« Back to Frieze

Berlin Biennial – Pt. 2

by Dan Fox

For the second instalment of our rolling coverage of the 6th Berlin Biennial , I took a look at the work exhibited at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Mitte, north of the larger Oranienplatz venue (covered yesterday by Jörg Heiser).

Featuring the work of just seven artists, KW feels strangely empty rather than spacious. (Quite literally so in the case of one floor, which has been left empty and painted a dazzling white – though starting to get a bit grubby with footprints – as a curatorial ‘gesture’.) The usual entrance to the galleries is blocked off, and viewers have to enter through the basement, from which they emerge in the large ground-floor gallery to find the work of Petrit Halilaj, the youngest artist exhibiting in the show. An impressive wooden structure fills the gallery – the wooden lagging used by the artist to build a house for himself and his family in Prishtina, fixed together here to give a schematic impression of a dwelling. Scattered across the floor is dirt and a few broken, sorry-looking breezeblocks. Amongst these wander hens, who seem mostly unfazed by the gallery visitors, occasionally cooing or giving a loud squawk. Just upstairs from this are more works by Halilaj, who has, by far the lion’s share of the venue space: we see delicate drawings, a sculpture of a giant nest in which lies a beautiful vitrine (a bizarre juxtaposition that makes me think of what James Lee Byars work might look like if it came into the possession of Bigfoot), and a number of other sculptures constructed from lowly detritus or found materials.

Petrit Halilaj, The places I’m looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I don’t know how to make them real, 2010

Halilaj’s work promises a contrast at KW from the rather heavy politics that could be found at Oranienplatz, yet this is not to be, as the title of one of his works (actually, my favourite title from the biennial so far) suggests: They Are Lucky to be Bourgeois Hens (2009). With each floor of the venue comes work that steps closer and closer back to the tone set over at Oranienplatz and the works shown there concerned with, say, protest, the Middle East crisis or the plight of immigrants in Europe; works which, in places, seem to actually fetishize the marginalized in society rather than represent them – falling into a category of artwork that can be found at biennials the world over, a kind of soft left political art that could be described as a kind of ‘failed journalism’ (a term I’ve borrowed here from an observation made by the artist Josephine Pryde in an interview from 2004).

Shannon Ebner, Distressed Holy, 2007

Works by Ion Grigorescu (a photograph, psychoanalytic diaries about sleep and a video depicting a naked man trying to sleep in an anonymous room), Olga Chernysheva (whose drawings ‘Russian Museum’, 2003, meld the faces of people looking at paintings depicting Russian peasant life with the compositions themselves) and Shannon Ebner shared the same gallery space upstairs from Halilaj, and thankfully avoided the ‘failed journalism’ trap. Grigorescu’s and Chernysheva’s works have a certain political charge to them – the vulnerability of the body, or the economic or class structures hinted at in Chernysheva’s drawings – but the personal and subjective touch of both artists kept the work just about on the right side of subtle. Chernysheva’s small group of drawings looked like a measly selection next to the large number of works by Ebner. A treat to see, these range from photographs such as Ampersand (2009) and Erratum cum Laude (2009) to the film Between Words Pause (2010) and wallpaper declaring a ‘Wallpaper Bankruptcy Sale’ (_Wallpaper Bankruptcy Sale [For E.M.]_, 2010): a dance between language, landscape and photography. Also on the same floor is Frozen War (2001), a video by John Smith, whose outstanding early work, The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), is being shown over on Dresdener Strasse. Frozen War is far more diaristic and less artfully constructed than The Girl Chewing Gum ; it simply depicts a television in a hotel room that Smith is staying in. The news is on, and it is the day after bombing began in Afghanistan: oddly, the picture is frozen at 1:41am on a talking head giving, presumably, their opinion on the then new conflict. It shares with all Smith’s work a droll and deadpan humour, whilst managing to also convey the anxiety of an individual whose government has just declared war on another country. At the end of the video, Smith turns his camera on one of those stool-like bits of furniture found in hotel rooms for resting suitcases on top: ‘What a fucking useless bit of furniture…’ he states – a nice bit of bathos deflating the pathos of his war worries. What with the recent solo retrospective of his work curated by graduating students on the Royal College of Art’s curating course, it’s great to see Smith finally getting the recognition he deserves.

At the top of the KW building were photographs by Mohamed Bourouissa and a twin-screen video by Mark Boulos. Bourouissa’s series ‘Périphéries’ (2005–9) is set amongst the (presumably Parisian) banlieues, mixing documentary methods and highly staged narratives with the area’s mainly black and Middle Eastern local inhabitants. In La République, for instance, he restaged Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830). His ideas have a certain appeal, but to my eyes they are undermined by the execution: the rather ‘soft’ quality of the printing, and non-altogether engaging framing and composition. I feel they could do with being far punchier – they look somewhat tentative. Boulos’ film, All that is Solid Melts into Air (2008, pictured at the top of this post), features one screen depicting traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the other a rather disturbing trip the artist took up the Niger Delta to visit members of the Movement for the Empancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a guerilla group who are protesting against the oil drilling that has polluted their fishing grounds. In this juxtaposition of two groups with wildly different perspectives on the use and trade of crude oil, it has a certain topical currency given the deep water BP have found themselves in with the Deepwater spill, though it’s not exactly subtle. Whether or not that bluntness is a positive or a negative, I’m undecided – the inequalities of the world, after all, aren’t exactly subtle themselves – but it’s interesting to compare Boulos’ film with that of Renzo Martens over at Oranienplatz. I’ve written at length on Martens’ film here, so I won’t go over that territory again, suffice to say that on balance I prefer Boulos’ approach.

Part three of our coverage coming up tomorrow …

About the author

  • Dan Fox's photo

    Dan Fox is co-editor of frieze and is based in New York.

    His book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2015.