One Too Many Helping Hands

The Berlin Biennial is taking place against all odds. But adamant to meet the current crisis, the exhibition’s progressive politics makes for a conventional and repetitive viewing experience.

Mariela Scafati, Movilización [Mobilization], 2020. Installation view, 11th Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Courtesy Mariela Scafati; Galería Isla Flotante, Buenos Aires; PSM, Berlin Photo: Silke Briel

The title of the 11th Berlin Biennial, The Crack Begins Within, was determined only just in time before the exhibition catalogue went to print in mid-August. This not only tells you something about the uncertain conditions under which the curators – María Berríos, Renata Cervetto, Lisette Lagnado, and Agustín Pérez Rubio – have been working (COVID-19 and all). It also speaks to the rare agility of their curatorial strategy, that is to say, its ability to adapt and respond to the immediate contemporary. 

Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art 11: The crack begins within
Berlin Biennial, Daadgalerie, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin

The team members are all from Latin America, or work there, and naturally the bulk of the artists represented in the exhibition are too. Across that region, populations remain in strict quarantines enforced with increasingly fascist means, and for reasons quite other than public health. Few of the artists have managed to travel to see the exhibition. The impossible has happened, and a biennial has managed to emerge from this mayhem. But what does it do? Is it obliged to do anything? 

At KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the biennial gets off to a very good start. The first room presents a video by the veteran Brazilian theatre group Teatro da Vertigem shot in São Paulo on 4 August, a mere month before doors opened in Berlin. The group planned to stage a performance, but stuck in quarantine had to think of an alternative, and fast. 

Marcha à ré  (Reverse gear) shows 120 cars inching backwards down Paulista Avenue, a street often used for protests, most recently by supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro honking from their cars in misguided defiance of the pandemic. Soundtracked by the incessant beeping of park assists, like a dying pulse registered by a respirator, the work speaks powerfully to the regressive politics of the country’s right – a necropolitics, as the wall text names it – as well as to the warped temporality of the biennial as a whole. In the last year, the project has unfolded through what the team has called a series of three “experiences,” modest exhibitions at the ExRotaPrint space in Wedding, with the current conventionally large-scale and very biennial-like display conceived as its “epilogue.” Although to the viewer this is mostly just language, these appellations do ask generative questions about the line between event and aftermath, and the potential of art as both call and response. Reversing down Paulista Avenue, like reversing out of death, or taking back time, is a brilliant metaphor for political resistance in the current moment. 

Opposite Teatro da Vertigem’s video, Mariela Scafati’s usually clothed and upright human forms made of coloured canvases lie scattered across the floor as another diagnostic image of the chaos and collapse of our time. Movilización (Mobilisation, 2020)as the piece is called, immediately and effectively resonates with Marcha à ré, again emphasising the synergy between the paralysis of crisis and the movement, or mobilisation, that happens despite. Scafati’s work makes its point with great formal clarity, and really doesn’t need the beautiful (but sentimental) accompanying text in which art historian Nicolas Cuello writes a chorus for the whole exhibition: “Terror wanted to name us a defeated multitude, but we knew that we were choosing fragility as a system of support and as an oblique form of imagining our tomorrow.” 

Flávio de Carvalho, Retrato ancestral [Ahn*innenporträt], 1932. Oil on canvas. Installation view, 11th Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2020. Photo: Silke Briel

Next, the combination of Malgorzata Mirga-Tas’s casts of the remains of her vandalised memorial for murdered Romani in Poland, and Flávio de Carvalho’s surrealist painting from the 1930s is as stunning and poignant as the first two galleries. Unfortunately, this also marks the end of the exhibition’s hat-trick. Directly adjacent, in Kiri Dalena’s film Alunsina  (2020)a child from a community targeted by violent government policies in the Philippines holds up a drawing she has made, sobbing “we used to be happy.” It’s heavy stuff – too heavy, in fact. And flanked by The Black Mamba collective’s video addressing the intersections of gender, caste, and colonial oppression in India (summarised in the hypnotic chant, “we rape you; Europa rapes us”) these very different histories of trauma risk sounding each other out. This is the conscientious biennial’s familiar plight, and one which The Crack Begins Within doesn’t manage to steer entirely clear of. 

