Claiming to “let art offer the answers for social and political spheres” the 7th Berlin Biennale is far more interested in provocation than political (or artistic) content and context. It is also the product of a strangely regressive world view.
In the last few decades the phenomenon of the biennale as contemporary art extravaganza has exploded. There are over 150 biennales in cities as diverse as Istanbul, São Paulo, and Chengdu, China. Yet, like much of the contemporary art world, little has changed in the last 20 years. The two previous Berlin Biennales followed a traditional curatorial format, based on theories of the 1990s with much abeyance to conceptual and political models from the 1970s. When artist Artur Zmijewski was chosen curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale (bb7), he (along with his co-curator Joanna Warsza) announced a program that would “let art offer the answers for social and political spheres.”
But the result is an exhibition in which political meaning and context have slowly but effectively been erased. How did this happen? In large part due to the personality of Artur Zmijewski, who has left his footprint visible throughout the bb7. This is especially evident in the dominance of the artist/curator’s own ‘aesthetics of provocation’ which seems to revel in an immediate effect of shock and confusion, while at the same time consciously excluding content as unnecessary and even distracting. There is also a strangely parochial Weltanschauung to the bb7, a preference for a nostalgic, nationalist and ethnic world view reminiscent of the mid-twentieth century. Glaringly absent from this (supposedly political) biennale are the current European crises, last year’s Arab Spring or Asia in practically any form.
In many ways the bb7 is really a vast solo show by Zmijewski, an artist well known for his actions and video works. One example is the 2009 work ‘Democracies’, a potpourri of videos showing public crowds in protest and similar manifestations, ranging the political spectrum from the funeral of Jörg Haidar to Berlin’s anarchic May 1 demonstrations. In another work ‘80064’ Zmijewski convinced a reluctant, former concentration camp inmate to have his faded identification tattoo ‘renewed’. Both these and other works eschew investigative or structural analysis for an immediate effect of provocation. His primary ‘aesthetic’ device is to combine two contradictory actions (right wing/ left wing; PC/ non-PC; sympathetic/transgressive) which at first confuse the viewer, but then Zmijewski intentionally fails to follow up with any content or analysis: it is pure provocation for provocation’s sake.
In her review of the exhibition Ana Teixeira Pinto notes that the curators stage “left-wing positions through the enactment of right-wing methods and ‘vigilante’ rhetorics.” Pablo Hermann, a Berlin based artist and curator, who has been researching Zmijewski’s methods in the run up to the bb7, goes further, comparing them the ‘Querfront’ or ‘Third Position’ strategies’ which have their roots in the early 20th century European far right. In his essay ‘The Spectacularization of Activist Art’ Hermann places Zmijewski’s aesthetics in a tradition that goes back to the early 20th century which combines left and far right rhetoric.
In their roles as curator Zmijewski and Warsza repeatedly impose this ‘aesthetic’ on a wide range of art works and political documentation, often by what appears to be cynical staging. The ground floor of the main venue Kunst Werke (KW) has been ‘given over’ to Occupy Berlin. The choice of this general space is important. KW’s main floor literally descends into a pit of what was originally a basement. Instead of an agora or public square we have an exhibition space that literally resembles the modern zoological garden. Hung with banners and individual stations devoted to myriad themes, this central space has managed to appropriate the concept of Occupy and turned it into an artistic/ethnological happening. The ‘zoo effect’ was noted by more than one visitor at the general opening, and was also commented on by art critic Niklas Maak in a review, ‘Critique of Cynical Reason,’ in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Given the comfortable economic situation in Germany in recent years, Occupy Berlin is still rather small and perhaps they lack the sophistication of their colleagues in New York, Oakland or Madrid. But one really wonders how they could have been so naïve to have fallen into this trap.
The rest of the main building contains a mix of artworks and political media, whose effectiveness is mixed, but almost always hampered by the curators’ intervention. Among the strongest is Khaled Jarrar’s ‘Stamp for Palestine.’ The artist offers a stamp for passports with a bird, flower and the words ‘State of Palestine’. Postal stamps with a similar motif are also available, and are valid for use in the German postal system. Reminiscent of Fluxus actions and Mail Art from the 1960s, the work does have a significant function of allowing the visitor to take part in a simple political act.
In contrast, the larger part of another floor is given over to a changing collection of video footage of protests and political actions from the Near East and Europe titled “Breaking the News”. But minimal context is given for anything shown, draining the actions of their original purpose and meaning. Case in point is a video of young activists from the Ukrainian women’s rights group Femen . Several young women are filmed climbing the bell tower of an orthodox church. They then cast a banner (whose text is unseen) over a balcony, take off their shirts, and topless, with slogans written across their chests, climb a scaffold to ring church bells until the police come and drag them away. The general experience of viewers varied from “What is this about?” to condescendingly raised eyebrows. No information was given to explain that Femen protests against sex trafficking, prostitution and the generally poor situation of women in Ukraine. Their unique mode of protest, an act of 'detournement' uses the very objectification of women in Ukrainian society as a means of hacking the system and getting media attention. The bb7’s curatorial strategy in effect, undoes this act of 'detournement' and re-objectifies the women. The lack of information and context in this and half a dozen other videos basically has the effect of de-politicizing what are essentially highly political acts – turning protest into mere wallpaper.
