On Second Thought: Looking Back at the 4th Berlin Biennial
Antonia Hirsch and Melanie O'Brian
Traditionally, the biennial concept has been to present “the best of the new” from various nations, as exemplified by the Venice Biennale’s national pavilions. More recently established biennials, such as those in Sydney, Taipei, and Prague, have ostensibly shed the national model for thematic presentations.1 However, by definition, all biennials derive their significance from the international circuit of display, validation, and influence into which artists, curators, and state interests are cyclically inserted.
While the post-nation survey exhibition is a subject of critical debate, recent biennials often present locale as spectacle (in a shift from nation to city). In this new model, the city provides a contextual framework that is crucial for the proposition of critical positions. The biennial continues to be instrumentalized for political and corporate gain, and contemporary art’s role as a two-faced pawn in the system of cultural capital is at once critical and complicit.
The 4th Berlin Biennial, entitled Of Mice and Men (March 25 to June 5, 2006), is a prime example of this phenomenon. Neither a slice of the “new” (it included works that spanned the last four decades) nor a presentation of a theoretical conceit, this biennial used the city of Berlin as its consolidating factor. However, its meandering ruminations on life and loss made few probing forays into contemporary urban issues. Contrary to the biennial habitus established in the 1990s, the BB4 was a low-key affair that didn’t pander to the big, loud, or splashy. Unfortunately, this was primarily due to the pervasive mediocrity of many of the exhibited works rather than their sober insight or formal restraint.
In the lead-up to the BB4, curators Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick initiated a number of extracurricular activities to establish their presence in Berlin. For example, their temporary, tongue-in-cheek Gagosian Gallery—operating since Fall 2005 as “a site for the presentation of spontaneous and intuitive, adventurous and unhindered exhibitions and events”—was based on guerrilla franchising strategies. Another venture saw the curators’ research compiled in the contested publication Checkpoint Charley, featuring unauthorized reproductions of the work of more than seven hundred artists that were “auditioned” for the Biennial. These types of projects were intended to reveal the curatorial process as well as the institutional forces acting upon it. Looking to established artists and older works, the curators’ roster of over eighty artists was largely of European and North American descent without significant samples from the currently fashionable emerging economies of China, Thailand, and Mexico.
In 2004 Ute Meta-Bauer curated the widely derided 3rd Berlin Biennial. Ironically, her less-than-popular show resulted in a solid 2.5 million Euro commitment of federal monies for each of the Biennial’s 2006 and 2008 editions. Attempting to leave the curatorial downfalls of 2004 behind, Cattelan, Gioni, and Subotnick seemed set to reach back even further and to draw upon successful strategies of the BB4’s infancy.
Fourteen years ago, a seminal exhibition entitled 37 Rooms preceded—and seeded—the first Berlin Biennial proper; the memory of this exhibition echoed conspicuously through this year’s show. Organized in 1992 to significant international acclaim, thirty-seven curators each commanded one room (none of them previously designated as exhibition spaces) along the Auguststrasse in Berlin Mitte.
For more than three hundred years, Mitte had been inhabited by controversial political and creative figures, and the area had been marked variously by poverty, conflict, examples of exceptional community spirit, as well as state (sanctioned) brutality. The district’s extraordinary history had been locked away behind the Iron Curtain until the end of the 1980s, but in the 1990s this legacy could again be newly discovered by visitors from the West—especially those born after 1960. The decaying buildings, bearing traces of shrapnel going back a war or two, made for an exquisite exotic experience right at the doorstep of the orderly West Germany where the debris of history constituted a carefully managed memory.
The opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was followed by an odd sense of lawlessness as the West German government struggled to absorb the phantom limb that was East Berlin into its bureaucracy. In the interval, a regulatory vacuum and the confusion over property rights allowed bars and speakeasies to spring up along the Auguststrasse, and galleries, armed with short-term leases from the communal housing administration, moved in. It was in this climate that 37 Rooms emerged. Thematizing then current issues, this exhibition allowed visitors to satisfy their curiosity vis-à-vis the living conditions inside the dilapidated buildings and foreshadowed the gentrification of the area.
Today, this particular matter is evident in the renovated apartments that house some of the BB4 projects. Even so, the mention of gentrification continues to cause Berliners to politely stifle a yawn since this complex phenomenon has consistently dominated Berlin’s urban/social landscape. Only a handful of works in the BB4 reflected, if obliquely, on this socio-economic reality. In Ricarda Roggan’s staged photographic series, for example, body-worn and abandoned furniture become metaphors for the human condition. Paul McCarthy’s 1992 Bang-Bang Room extended domestic architecture toward the uncanny: occasionally, the freestanding Bang-Bang Room awoke, its four walls and doors awkwardly banging open and shut. The lumbering mechanical structure, with its claustrophobically conservative retro wallpaper and multiple doorways, literally echoed the ambiance of the tired school gym where it was installed.
The BB4’s existentialist consideration was constructed in a narrative arc that began at one end of the Auguststrasse in a Romanesque church, continued through old stables, private apartments, a former Jewish girls school, Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, and ended in a graveyard. The tone for this journey was set inside the St. Johannes-Evangelist church with Kris Martin’s Mandi III (2003). Martin’s all black arrival board—of the type found in airports or train stations—only occasionally clattered to life; devoid of letters and numbers, it evoked the passage of time through unseen comings and goings. At the other end of the Auguststrasse, the exhibition concluded inside the Old Garrison graveyard’s Lapidarium with Berlinde De Bruyckere’s abstracted taxidermied horse, vulnerably suspended within the building like a strangely substantial ghost.