The great hall at KW is probably the most emblematic and most difficult space of any Berlin Biennial. Here, The Antichurch, the title of this chapter of the exhibition, materialises in an only almost sufficiently monumental installation of the late Brazilian painter Pedro Moraleida Bernardes’s Faça Você Mesmo Sua Cepela Sistina (Make Your Own Sistine Chapel, 1997–98). Towering at the centre of the room like an altar, paintings stacked into a massive trident show fantastic scenes of sexual violence, pleasure and humiliation; severed limbs hurling down a black shaft; and a devil getting a blowjob. Florencia Rodriguez Giles’s equally epic and sexually charged drawings make up the church’s transept. But what the wall text calls a “utopia entirely devoid of male heroes and their aggressions,” is actually much more ambivalent – sweltering and secreting bodies somewhere between ecstasy and total disintegration – and, in the context of Bernardes’s sadistic fuck-fest, all the better for it. 

Pedro Moraleida Bernardes, Young-jun Tak; Florencia Rodriguez Giles. Installation view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2020. Photo: Silke Briel

 If the monumentality of the great hall is only partial, it is because otherwise fine works by Edgar Calel and Azucena Vieites lack the sacrilegious grossness of the others, taking the sting out of the room as a whole. Equally, Young-jun Tak’s circle of Christ figures in fibreglass, with its slick YBA-like production, is at odds with the unmannered expressionism that works so well in Bernardes’s paintings. Carlos Motta’s three-part film REQUIEM (2016) is perfect for the adjacent rough basement that normally houses the Pogo Bar. Where one video shows a naked man tied up in ropes and hung upside down in a baroque church by two harness-clad bears, another features the theologian Linn Marie Tonstad laying out, rather like in an airport security video, Christianity’s entanglements with patriarchy and capitalism. Here, the work doesn’t just hold the viewer’s hand, but drags it. What’s the point of sexual dissidence if you use footnotes to scrub it clean? 

The remaining three floors of KW are marked by a repetitive back-and-forth between formally conventional documentary films – for instance, Paula Baeza Pailamilla’s on conflict over indigenous Mapuche territory in Chile; Elena Tejada-Herrera’s on female political empowerment in Peru; Marwa Arsanios’s on the corporatisation of seeds in the context of Columbia – and mostly dense and colourful allegorical or narrative illustrations. Here, Zehra Doğan’s graphic novel about the Kurdish struggle, made while the artist was in prison no less, is a striking and important contribution, while Cansu Çakar’s intricate watercolours, which also speak to the violence committed by the Turkish state, stand out among the more artful. Irrespective of the importance of the topic, the value of the testimony, or even the high quality of the draughtsmanship, aesthetics quickly begins to feel like an incidental add-on to the exhibition, compensation for the fact that most of the works are engaged in conveying capital-C content, rather than impressing the viewer by their presence alone. It gets boring. 

One logic would have it that art would not be able to reflect a crisis as urgent and all-encompassing as that facing many of the artists in the exhibition; that artists living under such conditions simply cannot afford abstraction and formalism. Then again, the best works in the show – Scafati’s, Bernardes’s, and a truly incredible series of drawings by de Carvalho depicting his mother in the throws of death – function exactly on those terms. It is not, therefore, about whether art can be meaningful during a crisis, but about whether we insist it should also be useful, and in quite particular ways. 

