"Certain medieval orders of knights gradually lost their practical purpose but continued as sociable gatherings;" so begins sociologist Georg Simmel's 1896 essay 'The Berlin Trade Exhibition'. It's a pretty pathetic image, which fairly captures the prevailing attitude toward the large-scale art event. Artforum editor Brian Sholis recently wrote that "if there's any consensus about the contemporary mega-exhibition it's that it is in need of reinvention." Tirades against "festivalism" are delivered with increasingly frequency and at a higher and higher pitch. Practically, the challenge of getting "beyond the logic of the event" is making itself felt. So what you get are functions like the Berlin Biennale, funded to the tune of 2.5 million euro by the German Federal culture fund, curated by a museum director who has framed art festivals as the enemy of art institutions, and a historian best known for having anthologized the past decade of festival-related critique. Perhaps it's not a total coincidence that Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic chose to begin their catalogue with Simmel's essay. It would seem that this biennial was set up to tear itself apart.
The curators' general strategy, all things considered, seems pretty measured: Take the emphasis off the opening. Start the event early - the first of the rotating artist-curated shows at Schinkel Pavilion opens before the official festivities - and end it late. (The biennale will finish after it officially ends because the last exhibition at the Pavilion, a show of mid-century painting by Zofia Stryjenska curated by Paulina Olowska, closes a few weeks later). Note archly that "it goes without saying that a biennial is part of contemporary event culture, and it belongs to a spectacular order". (Presumably lame on a par with the purposeless knights' one). Shrug in the catalogue essay that one could make a case for "multiple geneaologies of the present". So we can assume that the right questions to be asking about the Berlin biennial are not just, How is it? But, what is its history - and maybe, What is its future?
It makes sense to start with the with the outdoor site in the center of Berlin along the former wall - near to everything, but paradoxically next to virtually nothing - because that is where the curators' main interest obviously lies. Before the biennial, the space was - perhaps surprisingly - a sculpture park, run by a local artist group. But before that it was the area of the city where the wall went through, nicknamed the todesstriefen). The apartment buildings that rise along the north side were erected by the government of the GDR to block views into East Berlin. (Before the wall was erected the space was essentially an unremarkable working-class district - something like New York's Hell's Kitchen - and long before that it was presumably a marshy field, which is something like what it is now.)
Nearly all works in the Sculpture park are commissions - largely by younger artists, who seem to have thoroughly absorbed that spectacle is a no-no. For the most part they recede into the fields; the best of them do so such that they mobilize the space created by the surrounding buildings - vast, irregular, and actually very beautiful.
Killian Ruetherman's grid of semi-spherical holes appears as a sort of earthy antithesis to the city's Eisenmann holocaust memorial (a grid of orthogonal positives). But standing on the pavement and looking up the slight incline, the plane of holes is also reflection of the windows of the blank mid-rises opposite. Ania Molska's contribution, a freestanding scaffolding forming a distinctly soviet shape, has an affinity with the surrounding buildings which is both formal and psychic. (Molska will tell you that the form "isn't aesthetic" - it is the simplest one that will support eight people. Off-site one can watch a video of the eight workers who first constructed the piece in Molska's native Poland pose on it like deadpan starlets in blue overalls). Cyprien Gaillard simply installed temporary floodlighting in his corner of the park. The piece is called 'The Arena and The Wasteland'.
Cyprien Gaillard, 'The Arena and The Wasteland'
Aside from its name, Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum has not been embellished for the biennial. There are lightweight metal fences around the lots, falling over to permit access. The "permission denied" area is ostentatiously taped off with red and white, there are holes that seem unauthorized and a lot of trash. Not to say an unbelievable amount of trash. Some of it so implausibly and poetically trashy (a single woman's high heeled shoe, apparently c. 1969) that I began to doubt that it could be authentic. Was it possible that the biennial concept called for a trash enhancement?
This isn't to take the curators to task on a derivative job on their garbage, but to point out that, assuming there was a sort of neo-Situationist strategy at play here, it worked. Evidently the priority was to get visitors to the site, to get them to stay and look and listen and to think long and hard about it. The longer one remains in the fields the less sure one is what's art and what's not - and the less one cares. This is obviously not going to work for people pressed for time, or for fans of the canonical sculpture park (who knows, they may exist) looking for a semi-derelict area endowed with out-sized colorful ornaments.
