Review: Berlin Biennale 8

26 Jul

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by Rhea H. Boyden

It is a hot Saturday afternoon and I am standing in the middle of Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes’ exhibit at KW Institute of Contemporary Art entitled ‘A secluded and pleasant land, in this land I wish to dwell.’ I am alone, thankfully, because I am in a bad mood. I have just walked down Auguststrasse in the centre of Berlin Mitte and entered this room of hanging hemp ropes, silk yarns, twirled and hanging bamboo sculptures and what appears to be a giant checkerboard on the floor. The rope makes me think of a noose, the checkerboard a maze. Hmm. I ponder the second half of the title: ‘in this land I wish to dwell.’ I am in the middle of a long goodbye to Berlin and have firmly decided that I no longer want to live in this land, and this exhibit is now irritating and depressing me. Gentrified Auguststrasse in 2014 depresses me too and makes me very nostalgic for the good old days of Berlin. I have many reasons for leaving now.

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‘A Secluded and Pleasant Land…’ Leonor Antunes. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

The curator of this year’s Berlin Biennale, Canadian/Columbian Juan Gaitan at least got something right with his curatorial aim when he stated his intention to hold the exhibition in already existing cultural venues because he says ‘continuing to seek out seemingly abandoned or derelict spaces for exhibitions no longer reflects the reality of Berlin.’ Indeed. Aside from the venue I am now in – KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Biennale (which is the exhibit for contemporary art in Berlin) is also being held at Crash Pad on Auguststrasse, Haus am Waldsee and Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Dahlem. It seems a rather large stretch of the city to traverse to see a relatively small number of exhibits. It takes at least forty-five minutes to get from Haus am Waldsee to KW Institute and who feels like commuting in this heat? Work from only a little over 50 artists has been commissioned and some critics are not too impressed with what they are finding. Art Slant Magazine, for one, says that the pieces on display in Haus am Waldsee are merely a ‘copy and paste curatorial approach’ to the work on display in Dahlem and do not really fit into the venue.

There is also no coherent or central theme for this year’s Biennale which the curator says is intentional. He wants the connections between the exhibits to remain tentative and for the pieces to be fully open to interpretation in order to ‘enable the development of the viewer’s autonomy in her or his own encounter with art.’ Ok, well, I suppose that can be liberating. I can think what I want and I can take what I want from it, which is lovely, in a way. Is he perhaps suggesting or requesting us to get whatever we want out of it because most of us can no longer just get whatever we want out of Berlin as it becomes more gentrified?

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‘Stealing one’s own corpse…’ Julieta Aranda. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

I move onto the next exhibit: ‘Stealing one’s own corpse’-(an alternative set of footholds for an ascent into the dark) by Mexican artist Julieta Aranda. I sit on the blue-carpeted floor next to what looks like a piece of a meteor. A few feet in front of me there is a white bear trap. It is set and ready to snare its prey. On the screen in front of me there is an image of a rat being mutilated with a knife. On the screen I read snippets about rats. ‘The rat as currency. That would be interesting. Stockpiling of dead rats causes inflation. Britain converts to the rat.’ The screen then shows an image of outer space. To the left of me, hanging on the wall there is a space suit. I glance at it. I glance back at the screen and continue to read the text: ‘Space being carved up and owned because capitalists and bureaucrats have failed to solve their antagonisms on Earth.’ I am starting to feel a little sick to my stomach. Is it the result of the infernal heatwave we are experiencing in Berlin? When I think of space being carved up all I can really think about right now is the Malaysian Airlines plane that has supposedly just been shot down by a Russian missile. Who owns that airspace? It also makes me think of the astronaut who took a photo from the International Space Station of Gaza Strip at night, aflame with bombs and missiles. He tweeted it and called it his ‘saddest photo yet.’ It is time to go and get a cold drink.

