6. Berlin Biennale

Reality Bites

2010:Dec // Ana Teixeira Pinto

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The 6th Berlin Biennale was my own little Barack Obama moment. The minute it was announced I dwelled in anticipation. It was all so promising. The theme – or shall we say what I understood the theme to be – was a political turn entailing a re-reading of modernism; the curator, Kathrin Rhomberg, whom I saw giving an impeccable rendition at an otherwise trivial frieze-fair talk, had been praised by many friends for her intellectual sharpness; even the venues seemed always eager to get out of the hostel horror years of mismanagement Mitte had turned into. Then reality kicked in, as it usually does, and I was left with the mismatch between my ideal show and the actual one.

Let’s start with the title, more befitting to a horror movie than to an art show. “What is Waiting Out There”, makes me imagine a little suburban house where the inhabitants gather for a family fest totally oblivious that there is a psychotic killer waiting for an ambush in the shrubs. Or an apt metaphor for the safety of the Schengen space besieged by famishing immigrant hordes. Either way it connotes fear and uneasiness usually conveyed in right-wing brochures. It also plays into the narrative of the inner and outer, be it under its political form of us and them, or under the false dichotomy between autonomous and engaged.

Then there is ‘reality’, that unfathomable term with a real-estate etymology (originally a legal term in the sense of „fixed property“ nom. Realitas) – the irony of the Kreuzberg anti-gentrification protests is not lost on us – buffering the political content of the show. Followed by a selection of works, which do not reflect upon ‘reality’ but rather reflect ‘reality’, that is, hold up a mirror to a given situation and (re)present it ‘for what it is’. Though not, formally speaking, Pop, the show has an inadvertent Popish feeling: Pop was the first artistic movement to make it its strategy to hold up a mirror to unmediated, in-your-face loud, ‘reality’. The artists’ sleight of hand was that such reification is also a form of deconstruction, for the stability of its object is complicated by too much scrutiny. Reification and deconstruction may be a dialectical pair. Yet the back and forth movement between both is not an upwards spiral: it’s a slippery slope. That’s why I find it difficult to relate to the overall ‘naked truth’ approach. To see someone’s rant on camera – held by an artist – doesn’t give me much insight about their situation, be it the Israeli military presence in Gaza or the harshness of immigrant life in a French suburb. ‘Reality’ is not the ‘real’, though the biennial seems to confuse both. Plus I suspect we could use a bit more historical materialism and a little less Lacan. Mark Boulos’s film “All that is Solid Melts into Air” (2008), for instance, polarizes two images: one depicting traders on Chicago Stock Exchange, the other guerrillas of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Between both, that is between white-collar greed and black-hooded anger, the viewer is at a loss to construe his own position.

Unlike most people, thus, I would prefer Renzo Martens’s approach, for ‘Episode III’ (2009) cunningly articulates how the discourse of ‘Human Rights’ obscures the relations of production: people are no longer seen as workers explored as capital but as ‘suffering human beings’. The right to humanitarian interference is, thus, the right to strip ‘human beings’ of all political determination, reducing them to mere bare life. As such they are handed out free food and old clothes, which may assuage their suffering yet will never tackle the real political causes of humanitarian disasters. The film also makes plain something that the exhibition seems to miss out on: what is lacking is not information but the articulation thereof. Eine Schwalbe macht noch keinen Sommer as they say, and the film which best sums up my frustration with the exhibition is perhaps John Smith’s ‘Frozen War’ (2001), a video of the frozen image on a television set the day after bombing began in Afghanistan and an odd parable for how contentless ‘reality’ is.

All of the above notwithstanding, I still experience a sense of fierce loyalty when I read some critics. Hope may be faltering but it still dies hard. Thus I would not to say that the exhibition is awash with “soft left political art that could be described as a kind of failed journalism’’(Dan Fox, frieze), though I would concede that some works do aestheticize poverty. To the majority of the German press, which collectively yawned at such passé topics like minority rights and immigration issues, I would merely say that only the ones who speak from a position of power will deem powerlessness – exclusion, racism, misogyny – to be no longer relevant. I would still subscribe to Rhomberg’s curatorial statement, or at least the part where she disparages most contemporary art for being overly introspective and excessively concerned with formal and aesthetic aspects. I would also acquiesce that there are worrisome instances of historicism and revisionism ensuing from such concerns, which is why I would beg to differ from the view that “to denigrate art works whose primary subjects are form, (art) history or aesthetics as escapist, apolitical or overly market-oriented seems exaggerated and unimaginative.” (Jens Hoffmann, frieze). I do think a re-reading of Modernism is mandatory if one is to escape the conundrums of a rather dubious nominalism with a commercial agenda.

Now, in a rather idiosyncratic move, Kathrin Rhomberg invited none other than Michael Fried to curate one of the biennial venues. Like his mentor Clement Greenberg, Fried has voiced his suspicion of any political and historical contextualization, standing by the doctrine of ‘formally examining the work of art on its own terms’. Another of Fried’s notable contributions was his staunch opposition to what he named ‘theatricality’, that is, the lack of differentiation between the work of art itself and the experience of viewing it. I do not, however, believe art can be described as a category of object-production; I believe art to be a category of experience. Yet ambivalent as I may be regarding Fried’s legacy, what I found somewhat puzzling was to see the Biennale unwittingly engaging in what it set forth to criticise, a conservative vision of history as the actualization of ‘significant form’ through the marketing of Menzel’s most serendipitous moment: a drawing of an empty unmade bed (1845) which closely resembles Gonzalez-Torres’ photo of the same motif.

Ana Teixera Pinto

6. Berlin Biennale für zeitgenössische Kunst
KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Auguststraße 69, 10117 Berlin,
Oranienplatz 17, 10999 Berlin
Dresdener Straße 19, 10999 Berlin,
Kohlfurter Straße 1, 10999 Berlin,
Mehringdamm 28, 10961 Berlin-Kreuzberg

Mark Boulon, „All that is Solid Melts into the Air“, 2008, Videostill (© the authors)
Mark Boulon, „All that is Solid Melts into the Air“, 2008, Videostill (© the authors)
Felix Gonzales-Torres, Aids Billboard „Unmade Bed“, 1991 (© the authors)
Adolf Menzel, „Ungemachtes Bett“, um 1845 (© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Foto: Jörg P. Anders)
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