free museum in Chile, confiscated by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, in which popular arts were mobilized to redeem Allende’s toppled presidency. Viewing this segment at Gropius Bau, I recalled how, when I visited the biennial’s first instalment last year, some neighbours – a group of differently abled musicians – entered the ExRotaprint space, and one of the curators paused our discussion to show them around. As in the above project, the biennial’s community engagement is not something you can easily see, or measure, through an exhibition alone: taking art from the altar and into the vernacular by publishing excellent pamphlets, hosting workshops in local schools or just conversing with the folks down the road. But these are perhaps its most significant result. The sense I was left with – of the show taking place somewhere else – seemed deliberate. After all, decolonizing our vision, and our art, means accepting that not everything can always be for everyone – not you, not me – and that all art is not necessarily for us, either.

The 11th Berlin Biennale runs at daadgalerie, ExRotaprint, Gropius Bau and KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, until 1 November 2020.

Main image: Mariela Scafati, Movilización [Mobilization], 2020, installation view, 11th Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2020.  Courtesy: the artist, Galería Isla Flotante, Buenos Aires and PSM, Berlin; photograph: Silke Brie

Pablo Larios is an editor and writer. He lives in Berlin, Germany.