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Canadian Art

Review

More than a century after Menzel’s poignant studies, realism returns in Rhomberg’s selection of contemporary artists’ works. The exhibition at Kunst-Werke, the biennale’s organizing institution, is dominated by Kosovan artist Petrit Halilaj’s expansive sculpture, drawing and object installations The places I'm looking for my dear are utopian places, they are boring and I don't know how to make them real and They are Lucky to be Bourgeois Hens. A main house structure is built from actual lagging Halilaj's family is using to build a new home in Prishtina; it's a sign of a new beginning after the war. It is heroic in its scale, rising up through two floors of KW to integrate both the inside and outside of the space. Chickens run amok between the gallery and back garden. On KW’s second floor, one enters a completely empty white gallery space; a conceptual container resonates with the bourgeois constraints of the white cube, which is only disrupted by the participants’ presence and their view to the outside, where Halilaj’s structure is visible once again. The relationships between art and life, and between representation and reality, are seamlessly interwoven here, as is the transfer of cultural capital into the framework for a family’s new home. Halilaj’s work is typical of much of the sculptural/found-object installation work in the biennale—Adrian Lohmüller’s alchemical water system Das Haus bleibt still, Ron Tran’s subtle reorganization of the park benches on Oranienplatz, and Marcus Geiger’s attic archeology Sozial Minimal Radikal Kapital—in that it mines and reconfigures the material and spatial histories of the site itself in an attempt to remodel its future.

Outside of KW, which is located in Berlin’s gentrified jewel Mitte, the Kreuzberg district becomes the primary backdrop for this year’s Berlin Biennale. The main venue, a former supermarket on Oranienplatz that has been vacant for a decade, stands as an empty sign of capital in an area of Berlin that, since the 1960s, has been a site of leftist resistance. Labour, immigration, queer and anti-capitalist demonstrations still occur regularly along Oranienstrasse and at Kottbusser Tor, Berlin’s first U-bahn station, which is encircled by high-density social housing that has mainly been occupied by Turkish immigrants since its 1970s construction. Kreuzberg and its neighbouring district Neukölln, to the south, remain home to the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey. This part of Kreuzberg was also originally divided on three sides by the Berlin Wall, so it bridges the political, economic and social psychologies of the former east and west. Since the fall of the wall, the neighbourhood has experienced significant socio-economic changes to become a site of rapid cultural and capital investment.

In a city where many cultural activities are self-organized in disused spaces, the biennale’s occupation of Oranienplatz 17 seems almost natural: an opportunity that arises out of necessity. Yet the overtly political nature of the works inside suggests Rhomberg’s desire to engage conflicting realities of the site’s history and of the biennale itself, which has served as a marketing strategy for the city during its redevelopment. The work at Oranienplatz resonates with a time of crisis punctuated by the late-1980s collapse of communism in Europe, the events of 9-11 and the 2008 stock market crash, all of which is now coupled with Kreuzberg’s history of resistance. Yet if the current site of the biennale is to be read as a gesture of subversion within an existing symbol of capital, the reality of the situation is quickly brought back into focus. Black and white posters of biennale organizers read "Gentrifiziererin!" and paper the venues; they announce that the capital that sits at the corner of Oranienplatz 17 is now occupied by a cultural capital that is just as alienating to community residents as the business complex and high-end condo that will take hold when the area is inevitably “developed.” I could rant here, too, about the stiff exhibition fees that one has to pay repeatedly in order to actually see the entire exhibition; it's an economic structure that does not recognize the Berlin Biennale’s largest audience—local artists who are almost without question poor.

Inside Oranienplatz 17, the very real effects of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe can be seen in UK artist Phil Collins’ documentary film marxism today (prologue). In it, Collins intercuts historical footage from East German political rallies with the stories of several former Marxist-Leninist teachers who had to totally reconstruct their lives and identities after the fall of the Berlin Wall. These empathetic personal biographies, many of which mourn the loss of a GDR way of life, make visible the enduring psychological and social effects that political ideologies have on our lives. Importantly, the second part of the project, which will create an empowering opportunity for participants to teach an introductory course on Marxism at Manchester high schools (Manchester was Friedrich Engels' home from 1842 to 1844), recognizes a renewed interest in Marxism and asks what potential there might be in learning from the experience of others. Mark Boulos’ two-channel installation All That is Solid Melts Into Air takes its title from The Communist Manifesto and exposes the harsh reality of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. Boulos draws a parallel between frenzied traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the empowering, militant dances and speeches of people in the Niger Delta. (The lives of Delta residents have been severely altered by Royal Dutch Shell’s oil operations in the region.) Here, the abstract monetary value of oil derivatives is re-entwined with the real effects of the labour and material circumstances of its production.

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

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