Berlin Biennale Wrestles With Big Issues (and Itself)

BERLIN — To imagine a new world, Karl Marx wrote in 1843 after studying in the German capital, you must first rigorously unpack the old one with “a ruthless criticism of everything existing.”

That energy pervades this year’s Berlin Biennale, which unfolds across five museums in the city, curated by the French Algerian artist Kader Attia. No matter how you approach the event, you are instantly met with art that grapples with the legacies of war and colonialism; domination by race, gender, class and caste; ecological damage; disinformation; and social control.

Begin at the KW Institute of Contemporary Art and you hit a wall-size installation of photographs and video of working-class Portuguese and Turkish immigrants in Paris in the interviews 1980s. Made by the feminist artist Nil Yalter, the work is titled “Exile Is a Hard Job.”

At the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, the first room holds a continuous image of clouds in a horizontal band along four walls. It is not a photograph but a digital composition by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, built from data on 15 years of Israeli surveillance flights in Lebanon’s airspace.

And at the Akademie der Künste, beside the Brandenburg Gate, you enter a space hung with enormous works on paper by Moses März that chart the political networks and intellectual histories of topics including radical ecology, the restitution of pillaged art, and Black politics and antiracism in Germany.

This Biennale, which runs through Sept. 18, it’s serious. Very serious. It verges on humorless, though it also contains moments of grace and some truly transporting pieces. Its roster of 69 artists and collectives includes familiar war horses from the circuit, but plenty of newcomers, too. It is not a “global South” exhibition — Europe is well represented — but still leans that way, including notable clusters from Vietnam, India, and Arabic-speaking countries.

A strong show more than a pleasant one, the Biennale wrestles with itself as well as with the issues. Biennials and museums are sites of power, after all; the curator is a gatekeeper. Attia’s curatorial statement notes that today’s “profusion of sprawling, monumental exhibitions” mirrors “the material excesses” of global capitalism, and she asks: “So why add yet another exhibition to this?”

The answer he reaches is that art — perhaps uniquely — can claim our attention from algorithmically enforced social control. The Biennale’s title, “Still Present!,” rings as part exhortation, part proof of life. It aims for the transition point where that ruthless critique bears fruit, where the old is sloughed off for the new, with leading artists.

The experience can feel relentless. There are reams upon screens of documentary and investigative art. Forensic Architecture, the pioneering data and video research collective, has a strong presence, including a large installation that recapitulates some of its major investigations over the years, another on a Russian airstrike in Kyiv (timely, though not hugely illuminating) and separate projects by researchers associated with the group. Videos by Susan Schuppli examine Canadian police brutality against Indigenous people and migrant abuse by US border agents; Imani Jacqueline Brown, in a more evocative and personal multimedia installation, travels Louisiana’s polluted wetlands, mapping toxicity to propose reparation.

At KW, a text work by the distinguished scholar Ariella Aïsha Azoulay examines how visual records of the aftermath of World War II avoid dealing with the widespread rape of German women by Soviet soldiers. Her project is presented as small-print pages on the wall, plus a table display of related books that visitors are not allowed to pick up and browse — a frustrating mise-en-scène for an important topic.

And midway through the section at the Hamburger Bahnhof sits a work so grotesquely and deliberately vile that it risks destabilizing the whole show. “Poison Soluble,” by Jean-Jacques Lebel, a French artist and veteran of activist causes, is a room-size maze installation with partitions covered by enormous blowups of the snapshots that American soldiers took when they abused Iraqi captives at the Abu Ghraib prison .

As art, it’s obscene — and certainly effective, at least at least rekindling anger at these events, though as I attempted to linger in the installation to pick up any deeper signals, I was distracted by visitors turning on their heels in disgust and others pushing their way through, awkwardly navigating around me between the panels of gore.

“Poison Soluble” previously featured in a 2018 joint exhibition in Paris by Lebel and Attia; the two are friends. It is by far the most shocking work in this Berlin Biennale. But Lebel is involved in another piece in the show, a half-century older: the “Large Collective Antifascist Painting” from 1960, created with five other European artists in response to the torture of the Algerian activist Djamila Boupacha by French soldiers, which became the cause celebre. The painting is a somewhat garish period piece, violent in its own way.

