We Might Not Need Another Hero, But Do We Need Another Fair-to-Middling Biennial?

A first report from the 10th Berlin Biennale

This year’s Berlin Biennale defines itself negatively: from the typographical ‘X’ in its logo (signifying its tenth edition), the title of its public programme ‘I’m not who you think I’m not’, to the deliberately opaque dazzle camouflage design of its graphic identity, up to (and especially) the show’s title, ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’. So what do we need? Besides throwing a welcome bit of suspicion at forms of hero-worship large and small, and some enjoyable close readings of the Tina Turner song from which the title is taken, what has stood out up to this point is the exhibition’s reactive curatorial positioning: ‘We are not fixing the mess,’ Gabi Ngcobo said in an interview published yesterday. ‘We are not interested in countering this idea of biennalization.’ ‘This is not our job.’ Whether this via negativa can generate a positive sense of criticality is the attempt here, I think. While there’s no ‘concept’ behind the show, somewhat refreshingly, just as with many conceptually ambitious exhibitions, the risk is still that of overreaching and losing sight of what this is all about: not international diplomacy but putting on shows. Not firing tanks but showing art.

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Akademie der Künste (Hanseatenweg). Courtesy: BB10; photograph: Timo Ohler

Akademie der Künste (Hanseatenweg). Photograph: Timo Ohler

‘We are at war’ was one of the phrases employed by Ngcobo at this morning’s press conference for the Berlin Biennale. Along with what they refuse to say, there is an air of militancy driving the curators’ intentions, though with results that are highly subdued. ‘We don’t need another hero’ is an intelligently-positioned exhibition of art reacting not only to global political dysfunction but, equally, to the large, auteur-driven, conceptually-ambitious exhibitions of recent years. While there are few artists ‘from’ Berlin, the show does reflect a changed, highly diversified artistic context locally: in the background, there looms the 1984 to 1992 Berlin stay of poet Audre Lorde (whose work is sampled in the manifesto for ‘I’m not What You Think I’m Not’, the Biennale’s public programme that has been running for close to a year), current cultural debates on repatriation and restitution of art and artefacts from European institutions, the history of Afro-Germans and black women’s movements in Germany and elsewhere. In the space of a few years – though not for the first time – the artistic landscape of the city has grown remarkably international and culturally diverse, with spaces like SAVVY and Institut für Ausländischebeziehungen, among others, and magazines like Contemporary And – whose co-founder Yvette Mutumba is on the curatorial team of the exhibition – laying a stress on art from outside of Anglo-American traditions. That very little of this is spoken out loud demonstrates a quiet strength to the show, though it certainly risks insularity. Only more pressure, then, for the art to speak for itself.

Despite the politically radical intentions (and historical radical figures) informing the exhibition, a sense of studied professionalization and conventionality looms over this edition of the biennale. In direct contrast to the expansive ambitions of the last exhibition, BBX is concentrated in only a few venues. The works are installed generously, with a sense of diplomacy, subtlety and poise; the exhibition architecture (by Sandra Bartoli and Silvan Linden) is masterful. Yet, while the biennale announced a ‘school of anxiety’ (by Serubiri Moses) addressing subjective anxieties – a welcome prospect – the show is conspicuously unanxious to the point of safe. If this is war, it seems to be in the other room.

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Johanna Unzueta, May 2016 NY, 2016, watercolour, pastel pencil, charcoal, and needle holes on tinted watercolour paper, 100 × 65 cm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Pablo Faccinetto

Johanna Unzueta, May 2016 NY, 2016, watercolour, pastel pencil, charcoal, and needle holes on tinted watercolour paper, 100 × 65 cm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Pablo Faccinetto

The Akademie der Künste (AdK) on Hanseatenweg is a brutalist building in Berlin’s Hansaviertel built by Werner Düttmann, and one of the five venues of the exhibition. Outside, there stands the ruin of a façade that is symbolic, in several senses: the work is a replica of a ruined architectural façade, bearing iconographic details of hybrid provenance. 19° 36’ 16.89” N, 72°. 13 6 95’’ W / 52.4042° N 13.0385” E (2018), by Firelei Báez, combines the coordinates of the Sanssouci palace in nearby Potsdam and the castle, called Sans-Souci, in Milot, Haiti; and a murdered Haitian colonel named Jean-Baptiste Sans-Souci. The bidirectional work is there to show that historical events take place not in one space but many, I think: it references, too, German romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 work Betrothal in Santo Domingo, which is set in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, during a civil war that broke out between French colonizers and indigenous peoples between 1803–04 – and, with it, a history of cross-relations between German thought, and continued and historical intellectual and political imperialism.