On the day of the press preview there was one exception here: an enormous magenta gun, which revealed itself on approach to be made out of spray-painted plastic bottles. A very imposing plaque next door detailed the artwork's subversive qualities, including a significant section on its illegality - apparently the gun was unauthorized by the biennale curators. (It also thanked the "Arabic autobody shop in Kreuzberg for the donation of the bottles"). I had a moment of sympathy for the hegemony, and made a mental note to take a picture of the gun before the biennial establishment bit the bullet and had it removed. This happened approximately five minutes later. I didn't even see it. I caught only a glimpse of a guy furtively walking off with a few errant magenta bottles, which he threw in the back of an unmarked - rather pleasing - royal blue van. Biennale Stasi or illegal artists? Hard to say. The plaque has since been removed.)
The other notable outlier in the Skulpturenpark is Lars Laumann's video 'Berlinmuren'. For one thing it's not a sculpture (but nor is Susan Hiller's audio piece, though moving around the expanse gives it sculptural aspects like scale and mass; and nor are many of the works in the Skupturenpark, strictly speaking). Laumann's work is shown in a single pavilion with separate entries for English and German language versions; you can hear through the wall. Though the site is also topical to the work (or vice versa), the quiet narrative Laumann presents is fully - almost violently - consuming. It certainly engages differently than the rest of the works in the park, which participate in visitors' experience with an air of disinterest.
The biennale's second venue is Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalegalerie. Before the biennial it was (and continues to be) a museum, commissioned, like much of West Berlin, by the German government to stick it to the East. It's not only a Modernist icon, but an iconic standing joke: Mies' vision was that the modernist museum - while looking fantastic - should have no walls. It's essentially a floating roof on a marble plinth (people call it the automobile showroom); and normally the art is shown in the basement.
Paola Pivi, 'If You Like It, Thank You. If You Don't Like It, I Am Sorry. Enjoy Anyway'
Its problematic upstairs space has now become the biennial zone. US-based Paola Pivi's 'If You Like It, Thank You. If You Don't Like It, I Am Sorry. Enjoy Anyway' is a kind of suspended gate to the museum that echoes the gallery's severe structure with faux bejeweled coyness. Like a number of works, it attempts to "update" the building's formalism. Berlin-based Alena Eagan's hanging garland 'Ended Quietly In the Water' is particularly rewarding among the physical riffs. It's a continuous, wonky turquoise form that, because it's ribbon shaped, virtually disappears when viewed laterally - say - from the entrance of the museum or the outdoor patio. From nearer, it appears gracefully playful (like Iris Murdoch's title Eagan appropriated); from close up it's endearingly homemade-looking (materials are listed as: "Cardboard, Acrylic, Varnish, Deco-fill, Fabric, Tape.")
Gabriel Kuri's 'Items in the Care of Items' - apparently a re-visitation of the form and function hierarchy - is a series of yellow shapes intended to engage the audience by acting as a venue for their outerwear. It might also be a test of the panopticon thesis: who would steal coats hung in the middle of a glass box? The museum's monumental coat checks (the post-Mies management had to think of something to put in the automobile showroom) have meanwhile become oddly appropriate dark wood cubbies containing the vaguely surreal multimedia obsession of German Susanne Winterling.
Responding still less formally we have Cologne-based Georgian artist Thea Djordjadze's displays, which are just that. There are two sets of curtains: one a backdrop to what I took to be a sort of parodic museum display concerning the myth of Pygmalion (but I'm not sure) by the British duo Nashashibi and Skaer, known for their film "Flash in the Metropolitan"; and the corner domesticated by Marc Camille Chaimowicz (whose installation includes a series of "swatches" that demonstrate how a little pastel colored paint might make the place less inhospitable.)
Though it may have subordinated the works less, the Neue Nationalegalerie exhibit evinced the same heavy orientation toward the space itself as did the Skulpturenpark .The curators have cryptically denied wanting to "make an argument" with the works selected and commissioned for this biennial, by which they presumably mean that they want to avoid dictating what viewers ought to "see" in a work. But in both venues there is a very clear position about how to look; that is, how to experience the artworks as continuous and in dialogue with the history of the context of their display.
