On the 7th Berlin Biennale

Initiated by Paweł Althamer at St. Elisabeth Church in Berlin-Mitte.
Initiated by Paweł Althamer at St. Elisabeth Church in Berlin-Mitte.

The blog of the 7th Berlin Biennale suggests that this edition of the event triggered “more discussions than ever before.” It certainly has. Motivated by the question of whether contemporary art has any visible social impact, artist Artur Żmijewski—who curated the biennale with Joanna Warsza and art collective Voina—defines the goal as “to open access to performative and effective politics that would equip we ordinary citizens with the tools of action and change.” He adds that art is only one of these tools. The preconception and execution of the biennale, however, caused indignation among many artists, curators, and writers. The project has been accused for using populist propaganda tactics, for preaching to the converted, for exhibiting too little artworks, for including the curator-artist’s own works, and for mounting to an exhibition-cum-artwork authored by Żmijewski himself, among other reasons. More recently, before the closing of the biennial on July 1st, activists who were invited to camp at the largest exhibition space of Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art revolted against the curatorial premise. They wrote that the biennial created “a human zoo with a viewing platform where viewers watch[ed] activists eat, assemble, fight and sleep.” Today the biennial still poses curious questions. Has it achieved to challenge exhibition conventions? Has it made the artist’s effect on the social visible? And has it convinced the viewer that it might be naive and lacking to talk about politics instead of being political actors?

As a critical exercise in affirmative criticism, m-est is translating and republishing Azra Tüzünoğlu’s review of the Berlin Biennale. Azra writes that, despite the odds, the biennale has substantiated its potential to create the reality by imagining the viewer as a political activist. The 7th Berlin Biennale (28 April–1 July 2012) will potentially be a landmark in its history, she argues, because its interest lies not in asking questions, but in finding answers—whether we like it or not.—Özge Ersoy

(The below text was originally published here in Turkish, Radikal, May 1, 2012.)

Teresa Margolles, PM 2010.

While the Turkish art agenda is fixated on the Sotheby’s auction—and there is nothing left to talk about except for the market, sale numbers, and records, and commercial frustrations, in the middle of Europe, in Berlin, a biennale began that discusses the place of art, art, and artistic responsibility in real politics. Artist Artur Żmijewski, well-recognized for his provocative works, collaborated with Joana Warsza and the activist group Voina (meaning “war”)—a formation that has recently become a nightmare for Russians and defined by Klaus Biesenbach as “showing the outside of the inside”—on the Berlin Biennale.

Those who participated in the press conference immediately recognized that this was no ordinary biennale. The curators chose to have the occasion as an open forum rather than the conventional seating arrangement with a raised platform on which various speakers address the listeners. Biesenbach, Żmijewski, and Warsza emphasized their intentions to interrogate the role of art in real life rather than organizing a conventional exhibition/biennale. It was obvious that they participated in a political act rather than visit a thousand artist’s studios, as Maurizio Cattelan—the curator for the previous biennale—did. The main framework was formed by discussions of the politics of memory, social-communal movements, the meaning of being a viewer in the contemporary age; they attempted to include various artists/activists who embodied ideologies the curators themselves did not support in hopes of heralding an agonistic and performative form of curatorship, furthered by their desire to organize a biennale that “presented rather than exhibited.” In this context, Burak Arıkan—the only artist from Turkey to participate in the biennale—contributed with a map that showed the artists’ political leanings, which was an example of this agnostic approach. The work mapped the political tendencies of five thousand artists who applied to the biennial, showing peculiar intersections such as “anarchist/right-wing” while being noteworthy for letting viewers see art’s/artists’ political leanings side by side, creating a space for contemplation. Finding the people who offered a new perspective/a political state (attention! Not only artists!) and to bring them together is one of the main purposes of this biennial. Żmijewski’s note in the book that accompanied the biennale actually summarized what we were about to see: “We are interested in finding answers rather than asking questions.”

Occupy Biennale at KW Institute for Contemporary Art.

The primary space for the biennial, KW (Kunst-Werke), served as the first of the answers being sought by becoming a platform that confronted even the most frequent biennial visitor as to arouse curiosity. Videos that are difficult to watch, installations that are hard to understand and artistic gestures that challenge art’s boundaries are absent here. Rather, there is an “occupation platform” that was formed by people who were inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movements and who believed that art after Auschwitz is not possible. The expansive area on which Ahmet Öğüt previously poured asphalt (2008) was occupied by activists who expected us to participate, who were settled with their requests, discussion studios, sleeping bags and questions. And they do not have anything to show but rather to ask.

One of Berlin Biennale’s main concerns is to transform the artistic gesture into a political act and to create an artistic/political situation that would be valid in the real world. The second concern is to confront the Germans once again with the Auschwitz guilt; this might be related to Żmijewski being Polish and Yael Bartana—a very popular artist of our times—asking over three million Polish Jews whether they would return to Germany, scratching the deep Holocaust wound once again. All over the city, in the parliament, schools and parks, Auschwitz memorial trees are planted. The new young trees were growing roots on the top floor of KW under special lights.

Although the Occupy Wall Street movement is geographically closer to Berlin than the Arab Spring, the curators did not forget to include Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar’s fake “The State of Palestine” stickers on real passports nor the performances mimicking state formations using radical groups’ flags. Furthermore, an Egyptian telecommunication company’s ready-made advertisement billboard was set up on KW’s courtyard as an embodiment of not forgetting: the Egyptians who communicated with each other to gather in Tahrir Square, the communication that were then cut by this very company and when those who spoke up won in Tahrir Square, the advertisement that they prepared as if they were supportive throughout, underlining money’s ability to find its way.

Occupy Biennale at KW Institute for Contemporary Art.

Berlin’s condition of constantly being under construction after ’89 has also been internalized by the biennale in the form of a biennale under construction. After an intense period of conversation/discussion/production, media activist Pit Schultz started an art library, ArtWiki, that resembles Wikipedia. Berlin Biennale intends to make art and street one, rather than having art approach the street; it intends to re-produce reality rather than protect the reality that already exists. The biennial intends to achieve all of this through thinking of/including the viewer as a political activist. However, sometimes, it cannot avoid being a theatrical performance, nor a nostalgic hero that lives on a bipolar world. But it still insists that everything that is done can end in disaster and take a risk. It is on the side of the good and fair not only in its exhibition, but also in its exhibition dinner. It interrogates where your food comes from. And it declares war on the art world. The fact that the war includes this much “art” implies that art is still in somewhat acceptable parameters and affirms that this edition of the biennale will find its place in both the history of the Berlin Biennale and in contemporary art now. Whether we like it or not, Berlin has a biennale that is befitting.
—Azra Tüzünoğlu

Burak Arıkan, “Artists and Their Political Inclinations,” 2012.

All photos by Azra Tüzünoğlu.