Consistent with the majority of the venues, the vast former Jewish girls school retained traces of its past occupants. The school’s fixtures, wallpaper, posters, and students’ art appeared untouched, often resulting in an uneasy conflict with the exhibited works and only occasionally producing a dynamic symbiosis. Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s sober Evidence (1977/2001)—photographs displayed in one of the school’s classrooms—offered a surprisingly evocative pairing of context and work. The artists compiled the black-and-white series documenting crime scenes and scientific experiments from the archives of public and private agencies and corporations. The depictions of mysterious institutional activities seemed to exist in a sinister vacuum between a documentary past and science fiction future, ominously echoing the temporal limbo of the abandoned educational institution where the work was presented. A particularly poignant counterpart to Sultan and Mandel’s project was Bruce Conner’s 1976 slow-paced and matter-of-fact film Crossroads. Located in an adjacent room, the work traced the awe-inspiring nuclear bombings of the Bikini Atoll.
As in 37 Rooms, the BB4’s many venues were often its strongest feature, occasionally overwhelming the projects in situ. The curators’ decision to integrate the show into an existing urban context, at first, appeared to operate as an antidote to the ubiquitous curatorial standardization of international biennials emerging during the 1990s. However, on second thought, their strategy illustrated a trope of current curatorial practice in which the locale of the city competes with the exhibition’s artworks without establishing any significant relationship between the two.
Of the over six dozen projects exhibited, only a few works, such as Jeremy Deller’s video Klezmer chidesch (2006), were an exception. Commissioned for the BB4, his single channel video was projected inside the former post office stables and featured a group of elderly klezmer musicians. Originally from the former Soviet Union, the band’s members now live and work on Auguststrasse and were shown performing a distinctly celebratory and humorous “theme song” composed specifically for the Biennial. Other works directly responded to the exhibition sites, like Ian Kiaer’s Alexander Beer Project (2006), a whimsical and delicate installation of semi-transparent paper objects, inspired by the Jewish girls school’s history.
In a now all-too-predictable manner, Tino Sehgal’s otherwise compelling performative/conceptual work Kiss (2002) questioned the status of the art object. The work’s choreographed kissing couple languidly tumbled in slow motion across the floor of the mirrored Ballhaus Mitte, a once-famous dancehall. Embodying poses from art history (referencing works by Rodin, Brancusi, and Munch), Kiss evoked the faded romance of an earlier Berlin.
A project by Ulf Aminde captured Berlin’s cosmopolitan side. Portraying a diversity not reflected in the BB4’s selection of artists, his video wall featured a colourful parade of Berlin buskers. Presented in a dank basement, the work’s compelling soundtrack was composed of the combined sonic emanations of all musicians, reminiscent of the transcendental drone of a Glenn Branca symphony. Aminde’s work offered a significant position within the BB4 in that it pointed to contemporary cultural and societal structures, whereas the exhibition as a whole merely conveyed a sense of impotent nostalgia.
In this biennial, the locale not only provided the underpinning for the exhibition’s curatorial strategy, but it was, above all, the city that drew the exhibition into current debates on gentrification, globalization, and capitalism’s increasing hold on contemporary culture. In a climate where the profusion of international biennials (comprising a largely consistent roster of artists) threatens to be reduced to a monotone blur, the city site takes on an increased importance. The Venice Biennale has often been dubbed the Olympics of the art world, yet in the context of international competition, the victory of national representatives is eclipsed by the promotion of the host city as a viable site for commerce. The rise of new biennials at the centre of troubled or emerging economies is therefore unsurprising, and German federal support of the Berlin Biennial in the face of civic bankruptcy makes sense.
Doubtlessly, a biennial should not merely reiterate the format of the museum exhibition and this year’s Berlin Biennial clearly attempted to respond to this concern. While the BB4 presented promise—with its less orthodox ventures such as guerrilla gallery franchising, the use of private residences as exhibition spaces and various publication-based interventions—it ultimately failed to effectively exploit the critical potential of these initiatives.
- The Venice Biennale is the oldest biennial, established in 1895 using a World’s Fair model. In the last four decades, a new breed of biennial has arisen, largely outside of the West, to promote art tourism, so-called new cultural frontiers, and burgeoning economic growth. Sydney was established in 1973; Istanbul in 1987; Sharjah in 1993; Gwangju in 1995; Berlin in 1996; Shanghai in 1996; Taipei in 1998; Guangzhou in 2002; and Prague in 2003.
About the Authors
Antonia Hirsch is an artist based in Berlin and Vancouver. She is Associate Editor at Fillip.
Melanie O’Brian is Director/Curator of Simon Fraser University Art Galleries in Vancouver and Burnaby. She was Curator at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto (2011–12), Director/Curator of Artspeak, Vancouver (2004–10), and Assistant Curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery (2001–04). She is the editor (with Milena Hoegsberg) of 5,000 Feet Is the Best: Omer Fast (Power Plant/Henie Onstad Kunstsenter/Sternberg, 2012); Stan Douglas: Entertainment (Power Plant, 2011); Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism with Jeff Khonsary (Fillip/Artspeak, 2010); and Vancouver Art & Economies (Arsenal Pulp/Artspeak, 2007). She has written for numerous catalogues and magazines such as C Magazine, The Exhibitionist, Fillip, X-Tra, and Yishu.