“It’s not as bad as Documenta”. That is what I caught myself saying to a curator friend I bumped into in the foyer of Berlin’s Akademie der Künste, one of the three main exhibition venues of the 10th Berlin Biennale. I meant the heat and the art. She agreed, adding: “And it’s way better than last time”. She meant the previous edition of the biennale, curated by the New York-based fashion collective Dis.
Both are biennale preview code for “It’s probably OK, but I’m not yet sure what I’m supposed to think”. And indeed, the organisers of this edition have no interest in giving that away. Titled We don’t need another hero, this edition of the Berlin Biennale is organised by South African curator Gabi Ngcobo together with a curatorial team comprising Thiago de Paula Souza, Nomaduma Rose Masilela, Yvete Mutumba and Serubiri Moses. Where the 9th biennale was obviously cynical and fatigued from too many hours in the chatroom, the 10th comes across as analogue and stylistically traditional – where the tradition evoked turns out to be that of twentieth-century European academic exhibition-making: white walls, warm spotlighting and a genteel balance of two-dimensional, three-dimensional and video-based works. Anyone who was put out by the previous edition’s hi-tech in-jokes and post-post-internet hangups will find this one extremely congenial, the perfect prelude to an Aperol spritz.
The biennale’s three main venues, which besides the Akademie are KW Institute for Contemporary Art and ZK/U – Centre for Art and Urbanistics, are dominated by paintings and material-fixated installations. Some of these, such as Sam Samiee’s painting installation The Unfinished Copernican Revolution (2018) at the ZK/U, are stand-out pieces. Samie treats two-dimensional surfaces and objects equally as substrate for his garish colourism, which combines sensuality and humour in a refreshing manner. As if to give us permission to notice humour in the paintings, Samie turns to a cute slapstick gesture. He has populated one wall with a swarm of cut-out photocopies of a pair of painted Y-front underpants. By contrast, many other works are unmemorable and simply vanish into the white noise of artness that infuses Berlin this summer.
This innocuous orientation came as a surprise after reading the irate rhetoric in which this biennale team’s efforts are couched. In the official curatorial statement as well as in several transcribed discussions and interviews (including in the early pages of the exhibition catalogue), the curators lay out their refusal to explain their positions or interests to their audience. In an interview in the catalogue, Ngcobo states that our demands for explanations from the curatorial team constitute a form of racism since similar demands wouldn’t be made, or wouldn’t be made in the same way, of white curators. Quoting Toni Morrisson, Ngcobo says that this racism “keeps you from doing your work”. De Paul Souza elaborates, explaining that explaining is a kind of unacknowledged labour perpetuated by colonialistic inequality. He writes, “Transparency is something important for people who want to be served. … They need to understand what’s going on, because that is what they expect us to do, for them.”
Their botheration is with a very real assumption within the art world: that identity politics are the proper purview of cultural workers who are of colour, that these professionals are more inclined to address issues of representation and identity than their white counterparts. But instead of simply refusing to explain their position, the curators of this year’s biennial create an elaborate theatre of refusal that is re-enacted on every textual platform available. It becomes a Brechtian struggle to make us aware of all the not-explaining that is going on.
Indeed, zero art is explained in the exhibition venues, thematically or otherwise, and this potentially facilitates the white noise effect previously mentioned. Everyone is ignorant of something, and without the occasional didactic nudge our ignorances do not easily shift. This absence of curatorial direction allows great freedom to the viewer, and certainly forces us to look to the artworks themselves for narrative or rhyme. These might not be there, but exhibition conventions have taught us to look for them.
Perhaps I am just a good learner, but their selection of works, particularly in the Akademie der Künste exhibition, appears to pick a distinctive path through history and politics. This venue gives prominence to abstract paintings by Moshekwa Langa and Norwegian-Namibian artist Herman Mbamba, as well as fictional impressionist-tinged portraits by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Boakye has cited Edgar Degas as a stylistic influence, but I also think of Edouard Manet’s portraiture with its solid black shadows, sensual stares and watery eyes. The invocation of Manet recalls a moment in history when photographic lighting was drastically altering the way painters understood both black tones and human flesh tones, but brown-skinned subjects were all but omitted from their epiphanies. As if editing the past, Boakye’s ongoing artistic project is to find a full painterly lexicon for rendering “black” skin, and along the way to unseat a prevailing position that pale skin tones are normative. The “flesh”-coloured crayon is still always pale pink.
Without contextual knowledge a viewer could be forgiven for thinking that Langa and Boakye are implicitly connected to the traditional ethos of painting held aloft by the Akademie der Künste, a historical member’s organisation that has best served the interests of white male artists. This is no doubt part of the significance of showing them in this venue: it constitutes a dig at narratives of inclusion and exclusion. However, alongside Sara Haq’s whimsical multi-room installation Trans-plant, for example, in which stalks of field grass are inserted between parquet tiles, the paintings come across as the marketable offering on an art fair booth. To someone who received their art education in Johannesburg (me), a city permanently on the brink of being overgrown by something, grass popping up in the gallery is not that strange. In Europe, where subtle environmental interventions like this have been common parlance at main stream art fairs since the early 2000s, perhaps it is not so strange either.
If you would like the cheat’s guide to the 10th Berlin Biennale, it is this: Go to main hall of KW. There you will find the very best and very worst works of the biennale installed right next to each other, like Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump bumping yachts on Lake Superior.
Dineo Seshee Bopape’s colossal installation Untitled (Of occult instability) [Feelings] (2016–18) channels the sense of refusal the curators were chasing after into an environment of architectural collapse, a wasteland of smashed bricks, leaking ceilings and toppled orange pillars. The leaks are bespoke, another elaborate example of the faux ruin we see in Haq’s Trans-plant. Discreet water pipes are installed along the ceiling in order to create many authentic-seeming drips that are caught by gangs of buckets stationed around the room. Also suspended from the ceiling is a giant ball of tacked-together cardboard that feels like the sun around which all this chaos orbits. This is an intervention by Jabu Arnell, one of three artists Bopape invited to collaborate on the installation. Bopape’s work has always dealt with simultaneous processes of creation and destruction, of preservation and oblivion, and in this piece she follows her own artistic logic to its wild, paradoxical end.
Too bad that her neighbour is the tragic Mastur-bar (2015–8) by Fabiana Faleiros. This is an event-based occupation of KW’s ordinary social space, Bob’s Pogo Bar. In the absence of events, the piece is distinguished by a giant lurking plush toy that resembles some kind of mutant clitoris with fallopian tubes coming out of it. Anatomically it’s a disaster; artistically too. I don’t know if you are supposed to masturbate with it or if it’s supposed to scare you out of ever masturbating again. The hobby-craft squid is accompanied by headphones playing a soundtrack of what can only be described as canned climax. Maybe it’s supposed to be funny. Well, it isn’t. Reading bewilderment or nausea on my face as I said goodbye to the headphones, one of the exhibition guards piped up. “It’s about female masturbation”, she smiled, informatively. It was my one and only explanatory incident. Ngcobo and her recalcitrant team had had their vindication.