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The Raw and the Cooked

by Jörg Heiser

This is the first of several posts about Berlin Biennale 6, entitled ‘what is waiting out there’ and curated by Kathrin Romberg. It opened Wednesday as a Kreuzberg event. (I’ve heard people say good things about the The Kunst-Werke leg of the biennial, in Mitte, but I’ll have to leave that to my colleagues, and Thursday.) The press conference took place at the Anatolian Alevi Cultural Centre in Kreuzberg. The backdrop of the panel featured a huge portrait of Ali Ibn Abu Talib, with huge romantic eyes, matched only by the huge romantic eyes of his Lion (there was also his signature double-tongued sword). So like Shiites the Alevi (a minority of about 30 million mostly in Turkey) consider Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, the first Imam; but they don’t follow the Shiite understanding of Sharia. Also, like in Sufism, there is an emphasis on song and dance as religious experience, and women and men take part in religious gatherings together, as they are considered equal. All in all a carefully and smartly chosen location for the opening of this Biennale. As this time, a good part of it takes place in the heart of Kreuzberg, at and around Oranienplatz, and Mehringdamm, districts with a substantial Turkish community.

this is what the Alevi Centre looks like normally, from the website of the Berlin Alevi

Nevertheless none of the panelists really spoke about this context very much; which is fine I guess, the context to some extent at least speaks for itself. State Cultural Minister Naumann emphasized that in recent state spending cuts, he managed to exempt his department (which is only cold comfort for the unemployed and families who have to take the major blows of the 80 billion Euro cuts, while high income taxes remain untouched). Thus the German Federal Cultural Foundation, represented by its artistic director Hortensia Völckers, also got away with no cuts; it provides the lion’s share of 2,5 million to the 3 million budget of the Berlin Biennial, and will do so for the next one as well. Naumann, a conservative, argued against cuts in spending on culture, in general: because while only 1,9 % of expenses of municipalities are actually in culture, and therefore cuts would not be very effective financially, they would be devastating in their effects; culture was, as he put it, not the cream on, but the yeast in the societal dough (maybe Naumann’s ghostwriter had too much yeast in his beer though the night when he jotted down that allegory). But anyway, it’s a relief to hear this kind of arguing after having experienced, two weeks earlier, the right-wing Cultural Minister of Italy opening Rome’s MAXXI-museum with unmistakable stabs at the supposed leftist hegemony in culture.

Adolf Menzel’s foot

With this biennial, you get the oldest artists with Adolf Menzel, born 1815, to whom an exhibition curated by Michael Fried is devoted at Old National Gallery. Fried (like Naumann with an impressive sun tan) gave a short speech in which he stressed that it was Rhomberg’s idea to highlight Menzel in the BB6, with a ‘modest, but I think very powerful exhibition’ of this great 19th century master of Realism, whom he ranked up there with his more famous French contemporaries, and as ‘one of the greatest draftsmen in art history, period’.

The youngest artist is Petrit Halilai, born 1986; he created an installation at Kunst-Werke involving the wooden lagging of the new house he is building with his family in Kosovo’s capital of Prishtina. In-between, the list of 46 artists features some well-known, and quite a few widely unknown names, including a substantial number of artists from Eastern Europe. As Rhomberg put it, her curatorial approach was characterized by a ‘political decision of reduction and concentration’, against ‘over-production and the overwhelming.’ The title ‘what is waiting out there’ refers to art’s conflicted relationship to the social realities; she emphasized that her biennial was not so much about documentary approaches though but about ‘Aneignungen’, appropriations or productions of reality.

As Hortensia Völckers had put it at the press conference, this time there is little of the ‘GDR-patina’ that was characteristic for some of the earlier Berlin Biennial installments. Instead you get a bit of Kreuzberg community charm, with the inevitable side-effect of the gentrification spectre looming over the wonderful building that Rhomberg found on Oranienplatz, a former department store that for a long time had been used as a community centre for Islamic wedding parties etc. So next stop Oranienplatz, close to where Kippenberger once had his famous Büro in the late 1970s. Swiss, Vienna-based artist Marcus Geiger, with Rhomberg, co-developed the exhibition display, and it is indebted to a minimalist concept of beauty as being the congenial combination of simple, effective and cheap: unpainted plywood walls in a raw loft space, using used old used carpets etc. Generally, the aesthetic economy of that venue is defined by a kind of task force of minimalist art makers including Geiger (who also had a work there, a carpet that read in huge letters ‘Kommune’, commune, with the ‘N’ inverted), the young ex-Willem-de-Roij student Vincent Vulsma, who exhibits ready-made gallery walls with prefab canvasses, still wrapped in shrink-film, which he paints black, then superimposes thin stripes of white, thus producing a trompe l’oeil drapery effect. Plus there is the current master of no-budget minimalist deadpan, Gedy Sibony, intervening with his usual faint shadows of what a ‘wall’ or a ‘canvas’ or an ‘object’ is. German artist Adrian Lohmüller added a system of thin copper tubes to the building, collecting condensation water, which he heats up on the first floor with a small camping burner, the water dripping onto a cube of salt, in turn dripping onto a white bed set of linen and cushions placed on the floor.

