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May we suggest

Reviews / June 25, 2014

Berlin Biennale Tells Tales Old and New

Various locations, Berlin May 29 to August 3, 2014
Carlos Amorales, video still from <em>The Man Who Did All Things Forbidden</em>, 2014. HD video, b/w, sound, 40 minutes. Courtesy Carlos Amorales; Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris; kurimanzutto, Mexico City. (Image 1/18) Carlos Amorales, video still from The Man Who Did All Things Forbidden, 2014. HD video, b/w, sound, 40 minutes. Courtesy Carlos Amorales; Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris; kurimanzutto, Mexico City. (Image 1/18)

The week leading up to the press preview for the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art marked a change of seasons. (Disclosure: Biennale curator Juan Gaitan is a friend, and participating artist Judy Radul is my partner.) Gone were the cold winds and grey skies of winter; in their place, golden mornings, tawny afternoons and balmy evenings. Like the spargel that pokes from the earth each April through June, Berliners emerge similarly, exchanging their woollens for short pants and cotton dresses, their S-Bahn tickets for bicycles, dinners at home for those taken on restaurant patios below. Although “Berlin in the spring” does not have the same resonance as Paris during that season, the city is no less in awe of itself, no less indifferent to what it has been through and what lies ahead.

What has passed and what is to come are preoccupations many Berliners share, particularly those who remember the 20th century, a time whose projects included—as biennale curator Juan A. Gáitan points out in his catalogue essay—”the attempted reformulation of citizenship as an inclusive construct; the creation of socially responsible urbanism; and, to paraphrase the quintessential propositional architect Yona Friedman, an architecture for the people, by the people, and of the people.”

Something Gáitan does not point out, however, is that many of these projects were undertaken on both sides of the Berlin Wall. Instead, he provides the current example of the Humboldt-Forum, a massive development at the centre of what is now, more than ever, a singular city. Based on recommendations by international experts on the “historic heart of Berlin,” the Humboldt-Forum is to replicate a series of neo-classical facades based on the Stadtschloss, the Berlin City Palace that stood on that site from the 15th century until 1950. Gáitan sees this aesthetic remediation as the operative (“neo-liberal”) replacement of a contested century (the 20th) with ones that saw the emergence of another version of the unified German state (the 19th and prior). Or, in the curator’s own words, “underlying this reconstructive impulse is a clear desire to memorialize not only the architecture, but also the city itself, as an artefact.”

With this in mind, Gáitan’s decision to extend the biennale beyond the Kunstwerke Institute for Contemporary Art (KW) in Berlin’s Mitte to include the modernist Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in the southern district of Dahlem—which holds ethnological and Asian art collections that will eventually be transferred to Humboldt-Forum—makes sense. In addition to this, he has selected yet another site further south: Haus am Waldsee, a private villa built in the 1920s Weimar era by a Jewish textile manufacturer who left the country by 1939. Between 1946 and 1989, Waldsee functioned as an important West Berlin museum and was among the first to open after the Second World War; it has also hosted art exhibitions since re-unification in 1989. (A fourth biennale location was to be a failed post-Soviet shopping mall in the former GDR, a site that fell through—though not before artist Olaf Nicolai set a fictive text there, which, in the spirit of artefact and exhumation, is written from the perspective of the deceased Hungarian-born literary scholar Péter Szondi and included in the biennale catalogue.) Together, these locations, along with the catalogue, a bookwork, Excursuf, and a poster series, 9+1, provide the Berlin Biennale (this time totalling 53 artists and collectives, many of whom reside outside Europe and North America) its staging grounds.

Gáitan, a forty-something Toronto-born Colombian, received an M.A. in art history from the University of British Columbia. At the biennale press preview on May 28, he reprised some of the main points of his essay, after which he recommended that visitors begin their tour at Haus am Waldsee, before returning to Dahlem (where the press conference was held), then finish at KW. This recommendation was greeted with sighs from those I was seated with, but I followed it—in much the same that way I followed Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s advice at Kassel two years earlier when she suggested we begin her Documenta at the Fridericianum, inside what she called “the brain” of the exhibition.

To suggest that Haus am Waldsee is the “brain” of the biennale is a bad analogy. A better one relates less to the body’s “head office” than how one gains access to that body and subsequently moves through it—the enteric “brain,” as it were. In this respect, it is the viewer’s mobility, the passage through the body of the exhibition as opposed to a passive glance at its logical function, that Gáitan appears more interested in. This is true not only in the content of the work but in its spacious placement: from the unadvertised Jimmie Durham assemblage that greets us as a butler would (an overcoat hung on the wall with a photo of a deer peeking out from behind its lapels) to Christodoulos Panayiotou’s shoes made from leather handbags that belonged to women close to him (Untitled, 2013) to Carla Zaccagnini’s elegant sight-sound-and-dance installation based on a late-18th century novel about fatherless lovers who grow up in the “colonies” (Le Quintuor des Nègres, encore, 2014) to Slavs and Tatars’ huge open-book-shaped speakers at the foot of the sloping garden out back—an Islamic call to prayer in a language reshaped by the directives of Kemal Atatürk, the “father of modern Turkey.”

(Durham’s unlabelled work, and others similarly treated at Waldsee, are part of a biennale side project called “A private collection,” which aims to focus on art in private space and refer to the history of the house as a private villa.)