The historical line between the two Lebel pieces is perhaps this Biennale’s least productive vector — except as an object lesson in how a certain European and masculine mode of antiracist and anticolonial art, though forged in real political battles, lost its way and lapsed into exploitation. Outside “Poison Soluble,” a warning sign advises that the work depicts intense violence, but without stating the topic. Its instruction that people “who have experienced racial trauma or abuse” should not enter feels paternalistic and exclusionary.

Fortunately, this Biennale operates in multiple registers. Though the show overall resonates closely with Attia’s concerns as an artist, he was seconded by a cosmopolitan curatorial team of five women — Ana Teixeira Pinto, Do Tuong Linh, Marie Helene Pereira, Noam Segal and Rasha Salti — and it’s a relief when their combined open space efforts for the poetic.

This is notable at the other location of the Akademie der Künste, in the western Hansaviertel district, where the exhibition takes on an environmental orientation while remaining animated by social and imperial history. An affecting installation by Sammy Baloji includes tropical plants in a small hothouse of the kind that traders used to ship specimens to Europe; a speaker softly plays drumming and singing by a Congolese veteran of the Belgian Army in World War I who was captured by the Germans and forced to take part in their ethnographic recordings. Nearby, exquisite drawings by Temitayo Ogunbiyi depict okra, water leaf and other vegetables in Nigerian cuisine, along with recipes.

Even when the show is examining current crises, it benefits from mixing documentary and other techniques. “Oh Shining Star Testify,” an installation by Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme on three large screens, is lyrical and dramatic, the projected images broken up by stacked boards that create a kind of stage set. The work uses surveillance tape of the killing by Israeli soldiers of a 14-year-old Palestinian boy who crossed a separation wall to pick an edible plant, plus other footage, a soundtrack and concise text cards. It has the force of ancient tragedy.

The French collective PEROU keys in on absurdity: It layers video documentation of the police crackdown and clearing of a Roma encampment in the Paris suburbs with a reading of the long, highly procedural municipal order that approved those actions, showing up the complete disconnect of bureaucratic imagination from the human stakes.

There is much else to enjoy in this Biennale, on a line-item basis. Mai Nguyen-Long’s “Vomit Girl” and “Specimen” sculpture series hover between playful and macabre as they grapple with the aftermath of Agent Orange bombings in Vietnam. Mónica de Miranda’s lush film made in the mangroves of the Kwanza River in Angola deftly connects matrilineal knowledge, civil war and ecological dreaming. A remarkable suite — photography, sculpture, video, text — by Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige connects photographs and human remains of Sri Lankan Indigenous people in European museums with the island’s landscape and even the artist’s own body, by means of a sculptural self-portrait in the manner of an ethnographic exhibit.

Even blunter are Mayuri Chari’s vulvas sculpted from cow dung and stitched works on cloth that address the shaming of women’s bodies in India amid conservative Hinduism’s obsession with purity. Chari and two others, Prabhakar Kamble and Birender Yadav, are Dalit artists, from the lowest-ranking communities in India’s caste system. Their works come straight from the front lines, with a material urgency — dung, brooms, urns, crude sandals from construction sites — that is clearer than any political manifesto.

It could not be further in affect and lucidity from Lebel’s Abu Ghraib monstrosity, or other more conceptually stale entries. This Biennale is assertive and committed, and one senses a broadly congruent global outlook across its roster and curatorial team. Yet the results are all over the place — one must study the scatter in an attempt to understand the collision that produced it.

Its contradictions, I suspect, reflect those of the “decolonial,” a concept that Attia invokes abundantly in the exhibition texts as well as in his past projects. The term has spread in the art world for a decade or so since jumping from academia. It originated with Latin American scholars who contend that the whole construction of the modern world — in effect, since 1492 — is contaminated by colonialism’s racial hierarchies.

Whereas decolonization in the classic sense was a political, territorial project with no inherent grievance against modernity, today’s “decolonial practice” is about changing systems of knowledge — a woolier, potentially endless project. This Biennale is presented as a gathering of “decolonial strategies.” The task, Attia writes, is tending “all of the wounds accumulated throughout the history of Western modernity.”

If so, then every institution requires decolonization because it perpetuates harms, including biennials and museums. But the risk is solipsism: more institutional thinking, only different. This Berlin Biennale feels tangled in that way, overloaded by its own conceptual apparatus. Still, many of its parts point beautifully toward freedom.

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