BERLIN — To imagine a new world, wrote Karl Marx in 1843 after his studies in Berlin, one must first rigorously unpack the old with “a pitiless critique of everything that exists”.
This energy pervades this year Berlin Biennale, which takes place in five museums of the city, organized by the Franco-Algerian artist Kader Attia. Whichever way you approach the event, you instantly encounter art grappling with the legacy of war and colonialism; domination by race, sex, class and caste; ecological damage; disinformation; and social control.
Start at the KW Institute of Contemporary Art and you come across a wall installation of photographs and video interviews of working-class Portuguese and Turkish immigrants in Paris in the 1980s. Made by feminist artist Nil Yalterthe work is called “Exile is hard work”.
And at the Akademie der Künste, next to the Brandenburg Gate, you enter a space lined with huge works on paper by Moses Marz which trace the political networks and intellectual histories of topics such as radical ecology, the restitution of looted art, black politics and anti-racism in Germany.
This Biennial, which runs until September 18, is serious. Very serious. It borders on humorless, even if it also contains moments of grace and really transporting parts. Its roster of 69 artists and collectives includes warhorses familiar from the circuit, but also many newcomers. It’s not a ‘global south’ exhibit – Europe is well represented – but still leans that way, including notable bands from Vietnam, India and Arabic-speaking countries.
A very pleasant spectacle, the Biennale struggles with itself as well as with the issues. Biennials and museums are places of power, after all; the curator is a guardian. from Attia curatorial statement notes that today’s “profusion of sprawling and monumental exhibits” reflects “the material excesses” of global capitalism, and asks, “So why add another exhibit to this? »
The answer he arrives at is that art – perhaps uniquely – can reclaim our attention from social control imposed by algorithms. The title of the Biennale, “Still Present!”, sounds partly like an exhortation, partly like proof of life. He aims for the transition point where this ruthless criticism pays off, where the old is abandoned for the new, with artists in the lead.
The experience can seem relentless. There are tons of documentary and investigative art displays. Forensic architecture, the pioneering data and video research collective, has a strong presence, including a large installation that recaps some of its major investigations over the years, another on a Russian airstrike in Kyiv (timely, but not extremely illuminating) and separate projects by researchers associated with the group. Videos of Susan Schuppli examine Canadian police brutality against Indigenous peoples and abuse of migrants by US border agents; Imani Jacqueline Brownin a more evocative and personal multimedia installation, travels through polluted Louisiana wetlands, mapping toxicity to propose remedies.
At KW, a work of text by the eminent scholar Ariella Aisha Azoulay examines how visual recordings of the aftermath of World War II avoid dealing with the widespread rape of German women by Soviet soldiers. His project is presented in the form of fine print pages on the wall, as well as a table display of related books that visitors are not allowed to pick up and peruse – a frustrating display for an important subject. .
And in the middle of the Hamburger Bahnhof section is a work so grotesque and deliberately vile that it risks destabilizing the entire show. “Soluble Poison”, by Jean Jacques LebelFrench artist and veteran of militant causes, is a room-sized labyrinth installation with partitions covered by huge enlargements of the snapshots American soldiers took when they abused Iraqi captives at the prison of Abu Ghraib.
As an art, it’s obscene – and certainly effective, at least in rekindling anger at these events, though as I tried to linger in the installation to pick up deeper cues, I I was distracted by visitors who turned on their heels in disgust and others pushed their way through, navigating awkwardly around me between the gore panels.
“Poison Soluble” previously featured in a joint exhibition 2018 in Paris by Lebel and Attia; the two are friends. It is by far the most shocking work of this Berlin Biennale. But Lebel is involved in another piece of the exhibition, half a century older: the “Great antifascist collective painting” of 1960, created with five other European artists in response to the torture of Algerian activist Djamila Boupacha by French soldiers, which became a cause celeb. The painting is a somewhat garish period piece, violent in its own way.