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Andreas Angelidakis ‘Crash Pad’ photo by Uwe Walter Courtesy of Angelidakis and The Breeder

After downing an expensive lemonade at the sweltering courtyard cafe I wander over to the Crash Pad which cheers me up a bit. It is the design of Greek/Norwegian artist Andreas Angelidakis and was the first commissioned work for the Berlin Biennale 8. It is an inviting carpeted room with a library. The first book that catches my eye is ‘A History of Philosophy’. I am happy to sit down and relax. Angelidakis designed this lovely room in the style of a Greek salon to serve as a meeting point for visiting artists to exchange ideas. Right now, I am happy to just sit here in silent contemplation and try and shake the dark mood I am in. This is day two of my Biennale experience and I was hoping to get more positive inspiration than this but my hope is fading. It is nearly time to go home and have a siesta. 

Haus am Waldsee

Haus am Waldsee

The day before it was not quite as hot, however, and I was in a better mood. The suggested route of this year’s Biennale is to first go to Haus am Waldsee, then to Dahlem and then to KW Institute of Contemporary Art and the Crash Pad. So that is the route I followed. There is little point in trying to do it all in one day so I divided it into two days. The one ticket gets you access to all venues. And so I set out on Friday morning with my new neighbours, artists in residence, Charla Wood who is a photographer and sculptor from Austin, Texas and Joseph Amodei an artist and lighting designer from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I am very happy to have such lovely new neighbours to do nice things with in my last few weeks in Berlin, and considering that it takes an hour to get to Haus am Waldsee from our building in Prenzlauer Berg I am happy for the company. They are both new to Berlin and I tell them that Haus am Waldsee is one of my favourite venues for contemporary art and I have written reviews of the art on display there before. Haus am Waldsee is in a leafy and idyllic suburb of Berlin- Zehlendorf and it was originally built as a private villa. It exhibited the work of Käthe Kollwitz in the late 1940’s- the first woman to be admitted to the Prussian Academy of Art.

Charla and Joseph

Artists in Residence Joseph Amodei and Charla Wood in the garden at Haus am Waldsee

When we arrive, the first exhibit that catches my attention is one by Cypriot artist Christodoulos Panayiotou: ‘3 pairs of handmade shoes, shoe boxes’ He has made the shoes into shoes from leather purses and they occupy the floor on the left hand side as you enter the room. Ah, transformation. Purses made into shoes. This makes me think of all the things I have at home that I still need to get rid of or ship back to Ireland. Just the night before, in fact, I had stumbled upon an article in the Huffington Post that showed a photo of a walk-in wardrobe with dozens of pairs of shoes. The article suggested the best way to approach purging extraneous things and living a minimalist lifestyle. This is one reason I have come to this exhibit today: because it is too hot to sit at home panicking about what to do with all the things I have collected. I would much rather be in an air-conditioned museum contemplating contemporary art and transformation. 

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Christodoulos Panayiotou installation, courtesy of Dieresis Collection, Photo by Anders Sune Berg

The day before, I had had a discussion with Joseph Amodei about his work and how sculpture occupies public spaces and how to use public spaces well for art. He showed me one of his works ‘Worked Space: ft. Glue Chains’ and our discussion also revolved around looking closer at something and seeing more. That is the core of his philosophy in his piece ‘Glue Chains’ and I found this fascinating and spoke to him about Christopher Isherwood’s book Goodbye to Berlin and the quote from it that has formed the core of my philosophy of living with my eyes open in my last few weeks in Berlin. The Isherwood quote being the theme of my essay ‘Goodbye to Berlin’: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open.’ Joseph and Charla and I observed what seemed to be a stack of logs in the corner of the garden at Haus am Waldsee: upon closer inspection, however, we discovered that it was not a stack of logs, but in fact, hollow on the inside. The joy of looking closer, the joy of being ‘a camera with its shutter open’.

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Patrick Alan Banfield 2 Channel Installation, Photo by Anders Sune Berg

One exhibit that spoke to me at Haus am Waldsee was a two-channel colour film and sound installation by German-born artist Patrick Alan Banfield. The pieces in each venue, according to the curator, are meant to reflect their surroundings. One screen showed enticing upclose shots of nature and woods and the other screen low-rent apartment blocks in Germany. This made me think of leaving my German apartment and moving back to Ireland. A return to nature and my rural roots. The piece was accompanied by very soothing music which made me relax and forget the hot day outside.