Of course, this is just one route through Waldsee. Another might include a visit to the rooms upstairs, many of them adorned with Matts Leiderstam’s right-angled photographic portraits by anonymous artists of anonymous subjects drawn from public collections. Still another might entail a dérive beyond the interlocking free-standing wall provided by an additional unadvertised artist—Rainy River, Ontario’s Angela Bulloch—where Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s horizontal vitrines house the artist’s research at Paris’s Musée du quay Branly. Abonnenc’s research includes black-and-white photographic documentation of African objects collected during the 1931-33 Mission Dakar-Djibouti, photos which also hearken to the collection his grandfather amassed while working in Gabon around the same time. Interspersed throughout the Waldsee are gold-leaf monochromes by Panayiotou and, in two darkened rooms, one upstairs and one downstairs, one finds a component of Anri Sala’s Ravel Ravel Unravel (2013) and a brooding video by Patrick Alan Banfield (vyLö:t, 2012), whose narrative expires at the interstice of forest and city.

With Waldsee ingested, the viewer has four U-Bahn stops to consider whether Gáitan’s entry point is an amuse-bouche in advance of larger meals at Dahlem and KW or a bona fide entrée whose works are less about what is seen than the (laborious) historical research behind them. This is a question that might well be answered upon its first consideration, given that the next stop in the biennale is, as Gáitan suggested, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin at Dahlem, whose purpose-built architecture recalls and enhances the research-based works at Waldsee. Indeed, so adamant is the museum as a place of research and order that it is tempting, at least for this viewer, to remain within its thrall, to look for it in all the works therein, a situation that begins with the formal elements of Iman Issa’s multimedia installation Lexicon (2012-ongoing) and continues through Wolfgang Tillmans’s reorientation of the North American Eastern Woodlands room (here, the notion of “contact” is extrapolated beyond the “meeting” of New and Old Worlds to include everything from technology to fashion). Yet such readings are only to be tripped up by Carsten Höller’s flickering of lights in the museum’s pre-Columbian gold room (7.8 Hz, 2001/14) and mocked by the ultra-fluorescence of Alberto Baraya’s taxonomic displays of plastic flowers (Comparative Studies, Herbarium of Artificial Plants, 2002-ongoing).

As with my experience at Waldsee, my writings describe only one route through the exhibition. Unlike at Waldsee, however, certain of the works that exist independent of the more inscribed terrain are larger and more imposing than anything preceding them. This is especially true of the video work, most notably in the lyricism of Carlos Amorales’s The Man Who Did All Things Forbidden (2014), a video that brings to mind tonal elements of Ben Wheatley’s recent feature film A Field in England (2013). It is also relevant to the patterned and recurrent balletic exchanges in Shahryar Nashat’s Untitled (2014), as well as the poetic genre study of Jimmy Robert’s two-channel film installation Vanishing point (2013).

That said, the most compelling works at Dahlem for this viewer were not independent of the larger surrounding works, but in some ways a consequence of them: works that functioned as intermezzos. One is Carolina Caycedo’s YUMA, or the land of friends (2014), which, at first glance, confronts the viewer like a wall of corporate marble, but on closer inspection is an aerial photo of Colombia’s massive El Quimbo Dam awash in acrylic brushstrokes. Another is the late Gordon Bennett’s cartoon-like notebook drawings that, in their placement on the outside walls containing Nashat’s film, contain their own forms of pattern and recurrence.

There is more, of course, but more travel, too, with a third of the exhibition still at KW.

Although it is tempting to extend the notion of site location to the critical frame, it is apparent upon entering KW that little is to be gained by moving through the displays with the knowledge that the building was once a margarine factory. Too much time has passed, enough that art and its production have refined it—the same way vegetable oil is refined to make margarine. Shilpa Gupta makes this clear with her perfectly oblique ground-floor installation that echoes her ongoing interest in mapping and borders (an echo that echoes the work of Tillmans and Caycedo at Dahlem). The same could be said in the basement below, with adjacent displays by painter Irene Kopelman and interdisciplinarian Tonel. Both ground their work in biological and economic systems, respectively (the latter via the now-defunct Soviet Comecon trade alliance, the former with allusions to Linnean classification). A more abstract (indigenous) system can be found in Leonor Antunes’s Brazilian craft-based installation a secluded and pleasant land. in this land I wish to dwell. (2014), a largely vertical regime (its checkerboard floor piece notwithstanding) whose ropes appear to pass through the ceiling above. These strands are echoed in Judy Radul’s Look. Look Away. Look Back (2014), which has shorter lengths of rope placed in colourful, well-lit vitrines that mirror those in the “South Sea” section at Dahlem, ropes that Radul has shaped to approximate the “live” and prerecorded camera movements employed at both locations.

And the echoes continue, particularly across the courtyard at Andreas Angelidakis’s relational Mediterranean-themed Crash Pad (2014), where visitors are encouraged to hold forth, eat or nap. After stops at Waldsee and Dahlem, KW is less an 18th-century building than a 21st-century belfry, where the story of contemporary art continues to be tolled.

Michael Turner

Michael Turner is a writer of fiction, criticism and song based in the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh people. His most recent book, 9x11 and other poems like Bird, Nine, x and Eleven, is published by New Star Books.