Virginia de Medeiros – Feminist Health Care Research Group, 30.11.2019–8.2.2020, 11th Berlin Biennale c/o ExRotaprint. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

In this regard, for instance with last winter’s second “experience,” The Feminist Health Care Research Group, the 11th Berlin Biennial has touted art as a source of healing. Trauma is such a prominent theme in this exhibition, not as a flagellatory gesture, as is often the case, but as an honest attempt to cope and move on. As Agustín Pérez Rubio writes in one of the accompanying texts, when the lockdown commenced, the team agreed “that we [would] not let go of anyone’s hand, meaning that no artist’s participation [or fee] would be cancelled due to the crisis.” A concrete example of this is how the collective Sirenes Errantes, which, like Teatro da Vertigem, had to abandon its original plans, decided instead to establish a call-in listening service for those made lonely by the quarantine. When art becomes impossible, something else happens. My problem is, as with Motta’s work, that I don’t want art to necessarily heal or hold my hand. 

At the biennial’s other major venue, the Martin Gropius Bau, I run into some of the same hurdles. Here, too many films rely on associated sculptural installations to pass for art rather than documentary. One exception is Aykan Safoğlu’s tight yet sensitive video in which the shredded personal photographs that roll across the screen make for an incisive representation of the torn and blurry quality of memories. The work feeds into the overall concern of the venue – titled The Inverted Museum – with how history is constructed museologically. As part of a meta-reflexive institutional critique, many of the works at the Gropius Bau lean on established exhibition formats, which has resulted in a lot of formally, if not ideologically, conservative works and style of curation. Rather than as a contemporary art show, this is the approach I want to see when the ethnographic collection reopens at the new Humboldt Forum.

On that note, Sandra Gamarra Heshiki almost hits the nail on the head with her large, velvety, and shadowed paintings of ethnographic museum displays. But then in each corner is a photograph of political prisoners, territorial conflict, or police violence, “revealing,” as the wall text would have it, “a world still shaped by the colonial matrix.” Who needs this revelation? Even if it wasn’t already clear from simply being in the world, watching just one of the documentaries in this exhibition would have taught the sufficient lesson. Besides, the flatness and gloomy vanitas vibe of the oil paintings more than adequately attests to the life that will probably never return to these objects. Spelling it out kills complexity. 

Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende (MSSA), Installation view, 11th Berlin Biennale, Gropius Bau. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

One of the biennial’s most persistent and generative metaphors is the friction between mother earth and father land (Spanish: patria); between nature – nurturing and exploited – and destructive, rampant structures such as patriarchy, Christianity, and the nation state. This discourse finds its nexus in de Carvalho’s aforementioned drawings of his mother, throwing her head from side to side, mouth open. There’s something both mesmerising and morbid, even ghoulish, about this series of works, the fervour with which he captures the moment of death, the detail and the unabashed drama. If I could pick one work as the emblem of 2020, it might just be this one – and it’s from 1947. It’s installed in fantastic pairing with a line-up of prints and drawings by Käthe Kollwitz, among them The Mothers (1922–23), depicting a group of women in rock-like formation around their children. Both works complicate the image of the mother – not simply benevolent, but also hard – and our love for her – a type of consumption. 

It turns out that there is more than formal resonance between the two artists. As founder of São Paulo’s Club of Modern Artists, in 1933 de Carvalho arranged a retrospective of Kollwitz as a gesture of solidarity following her expulsion from Akademie der Künste for publicly opposing the Nazis. The Gropius Bau also contains an exhibition inside the exhibition of works from the Salvador Allende Museum of Solidarity, asking further questions about what art can “do” in the face of injustice. The daadgalerie presents set of collages by Francisco Copello from the 1990s, some featuring scraps of documentation from a performance meant to take place at the Chilean National Gallery in the days immediately following the coup against Allende on 11 September 1973. In this network of associated presences, we see the biennial at its peak: introducing great artists such as de Carvalho and Copello to new audiences; drawing resonant lines of precedence; and giving material form to things erased, postponed, and prohibited. In such moments, it speaks powerfully of the resilience of humans and of art. The rest of the time, it’s too busy making sure we’ve understood everything correctly. 

Francisco Copello, Participación del público [Audience Participation], 1990. Photoengraving, mixed media on Somerset paper Installation view, 11th Berlin Biennale, daadgalerie. Collection Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago de Chile. Photo: Silke Briel.