Canadian Art


The Berlin Biennale: Reality Check

Various locations, Berlin Jun 11 to Aug 8 2010
Hans Schabus <I>Klub Europa</I> 2010 Installation view Courtesy the artist, Engholm Galerie Vienna & Galerie Jocelyn Wolff Paris © Hans Schabus  / photo Uwe Walter Hans Schabus Klub Europa 2010 Installation view Courtesy the artist, Engholm Galerie Vienna & Galerie Jocelyn Wolff Paris © Hans Schabus / photo Uwe Walter

Hans Schabus <I>Klub Europa</I> 2010 Installation view Courtesy the artist, Engholm Galerie Vienna & Galerie Jocelyn Wolff Paris © Hans Schabus / photo Uwe Walter

Today it seems like everybody is looking for a way out from under the dominant and oppressive structures of a neo-liberalism gone wild. Vienna- and Berlin-based curator Kathrin Rhomberg seems to be looking too; her exhibition "What is Waiting Out There," the sixth Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, attempts to tease out the question of art's relationship to reality.

Rhomberg’s curatorial premise, which is fleshed out in the exhibition catalogue and an e-flux journal edited by long-time collaborator Marion von Osten, questions our willingness to perpetuate "the public lie as a supposed necessity” to sustaining some sort of idea of reality. She argues that self-deception—be it social, political or individual—has become both a prerequisite for survival and a sure path to resignation and reproduction of the status quo. Slipping between amorphous definitions of reality, realism and the real, "What is Waiting Out There" attempts to widen the cracks and fissures of our reality—the reality of freedom, equality and human rights, which actually seems increasingly unreal—to ask what the possibilities might be for imagining and imaging a new reality now. "What is Waiting Out There" seems to assume that realism is inherently political because within it there is always the question of what is real, as well as the question of how that is decided and who gets to make those decisions. The exhibition asks whether it is possible for art, for transnational solidarities and for postidentarian subjectivities to make disparate realities perceivable, and thereby envision a reality beyond neo-liberalism.

Perhaps in an attempt to take us back to reality—back to "the beginning of the beginning," as Slovenian leftist theorist Slavoj Žižek might say—Rhomberg’s "What is Waiting Out There" examines the cycles of history within the context of art, social structures, politics and economics, and perhaps provides us a lens through which we can imagine a post-capitalist self. This biennale spans more than a century of artistic practice to include works by 43 contemporary artists, Pierre Bal-Blanc's three-day participatory performance The Living Currency, and "Extreme Realism," an exhibition of intimate drawings and gouaches by 19th century Prussian artist Adolph Menzel that was curated by noted art historian and American modernist art critic Michael Fried at the Alte Nationalgalerie.

In the context of a contemporary art biennale, the Menzel-focused "Extreme Realism," which borrows its title from 19th century French critic Edmond Duranty, could be considered a bit of an anachronism. But it functions as an important footnote or conceptual anchor for "What is Waiting Out There." Fried is drawn to the empathy in Menzel’s works and to the artist’s ability to project himself onto his world. Fried suggests that Menzel’s work creates “a physical connection with reality” and that the artwork “produces the reality it ostensibly records.” Using a display strategy that teeters between the studio and the cube, Fried radically intervenes in the existing permanent exhibition of Menzel’s paintings at the Alte Nationalgalerie by erecting a series of provisional white walls to exhibit 31 small preparatory sketches and detailed observational studies in a modernist, single-line hang. The content of these works is clearly tied to the history of modernism; it depicts the effects of rapid German industrialization and economic expansion in the mid 19th century. Detailed drawings of labourers’ often inhumane living and working conditions and graphic evidence of the ravages of war stand in sharp contrast to Menzel’s better-known images on the sheltered excesses of Crown Prince Frederick’s royal court. In fact, Fried’s selection awkwardly sets the stage for the permanent Menzel display—mainly genre scenes and paintings of the royal court, some of which were appropriated by Hitler's propaganda after Menzel’s death—that occupies several baby-blue and gold-leafed ovoid rooms on the Alte Nationalgalerie’s ground floor. Normally, nothing of Menzel's vast collection of drawings (there are approximately 7,000 in the National Museums in Berlin) is visible. The selection and display of the works in "Extreme Realism" call for a reconsideration of Menzel’s practice within the context of 19th century realism and the tradition of modern painting. But perhaps more importantly, Menzel's keen observation of daily life squarely situates the artist as a political subject in the world: as a recorder of reality but also a creator of it, a notion that is a key underlying theme of the biennale itself.

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This article was first published online on July 29, 2010.


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