The historical line between Lebel’s two pieces is perhaps the least productive vector of this Biennale – except as an object lesson in how a certain European and masculine mode of anti-racist and anti-colonial art, although forged in many real political battles, got lost and fell into exploitation. Outside “Poison Soluble”, a warning sign indicates that the work depicts intense violence, but without specifying the subject. His instruction that people “who have suffered racial trauma or abuse” should not enter seems paternalistic and exclusionary.
Fortunately, this Biennial operates in multiple registers. Although the exhibition overall resonates closely with Attia’s concerns as an artist, he was assisted 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 efforts open up space to the poetic.
This is particularly the case of the other location of the Akademie der Künste, in the western district of Hansaviertel, where the exhibition takes on an environmental orientation while remaining animated by social and imperial history. A stunning installation of Sammy Baloji includes tropical plants in a small greenhouse of the type traders used to ship specimens to Europe; a speaker gently drums and sings the song of a Congolese veteran of the Belgian army in World War I who was captured by the Germans and forced to participate in their ethnographic recordings. Nearby, magnificent drawings of Temitayo Ogunbiyi represent okra, water leaf and other vegetables in Nigerian cuisine, as well as recipes.
Even when the show delves into current crises, it benefits from the blend of documentary and other techniques. “Oh Shining Star Testify”, an installation of 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 sort of stage setting. The work uses a surveillance tape of the murder by Israeli soldiers of a 14-year-old Palestinian boy who crossed a separation wall to pick an edible plant, as well as other images, a soundtrack and concise text cards . It has the force of ancient tragedy.
The French collective PERU emphasizes absurdity: it superimposes video documentation of the police crackdown and clearing of a Roma encampment in the Parisian suburbs with a reading of the long, highly procedural municipal decree that approved these actions, showing the complete disconnect from the bureaucratic imagination to the human stakes.
There are many other things to appreciate in this Biennale, on an article basis. Mai Nguyen-LongThe ‘Vomit Girl’ and ‘Specimen’ series of sculptures oscillate between the playful and the macabre as they grapple with the aftermath of the Agent Orange bombings in Vietnam. The lush film by Mónica de Miranda made in the mangroves of the Kwanza River in Angola skilfully connects matrilineal knowledge, civil war and ecological dream. A remarkable suite — photography, sculpture, video, text — of Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige connects photographs and human remains of indigenous Sri Lankans in European museums with the landscape of the island and even the artist’s own body, by means of a sculptural self-portrait in the manner of an exhibition ethnographic.
Even more blunt are Mayuri Chari‘s carved from cow dung and works sewn onto cloth that address women’s body shame in India amid conservative Hinduism’s obsession with purity. Chari and two others, Prabhakar Kamble and Birender Yadavare Dalit artists, from the lowest ranked communities of the Indian caste system. Their works come straight from the front, with a material urgency – droppings, brooms, urns, crude construction site sandals – clearer than any political manifesto.
It couldn’t be further in the affect and lucidity of Lebel’s Abu Ghraib monstrosity, or other more conceptually stale entries. This Biennale is assertive and committed, and one senses a broadly congruent global perspective through its roster and team of curators. Yet the results are everywhere – you have to study the dispersion to try to understand the collision that produced it.
I suspect that its contradictions mirror those of the “decolonial,” a concept that Attia invokes extensively in the exhibition texts as well as in his previous projects. The term has caught on in the art world for about a decade since leaving academia. He was born with latin american scholars who argue that all modern world-building – in fact, since 1492 – is contaminated by the racial and other hierarchies of colonialism.
Whereas decolonization in the classical sense was a political and territorial project with no inherent grievance against modernity, today’s “decolonial practice” is about changing knowledge systems – a more hazy and potentially endless project. This Biennial presents itself as a gathering of “decolonial strategies.” The task, writes Attia, is to heal “all the wounds accumulated throughout the history of Western modernity”.
If so, then every institution needs decolonization because it perpetuates wrongdoing, including biennials and museums. But the risk is solipsism: more institutional thinking, but different. This Berlin Biennale thus feels entangled, overloaded by its own conceptual apparatus. Yet many of its parts beautifully point to freedom.