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Patrick Alan Banfield 2 Channel Installation, Photo by Anders Sune Berg

By and by we continued on our way to the Dahlem Ethnological Museum. When we entered the museum we had to ask where the exhibit was because it was hard to find, hidden as it was between the permanent exhibits of Polynesian house boats and Inuit Kayaks. This is intentional. One is supposed to compare the permanent exhibit to the Biennale pieces and see what that provokes. It pushes home Gaitan’s curatorial message of the exhibit: to place it in already existing cultural venues. To compare Berlin collections of the past and Berlin contemporary art. What has disappeared? What remains? What is still to be discovered? How to come to terms with an ever changing Berlin? I know and feel very strongly as I prepare to leave Berlin, that the Berlin of my memory, the one of the past, its best and most interesting days are the ones that I wish to hold in my imagination. On this note, the first exhibit we came across by Egyptian artist Iman Issa, demands use of your imagination. There were various sculptures by her spread along the side of the gallery wall. The descriptions on the wall next to each piece describe something completely different and not the pieces. They are descriptions of paintings which are not there. The one I found most enticing was entitled ‘Seduction’:

‘A 1982 oil on wood painting depicts a man and a woman against an off-white background. The figures are sparsely dressed and are facing opposite directions. The man reaches his arm forward to grab a bird flying towards the edge of the picture plane. The woman is seated below him with her eyes fixed straight ahead. She is playing with her hair with one hand. Aside from a perfectly round sun at the top, and the distant figure of a bird at the bottom, the background is free of illustration. Overall, figures are grotesquely disproportionate, features are abstract and style is childlike. The width of the painting is 37 cm. Its height is 55cm.’

So what do I get out of this? Plain and simple: Berlin has lost its allure for me. What used to seduce no longer does. Maybe it is just because I am getting older? The seductive Berlin of my past remains a description and a memory. I think one of my biggest regrets is that I did not own a camera when I first lived in Prenzlauer Berg in 1993. But I can’t change that now and it is not so bad, really. The memories of my love for Berlin are burned into my brain, just as the memories of an enjoyable seduction get burned into ones’ brain and that is satisfying enough.

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Rosa Barba ‘Subconcious Society’ Photo by Anders Sune Berg

As I wandered into another room of the exhibit I saw these words on a screen: ‘It was the time of the objects crisis.’ This was an installation called ‘Subconscious Society’ by Italian artist Rosa Barba. Well there is only so long I can hang out in air-conditioned museums when I am having my own ‘objects crisis’ at home. It is time to go home and continue sorting through and getting rid of all the objects of my 14 years in Berlin to enable me to move on and move to Dublin at the end of August. I will carry my Berlin memories with me and hope to be in a better mood with renewed energy when I next get a chance to visit a large art exhibit. The Berlin Biennale has, all told, not really given me a huge amount of joy as I prepare to depart. Maybe it is just me and the headspace I am in, but I get the impression that others are also a little underenthused by the disparate nature of the exhibition.

Featured image is of Leonor Antunes piece by Anders Sune Berg

 Images courtesy of Biennale Press Office

2 Responses to “Review: Berlin Biennale 8”

  1. rheahboyden May 3, 2016 at 4:53 pm #

    Reblogged this on Rhea Boyden and commented:

    I am looking forward to heading back to Berlin this summer at some point to do a write-up of the Berlin Biennale 9 which I will hopefully have a better impression of than the Berlin Biennale 8. The Press Release for the Berlin Biennale 9 says, however, that this comtemporary art show may or may not be about contemporary art. Ha. I am intrigued….

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Review of Berlin Biennale 8 – by Rhea H. Boyden – German-Canadian program on OMNI TV - August 8, 2014

    […] The curator of this year’s Berlin Biennale, Canadian/Columbian Juan Gaitan at least got something right with his curatorial aim when he stated his intention to hold the exhibition in already existing cultural venues because he says ‘continuing to seek out seemingly abandoned or derelict spaces for exhibitions no longer reflects the reality of Berlin.’ Indeed. […] […]

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