On the top floor we encounter a few hundred under-watered birch saplings collected by the Polish artist Lukasz Surowiez from Auschwitz-Birkenau (Birkenau means ‘birch field’ in German) and brought to the bb7 for possible future planting in Berlin. The project imitates German artist Joseph Beuys 1982 work planting ‘7000 Oaks’ at Documenta 7. Nearby we find an artwork by the curator Artur Zmijewski himself: ‘Berek/ A Game of Tag’ from 2000-2001. A sign at the door notes that the film was removed from the 2011 exhibition Side by Side Poland – Germany 1000 Years of Art and History for “not respecting the dignity of holocaust victims.” The film has two parts. In the first, a laughing family plays tag, naked, in the basement of a house. In the second, a group of naked men also play tag in a similar underground space, which we later discover to be the remains of a gas chamber. The work, typically devoid of any analysis of the history it touches upon, is just simple provocation for its own sake.
Given that Zmijewski is artistic director for the Polish left wing newspaper Krytyka Polityczna we have to ask ‘why he is using far right aesthetic devices?’ If we look elsewhere in late 20th century Eastern European art we do find an interesting use of both fascist and communist symbols in the work of the Slovenian NSK movement – known also for the artist collective Irwin and the electronic music group Laibach. NSK, formed in the final years of communist Yugoslavia, used a baroque mix of self-made fascist and communist imagery in their work. Yet their approach was often scalpel sharp, investigating the similarities between far right and far left totalitarian systems. Moreover it was essentially critical and ironic, and was meant as a way of deconstructing the aesthetics of totalitarianism. But Zmijewski as both an artist and a curator uses this dual approach like a sledgehammer, for its own sake, seemingly only with the intention of achieving a cynical sensationalism.
Elsewhere in the exhibition Israeli-Dutch artist Yael Bartana produces a slick infomercial-like video for her upcoming project ‘The First Congress of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (and Europe Will be Stunned)’ in which she calls for 3.3 million Jews to return to Poland. Her ironic call for a new Zionism in Europe (and an emptying of Israel?) works more effectively than most of the bb7’s positions. The video with its dramatic set, makeup and lighting are greatly indebted to the aesthetics of NSK. The concept is probably not nearly as controversial as it would have been a decade or two ago, but is very much crafted to get media attention. A very good deconstruction of the project is found in a review on the Berlin blog Rosa Perutz.
Bartana’s Congress competes with a number of improbable if catchy side events such as a billboard size poster advertising a conference later this year in Graz, Austria for ‘Rebranding European Muslims’ and Dutch artist Jonas Staal’s ‘New World Summit’ – “an alternative parliament for political and juridical representatives of organizations currently placed on international terrorist lists”. The project is intended to take place on the “borders of democracy,” but, according to a source within the bb7, will actually be a meeting of 9 or 10 human and civil rights lawyers and activists. In addition, on April 29 there was a staged reenactment of the Battle of Berlin with hobbyists playing German and Soviet soldiers.
Blessed to be shown alone, two films by the Polish filmmaker Joanna Rajkowska, at the Academy of Arts, are among the few purely artistic works in the Biennale. The longer film, ‘Born in Berlin’, documents Rajkowska’s pregnancy and a rather brutal depiction of the birth of her daughter Rosa, complete with episiotomy. The film combines footage of her daily life, the labor and her infant daughter, with the city center as almost constant background. In the final credits we are informed that nine months after her birth Rosa was diagnosed with retinal cancer. In the guide to the bb7 the curators, in a combination of cynicism and kitsch, fantasize that perhaps “Rosa refused to see the city she was born in” and “West and East meet in Rosa’s eyes.”
Finally, in retrospect one has to remark on what a strange Weltanschauung the curators of the 7th Berlin Biennale have! Though both Zmijewski and Warsza belong to the intellectual left, they seem to share much of the claustrophobic world view of the Polish nationalist right as represented by the Law and Justice Party of the late president Lech Kaczynski and his brother Jarosl‚aw. The Biennale’s center of focus is basically Poland and its larger neighbors. Law and Justice’s Russophobia has been replaced by a sort of pan-Slavic anarchism, symbolized by the inclusion (symbolic or actual it is hard to say) of the Russian activist group Voina, whose own sympathies are with both the anarchist left and the far right National Bolsheviks. Zmijewski has ‘reached out’ to his German neighbors as an audience saying “One could say that Germans were victims of a false consciousness. I think that the situation calls for a break of some kind. It would put an end to the compulsion to address the past, playing on it, profiting from it in various ways, and basing politics on guilt or lack of atonement.” But nowhere is the curators' obsession with the mid twentieth century stronger than with the reduction of Jewish identity and culture to a great ‘Other’ symbolized by a binary pair of Auschwitz and Israel/Palestine.
Beyond this complex of Central Europe and Israel the rest of the world is represented in the bb7 by two positions on Latin America that deal solely with the ‘drug wars’, the fleeting mention of Africa as a location for a seminar on ‘gentrification’ that is to take place in a ‘bamboo settlement’ in the Congo, and Staal’s parliament ‘representing’ terrorist organizations.
Instead of addressing a myriad of open questions on what politics are in the second decade of the 21st century, and what positive role, if any, art can have in a quickly changing society, the bb7 is caught up in a nostalgic nationalist world view that, luckily, is largely irrelevant. It does, however, offer an added attraction, along with Checkpoint Charlie and Goering’s Air Ministry, to that portion of the Berlin tourist trail dedicated to the Second World War and its aftermath.