Perhaps this informed curators' decision to load the biennale's third venue, Kunst Werke museum of contemporary art, which as the sponsoring institutiton is presumably the flagship space - with video work leaning heavily into documentary. Kunst Werke is the closest to the white cube - like most contemporary art venues it's a former industrial space, not a particularly interesting one (margarine), in the city's oldest and flushest gallery district. It obviously interested the organizers the least. As a result the work displayed there gets a more hands-off treatment, and is largely shown in appropriately darkened corners. And for the most part it has benefited from such treatment. Included, for example, are the video essay 'Summer Days in Keijo', Sung Hwan Kim's reconstruction of an early 20th-century anthropologist's visit to Seoul; David Maljkovic's explorations of the historically obsolete Zagreb Convention scene (in collage and video installation) ; and Zhao Liang's unmonumental video portrayals of Beijing - as well as De Gruyter and Thy's intense tableaux ('Die Fregatte', 2008) a series by the Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki ('Park, 1971-79'). For the most part these works are both complicated and demanding. They need space. Viewers need endurance.
Kohei Yoshiyuji, 'The Park'
What will this Berlin biennial be? Sholis writes that "biennials now have two publics - art-world jet-setters who fly in for a quick tour of the show and for the opening-weekend events, and locals who will hopefully be enticed to visit the ongoing exhibition," again, more or less household wisdom on that subject. The consensus in Berlin at least is that the real test of the biennial's legacy will be the success of its night programme, which represents the curators attempt to reach the local community by making the biennale a) longer lasting, and b) about more than just art. The program will run every evening for the next two months - save Mondays - and does seem to include something for everyone, from a performance that will involve "a lot of cash in a transparent plastic bag" carried around in Berlin's new shopping mall by Finnish artist Pilvi Takala, to lectures on Dust and Robots, to jazz concert reenactments.
Given its democratic aim, the night program, 'Mes Nuit Sont Plus Belles Que Vos Jours', sounds suspiciously French. It kicked off on Saturday with a screening of Cyprien Gaillard's 'Crazy Horse' (judging by this video, projected several storeys high on the side of a building, and accompanied by an amplified opera singer, and a number of burning flares, Gaillard either hadn't got the memo about spectacle when he produced it, or spectacle is okay if it happens after dark.) An opening-weekend sized crowd gathered in Berlin_Zentrum to watch it in the rain.
The curators decided to re-jigg their biennale by making it a different kind of experience for viewers - more extended, less spectacular, more spatially disperse and more temporally dispersed, less cloistered within the city's commercial art neighborhood. "We propose", they write, "that the biennial exhibition can become an event in a different sense - that of a chance encounter while traveling without prescribed direction." But if they were seeking to respond to Berlin's particularity they might have also thought about reinventing the Event for other constituencies.
The context the curators were faced with in organizing a biennial in Berlin is unique: "the community" disproportionately represents the international art crowd; and in particular a lot of young artists. The organizers can't have been totally unconscious of this fact - Dominic Eichler's Frieze preview notes that the curators expected to maintain high attendance at their night time events thanks to the "vibrant local scene." And time will tell if this is in fact the case. But they seem to have missed an opportunity here.
Szymczyk and Filipovic have done a great job of including work by a lot of younger artists, drawn from across western and eastern Europe. It's an open question how radical this biennale felt for them. Did the artists involved feel like they were part of a dialogue - either with Berlin or with one another? Not the ones I talked to. They seemed to be pressed for time, and largely unknown to one another. Caner Aslan, whose provocative posters hung in the Neue Nationalegalerie, was going to look at the KW show on his last afternoon in town (he had already extended his official stay by crashing with friends).
Had the curators been inclined, they could have reinvented the biennial "event" as an experience for artists, both those whose work they included, and those based in Berlin. They could have sprung to put the former up for longer, and invited them to participate in the night time programme of the coming months. They could have fostered more substantive engagement with an a local art scene that everyone agrees is Europe's most vibrant in terms of numbers of young artists, but which remains linguistically ghettoized, and largely without a common dialogue or intellectual centre of gravity.
With a little bit of money and their considerable gravitas, the organizers could have curated a serious conversation between visiting and local artist on the occasion of the biennial. It might at least have been helpful to have the no doubt lively discussion about what spectacle means and what's wrong with it. They might, if nothing else, have had fewer magenta sculptures to remove.
Maybe it's presumptuous of me to speak for the artists. Molska - incidentally the youngest artist commissioned - said she wouldn't remember any of the other artists involved, but seemed unconcerned. "I think in the future curators will be the artists. Artists are all so professional now, they turn up in their suits, they do their job, they leave. That's just my opinion, and I don't even know if it's a bad thing. We'll have to see what happens. We have time; I hope for another fifty years."
KW Institute for Contemporary Art
Potsdamer Straße 50
Kommandantenstraße / Neue Grünstraße