These regulatory minimalist interventions – by Geiger, Vulsma, Sibony, and Lohmüller – are complemented by a set of highly emotionally charged (semi-)political videos: for example Avi Mograbi’s Details (2004), involving heated encounters with Israeli military forces at border stations, shown next to Ruti Sela & Maayan Amir’s Beyond Guilt # 1 (2003), a gonzo video of the artists instigating heated sexual encounters in Tel Aviv bar toilets (I don’t have a problem with these videos being not newly produced for the Biennial, though I find the juxtaposition suggesting the psychosexual levels of the military complex a bit heavy-handed). Or Minerva Cuerva’s Dissidence version 2.0 (2010), which documents demonstrations of all sorts of mainstream and obscure political organizations in Mexico City, to the (unnervingly unsatisfying) soundtrack provided by contemporary composer Pablo Salazar. There is several video works about demonstrations; as if these would somehow summon the vital spirit of resistance.

But there is also Friedl vom Göller (Kubelka), an Austrian performative minimalist filmmaker since many years, present with a black and white 16mm silent film of 2008 that looks like it could be from the early 1970s. It shows a man portrayed in a small Paris alley, with the artist stepping up to him and performing a small, but slightly taboo-breaking gesture that tackles aging and embarrassment and fear of death, and that I won’t give away here; it’s touching and somehow disarming both for the viewer as for the man. (Here’s the moment just before:)

There are also more stubbornly simple interventions such as Sebastian Stumpf’s video, which involves him carrying out, over and over, a simple action upon numerous garage doors closing:

I still need to make sense for myself of Renzo Martens’ 90 minute film Episode III (2008), of which I managed to see a good part (though not all of it), and a shorter version of which had already been included in last Manifesta. It involves an Erik-van-Lieshout-type guerilla intervention for which Martens went to Congo and looked into the way Western photographers produce images of poverty. All of that granted, the problem is that handsome-looking Martens keeps posing in a kind of dandy ‘Heart of Darkness’ posture (including the inevitable straw hat and the romantic visions of nature) that he incessantly repeats throughout the piece; the difficult burden of having to watch an underfed child that will soon die on film is screamingly overblown by Martens’ own unnerving presence as a supposedly ‘self-conscious’, but ultimately self-indulging-seeming ‘producer of reality’. Which makes him look weak next to Eric van Lieshout, who in his guerilla works insults everyone including himself; and to Alfredo Jaar, and his carefully calibrated work The Sound of Silence (2006), about the infamous 1993 photograph of a dying Sudanese child in the presence of a hungry vulture, the photographer of which committed suicide years later (just to make that clear, neither Lieshout nor Jaar are in this show).

image: piece by Pleurad Xhafa and Sokol Peci, a head sculpture of Milton Friedman (the economist and saint of the neo-liberals), made on a train from Italy to Albania, crossing several borders, documented on 5 TV monitors

Phil Collins’ film Marxism Today (Prologue) (2010) put an interesting twist on the story of three ladies who had formerly trained and taught as Marxist-Leninist economists during GDR times, and had to witness the devaluation of their knowledge in post-‘89 times. The work is moving in a ‘conventional’ history documentary way, but it also accomplishes a Collins-typical twist on the material in that it uses archival footage of 1970s GDR educational TV, making accessible the twisted understandings of what ‘education’ would mean in a society where you could feel free as long as you didn’t dissent; something that Collins makes apparent by fading out the blabla of the educators, blending in the lush soundtrack provided by Latitia Sadier and Tim Gane of Stereolab, producing a strangely contradictory effect of detachment and feeling touched.

_image from the installation of Mohamed Bourouissa, who traded mobile phone images and videos with a prison inmate, i.e. vistas of Paris or the countryside against
boring views of the prisoner’s feet lying on his bed. The images are quite foreseeable, but the gesture is still interesting._

All in all this major venue of this major venue of the Binneale, on Oranienplatz 17, provided a logic of the raw and the cooked: the raw minimalism rubbing shoulders with the ‘cooked up’ gestures of performative political intervention tracked on video. I liked the idea, despite the misses amongst the hits, that tackling ‘reality’ would have to involve some conceptual-performative effort or ‘incentive’ on the part of the artist, not just the easy role of the sovereign onlooker. What was missing, in parts though, was an understanding of three-dimensionality, an architectural or sculptural presence of things, beyond the flat gestures of walls and video projections. But maybe this is more highlighted in the other venues.

Good to finally see, around the corner on Dresdner Straße 19, the deadpan funny piece by John Smith, a black and white film of 1976 projected in an empty and darkened shop: it just involves a soundtrack of Smith directing, with the puffed-up voice of an ironic schoolmaster, the ordinary goings-on on a London street, i.e. saying “I want the two girls talking to each other entering from right” and then of course exactly that happens; or the lorry stopping and starting according to what he says etc. We, directors of our reality – how uncannily apt to the age of digital social media. If John Smith had done the same piece today, it could well have been a viral hit on youtube.

About the author

  • Jörg Heiser's photo

    Jörg Heiser is co-editor of frieze and co-publisher of frieze d/e. He is based in Berlin.