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Belkis Ayón, La consagración, 1991, triptych, part II, monoprint on paper, 2.3 × 3 m. Courtesy: © Estate de Belkis Ayón, Havana; photograph: Jose A. Figueroa

Belkis Ayón, La consagración, 1991, triptych, part II, monoprint on paper, 2.3 × 3 m. Courtesy: © Estate de Belkis Ayón, Havana; photograph: Jose A. Figueroa

Can we undo this continued imperialism inside? The hang of works at the AdK is refined and non-invasive, starting from a set of overpainted maps and archival documents, also by Báez, which is an almost crassly literal subjective ‘repainting’ of history. There are numerous painting-sculpture combinations by Johanna Unzueta, garish abstract canvases by Herman Mbamba, some leaves on paper by Ana Mendieta. A series of bright acrylics on photographs, ‘Kobayashi Maru’ (2014), by Agnieszka Brzeżańska, continues the theme of overpainting history, and of tensions between historical fact and practices of abstraction and typologies, but with greater success than Báez’s. Not to miss is a wonderful series of large-scale prints – depicting an all-male Afro-Cuban secret society – by deceased artist Belkis Ayón, who (I read) was influential in reviving the medium of printmaking in Cuba. Ayón’s prints depict an initiation ritual and are an exquisite rendering of the imbrication of iconography, occultism, everyday life and familial or extra-familial relations. Also at AdK, considerable space is given over to artist Mario Pfeifer (who is also the partner of one of the curators), with a video reenactment of the case relating to a 2016 refugee murder. (An interesting piece in itself, but one that repeats a very similar project by Forensic Architecture from the last documenta). Beside this are a suite of lush photos by Mimi Cherono Ng’ok. Some figurative paintings by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are well-executed , but – without any contextualization – add little argument to a show that seems suspiciously devoid of theme or narrative.

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Sondra Perry, IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Bridget Donahue, New York

The real highlight here, and a welcome self-critical work in a show strangely lacking in this regard is Sondra Perry’s excellent video IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection (2017). Here, we see a typology generated by an EA Sports basketball game, and the artist commenting on black bodies and physical statistics in a video game by assessing which real-life players they were rendered from, and digital footage of the artist engaging with cultural artefacts in the British Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. With the backdrop of debates surrounding repatriation and decoloniality (even demonstrated with a museum scene in the 2018 film Black Panther), it’s a high point of the show so far – and one which demonstrates the links between objectification, statistics, and the persistent, racist legacies of typologies in a new age of quantification. Coloniality is real and continued, even in a supposedly borderless digital world.

At the ZK/U – Center for Art and Urbanistics, things begin to sour. We see mostly a series of minor solo presentations, such as a colourful, though semantically empty, room of paintings and painting-objects by Sam Samiee. Some topically relevant and politically ambitious projects strike me as too on-the-nose, such as Heba Y. Amin’s Anti-Control Room (2018), in which she reimagines utopian visions for ‘alternative geographies’, copping from populist rhetoric (‘is belief not a doctrine?’) and proposes a new supercontinent called Atlantropa. A nice-sounding effort; I tend, admittedly, to flinch at speculative ‘reimaginings’ by artists, in our political moment in which horror is real, not imagined.

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Tony Cokes, Black Celebration, 1988, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Greene Naftali Gallery, New York and EAI, New York

Tony Cokes, Black Celebration, 1988, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Greene Naftali Gallery, New York and EAI, New York

The real standout here, though, and by far one of the best presentations in this biennale, is a sizeable presentation of works by Tony Cokes, a US-based artist whose video installations combine simple text slideshows (about, say, the relationship of television media to the bus boycotts in the US South) with pop music, often jarringly. Here, the Berlin Biennale begins to practice what it preaches, and we learn a little bit about what opacity has to do with resisting forms of image-making: Cokes has devised a fascinating argument about the complex relationship between image-making and forms of protest, for instance, and the ‘non-visual’ as a positive and generative space for possibility – gorgeously overlaid with The Smiths lyrics – that, when thus recontextualized, turn dark: ‘nature is a language, can’t you read?’

As I left the biennale, I wondered: what here, besides Cokes, falls under the category of ‘very good’? There is a situation of over-production and multiplication in the arts that seems increasingly at odd with the quality of what is exhibited. Increasingly, I can’t shake the feeling that we are seeing diminishing returns on quality in what an accelerationist art system can really produce and support. Based on my first visit, my guess is that this Biennale is primarily of interest not to artists, not to a curious public, not to Berlin’s wonderfully international population – and probably not to art historians, either – but to art professionals interested, for the time being, in the latest biennale by an emerging curator. I have no doubt that the curatorial team has put together a respectable, decent exhibition. But primarily, the show seems of specialist interest – mainly, to other curators, as an exercise in successful biennale construction after the auteur exhibition-making of recent years. It all smacks of ‘positioning’ and a tidy little world of arts professionals carrying branded totes. All in all, a decent start for a biennale that has been much-anticipated. But is ‘decent’ good enough? (We are, after all, at war.) We might not need another hero – but I’m not sure we need another specialists’ biennale such as this one, either.

The 10th Berlin Biennale runs from 9 June  9 September, 2018, across various venues.  

Main image: 10th Berlin Biennale campaign artwork. Courtesy: © 10th Berlin Biennale

Pablo Larios is senior editor of frieze. He lives in Berlin.

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