The 10th Berlin Biennale: No Hero Necessary
By Lara Salmon
On June 9 the Berlin Biennale opened to commence its three-month stay in the city. There are large exhibitions on view at several venues, as well as a packed schedule for talks, forums, performances and music throughout the summer. The title of the Biennale, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” alludes to the focus on Colonialism and its longstanding effects. By showing this work in Berlin, the curators hope to engage the city in a conversation around history and accountability. This framework is interesting, given Germany’s less obtuse role with a Colonial past than some of its European neighbors. On the other hand, it is highly relevant in the context of a new wave of disputes over EU migration policies.
The three primary venues for art-viewing are the Akademie Der Künste, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik. While the first two are traditional art spaces (a University gallery and a contemporary art museum), ZK/U is something unique. Founded by KUNSTrePUBLIK, a group of creative urban organizers, it exists in what was once a railway depot. The group uses the space to host international artist residencies and organize programs for the local community. On a typical day neighbors can be found watching the World Cup on TV screens throughout the grounds, while newly arrived immigrants picnic in the yard.
While the Biennale work on display at ZK/U focuses on global inequalities, most of it misses the opportunity to engage with the unique location and activist mentality of the space. An exception to this is Tony Cokes’ installation in the basement. Words, phrases and quotes run in Karaoke-like fashion across TV screens—each set to different music. Visitors meander around the dimly lit space, plugging into headphones and watch-reading the screens. One that stands out is a succession of quotes about women from Donald Trump. The serious flavor to political art is upended here: these pieces are entertaining, easy to consume, and hard to swallow. On the weekend following the opening, choreographers Andros Zins-Browne and Will Rawls do a performance in the space. The two men work with semi-improvised physical contact and words. They struggle and regain composure, stumbling unpredictably through the audience. The piece ends with a spoken visualization—an innuendo to either the chaos of the Watts Riots or the madness of Black Friday sales stampedes.
Another highlight at ZK/U are Tessa Mars’ drawings. These pieces narrate a connection between the artist and her alter ego. They locate “Tessalines,” Mars’ personal and historical Haitian persona, in relation to her current self.
At KW, the largest exhibition of the Biennale, another piece not-to-be-missed is also in the basement. Fabiana Faleiros’ Mastur Bar is a dark room pulsating with female desire. Eerie and enticing, it is unclear how much participatory viewing is acceptable. You can sit on a vibrating fuzzy floor sculpture, listening to unearthly voices in headphones, and gaze in wonder at the shiny textile ovaries. The female interior and her quest for sexual self-fulfillment are rulers of this dungeon. The underside of lust is palpable, in distinct contrast to the Biennale’s overall formality.
A timely piece for Germany’s current political tensions over immigration of people from the Middle East is Mario Pfeifer’s two-channel video Again / Noch einmal, on view at Akademie der Künste. The work begins with landscape overviews of the German countryside before cutting to a blue-hued warehouse setting. Actors replay an incident in which three German men tie a man from Iraq, who struggles with mental illness, to a tree outside a grocery store. The actual event took place two years ago in the city of Arnsdorf, to an ensuing flood of public controversy. The German men were declared innocent by a judge. The young man from Iraq, who had come to Germany in search of medical treatment, was never given proper care and perished a lonely and presumably avoidable death in the forest outside of Saxony. The actors in Pfeifer’s video replay the incident to an audience of German civilians—a “jury” so to speak. This panel is presented with media coverage and backstory. An interview with each of them is then played across the two screens. In a politically dividing Germany, it is individuals who will determine what is permissible and what is unacceptable. The two rows of chairs that Pfeifer’s jury sits on are mirrored by two rows of chairs in the gallery, suggesting that we might also be determiners of justice.
The Arabic subtitles on the screen in Pfeifer’s video is one of the few, if not only, places in the Biennale with Arabic translation. Germany received many immigrants after Angela Merkel opened the country’s border to take in refugees in 2015. These newcomers are from the Africa and the Middle East, but largely from Syria and Afghanistan. While the non Euro-centric focus of the Biennale is important and clear, the Middle East seems somehow overlooked in this First/Third world discussion. At a time of shifting demographics in Germany, with tensions over its ability to integrate new arrivals, it is unfortunate not to see more work from the countries of these peoples’ origins.
The 10th Berlin Biennale is on view throughout the city through September 9, 2018.
The Berlin Biennale is curated by Gabi Ngcobo and a four person curatorial team made up of Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula Souza, and Yvette Mutumba.
You can find more information about the Biennale here: http://www.berlinbiennale.de/