Back to Square One

The seventh Berlin Biennale’s political and aesthetic failures are due to the curators’ indifference to the exhibition’s form and possibilities.

Khaled Jarrar, State of Palestine. Photo: Khaled Jarrar.

The seventh Berlin Biennale has zero confidence in contemporary art’s institutions and exhibition forms. Instead of providing the art world with yet another exhibition – or, as the head curator Artur Żmijewski would put it, an arrangement of “ineffective aesthetic objects”  – they want to gather and chart projects where “artistic approaches” are translated into “concrete political actions” with “real consequences”: a mayor in Bogotá borrows techniques from performance art and lets mimes direct traffic or establishes exchange centers where weapons can be exchanged for toys; a group of artists and activists in Warsaw dress up as concentration camp prisoners and succeed in confusing the police and stopping a Nazi demonstration; a Palestinian artist creates passport stamps for the non-existent “Palestinian State” and thereby poses the Israeli immigration authorities with a tricky, contradictory situation, etc.

Installation view from KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kim West.

The approach is not uninteresting and the exhibition would have been worth seeing if the curatorial team hadn’t been so obsessed with their own aggressive and reactionary agenda. The problems are numerous, obvious, and extend from the exhibition’s theoretical framework to its spatial organization. In the institution’s large central hall, visitors to Kunst-Werke encounter a tent camp where a number of political organizations, loosely grouped together under the rubric “Occupy Biennial”, have established information centers, production sites and temporary housing. During my visit – which, it should be noted, was short and took place during the press days, that is, before the official opening – this meeting place for activists is characterized by anything but activity. The room is cluttered with scattered benches, large military tents, a pair of screens on different pedestals, and flyers and posters all over the place, with witty slogans written on banners and sprayed directly on the walls. Not a lot of people are present and the atmosphere is rather sleepy. It all brings to mind the camping area at a rock festival – the morning after. Ecological beer is on sale. Above all, there is a lack of clear, accessible information, which must be seen as a problem for a political gathering point and communication center.

Mirosław Patecki, Christus der König. Photo: Artur Żmijewski.

In Kunst-Werke’s other part is something that more closely resembles an exhibition in the traditional sense. On the different floors there are a number of examples of how “artist” projects directly engage with a political “reality”: Khaled Jarrar stands at a table and stamps passports with his Palestinian passport stamp; in the same room there is an installation that consists of the flags of all the world’s designated terrorist organizations; on the floor above is a workshop where the sculptor Mirosław Patecki, who together with a priest has made on his own initiative an enormous sculpture of Christ in the Polish city Świebodzin, is completing a four meter high Styrofoam portrait sculpture of the savior’s face; shown on the floor above this are various video documentations and documentary films about different artistic or political actions in public spaces, from the feminist group FEMEN’s naked protests against the reactionary gender politics of the post-Soviet states to the Mosireen collective’s images from Tahrir Square in Cairo. In Kunst-Werke’s attic are elements of what is perhaps the exhibition’s best work: Łukasz Surowiec’s Berlin-Birkenau, in which the artist has been allowed to take 320 young birch trees from the area around Auschwitz-Birkenau – where “the earth contains traces of the countless dead” – and plant them at various places in Berlin.

Łukasz Surowiec, Berlin-Birkenau, 2012, film still © Łukasz Surowiec.

But in what way does a work like Surowiec’s create “concrete effects” in a “political reality”? What type of effects and what reality is this about? That the Berlin-Birkenau’s birch trees become a “living archive” that brings “back to Germany a part of its national heritage”, and that it thereby creates a tangible, even haunting experience of a history that today risks being reduced to a distant cultural memory is clear. Does it not, however, thereby concern a fairly ordinary understanding of the politics of the artwork, according to which it could potentially have certain effects by acting within a symbolic order and provoking a critical awareness of historical contingent relationships or political conditions of existence? The same question can be put to Patecki’s large Christ skull in Styrofoam or – even more so – to one of the biennale’s most costly projects: the huge “reenactment” of the Battle of Berlin, where role-playing and war enthusiasts gathered in different parts of the city to act out scenes from the battle in which the Red Army liberated Berlin from Nazi rule in 1945. Do we here leave the order of representation and spectacle to enter the realm of political action?

7. Berlin Biennale, Breaking the News, the feminist group Femen.

That there is a confusing discrepancy between the curatorial statement and the logic of certain artworks in the exhibition is not the big problem. The problem is that the reason for this ambiguity seems to be that the curators, on a fundamental level, are uninterested in creating conditions so that the exhibition’s projects can come into their own and have some type of efficacy, whether aesthetic or political. There is in fact no attempt to formulate an overall context for the exhibition, a defined set of problems or political analysis. The Berlin Biennale intends to present works that “create political events”. What this means is never specified in detail and instead the curators are content to mention a number of different political grievances and persistent problems: European xenophobia, the cuts in cultural and educational sectors in the UK and the Netherlands, the oppressive media environment in Russia, Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip, etc. The relationships between these conditions and the exhibition’s various projects are often unclear. One can understand this in two ways: either the essential is quite simply that the artwork is “political”, regardless of what politics it is actually about – which is a peculiar and completely apolitical idea (this is perhaps what co-curator Joanna Warsza means with “antagonist curating”); or else we – the visitors, as well as participating artists and activists – are already assumed to know what politics this is about, what it reacts to and what it wants to achieve, which would mean that the starting point for the entire project is an implicit consensus, a huge, quiet collusion – an idea that is of course no less problematic (nor does it fit well with the curators’ confrontational rhetoric).

Installation view from KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Photo: Kim West.

This lack of care and attention – and it is worth nothing that the curators explicitly reject the definition of the curator as the one who “cares for” artworks or artists – returns in the spatial staging of the exhibition. It isn’t only the tent camp in Kunst-Werke’s large hall that fails in making use of the exhibition space as a place or medium for political activity. All of the projects in Kunst-Werke’s other parts are consistently poorly installed, the connections between them are unclear and basic information is lacking. I often do not know what I am seeing when I move between murals, video projections, and posters – and as a result I don’t know how I should be able to respond to them. It is as if the curators had just opened the doors for the exhibition’s participants, told them to do what they want and given Kunst-Werke’s own curators and technicians the month off.

One could object that this criticism is unfair since the exhibition was probably not fully installed at the time of my visit, and since many of the exhibition’s projects develop over time or take place later in the exhibition period. That might be so. However, the problem is also that the curatorial team has a surprisingly reductive conception about the relation between art, theory, and politics, and that this seems to lead to them being completely indifferent to the exhibition’s design and capabilities. The Russian activist group Voina, also associate curators of the biennale, are clear in this respect: “as Biennale curators”, they proclaim, “we are [not] going to occupy ourselves with exhibition management, which in our opinion is rather useless: exhibitions harm contemporary art”. Artur Żmijewski is more nuanced: “The limited imagination of today’s artists and curators is unable to cross the threshold into genuine action. ’Empty’ and ineffective artworks and exhibitions are the paradoxical reaction to this situation. All that art has now is spectacle, where social and political problems are played out with no substantial impact on reality.”

7. Berlin Biennale, Breaking the News.

This familiar conception, where the artwork is equated with “commodification” and alienation, and the exhibition with separation from the carnivalesque community of political action, recurs throughout the Berlin Biennale’s presentation material and surrounding discourses, from the catalogue’s repeated call for “concrete actions with real effects”, to Żmijewski and Warsza’s humble proclamation that they don’t want to “exhibit” the Occupy movement, but give them space and learn from them: “the people of the movements: they are our teachers”. But is it not worth problematizing or developing the rudimentary opposition between art’s “ineffectiveness” and the consequences of the “genuine action”, between pacifying spectacle of the artists and the spectators and the real politics of the people and the activists? No, because theory is the opposite of practice and reflection precludes action. We are not to interpret the world, but to change it. Art, writes Żmijewski, “has become a décor for a neo-liberal system, [and] this décor includes not only art objects, but the intellectual discourse that frames them. It is a discourse which revolves around them and, like a black hole, sucks into its center each and every radical proposition, transforming it into speculation and theoretical reflection – but not into action. […] We don’t need philosophical Newspeak to go into the streets and spray-paint buildings with the alphabet of freedom”. One could almost laugh at the aggressive rhetoric and the oddly outdated conceptual apparatus. Hadn’t we come further than this?

7. Berlin Biennale, Breaking the News, Mosireen.

But the truth is that the curators lay bear their own and the biennale’s politics with their parodic anti-intellectualism. It is a politics that compensates for its lack of aesthetic and conceptual sophistication with media maneuvers and provocation. It is a politics for which the act’s “real consequences” demand that one abandons the artwork’s uncertain effects and the slow problematizations of theoretical reflection. It may be possible with an artistic activism that works in and through the mass media and achieves some type of positive effect. However, the prerequisites for this would then be that it supplies the conditions for the debate to reach a level of nuance that is able to match the complexity of political reality. Żmijewski and his co-curators want instead to lure benevolent spectators and critics into playing along with a desperate provocation by capturing them in a sort of moral and political trap: either you are with the various political groups and activists, in which case you are also with the exhibition; or you are against the exhibition, in which case you are also against the participating political movements. There is no reason to accept the logic of this false opposition, to feel obliged to take a position on the basis of this limited set of positions. The seventh Berlin Biennale’s failure is precisely that, as an exhibition, it does not create the conditions that allow us to be able to identify ourselves as participants in its political community, to be able to understand the problems that the participating artists and activists react to and act in relation to, and make them into our own. In other words, it is an exhibition that precludes any meaningful politics.

Translation from the Swedish by Jeff Kinkle. Article in Swedish.