9th Berlin Biennale: The Present in Drag
Curated by DIS
June – September 2016
Review by Jim Ricks
The 9th Berlin Biennale (BB9) is over and you missed it.
It was curated by DIS, not a “fashion collective”, they are a New York-based art collective comprised of Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso and David Toro. Notable projects include: http://disimages.com/ and http://dismagazine.com/ and https://youtu.be/ivqvw2QQ8FE.
All too frequently in the sphere of ‘high art’ we are are presented with the tokenistic political language of Marxism and postcolonial marginalia. This year’s Biennale is not an overt show of protest or statements, yet remains political. As one friend put it: “The Biennale is predicated on the idea that despite all the problems in the world, its audience is only looking for a wifi connection and a place to sit. And it’s true.” And that, to a large degree, is what DIS highlighted.
What we witness is works soaked in ambiguities, commercial modes of display, and a knowing weltschmerz. The show lays forward a range of works, from the small and shallow to the spectacularly large.
Granted, there are many weak pieces and perhaps even more mediocre ones. Far more important is that there were many strong pieces that counter balance them. And… if you take The Jogging’s1 basic premise of an artistic methodology akin to exercise, placing great emphasis on immediacy, repetition, and staying in motion, this exhibition does just that. In fact, a rhythm of disproportion and inequality is created, keeping the viewer guessing throughout, to great success. Some are merely worthy of a reblog (like the working cafe Mint, or the Howdy signs), many others are powerful tour-de-forces (Hito Steyerl or the Rihanna Acéfalo). Do the bad works subtract from the overall experience? Or do they fill the space in a range of scales, potentials, and realisations contrapuntally, creating a full bandwidth of information? Indeed, I argue for the the latter.
This is what makes the curation the strongest composition of the Biennale: its diversified range of works from crude lols to potent monuments.
Further, the challenges BB9 poses are multifold. It presents a varied, proportional range of works and experiences that generally hold an aesthetic continuity, i.e. most works use an outsourced exterior shellac of computer generated imagery. Not coincidentally, this is the pervasive global language of commerce. The strangeness of the show may come off as ineptitude, but the two combined result in a feel of not unlike the quadrillion new small shops lining the streets of a city like Guangzhou, China with its purposeful fake-ness. This blurring of the present with art, a playful ‘dressing up’ of the moment in a transgressive disguise, is another one of the show’s strengths.
BB9 was actually titled The Present in Drag. The contemporary is thus elongated by pretending, making believe, as posing as another. The present is playing out other possibilities of the present. This includes the not too distant future just beyond the horizon; those near sci-fi futures we anticipate, worry about, and mistakenly predict.
DIS has taken a frequently impenetrable and impish mode of working that has come into fashion in the past few years: Post-internet Art, with all it’s computer generated perfections alongside glitches, with it’s abundance of super-flat digital and video surfaces, and grouped them into a sensical pattern (although I would not say narrative). Post-internet Art has never made so much sense.
DIS is able to nudge us to a comfortable place between art and reality. A place of computer generated aesthetics probing the dominance of neo-liberal capitalism, jarring unexpected juxtapositions of extremes. It dwells on the technological sublime, recalling space like the waiting room, the hotel lobby, the showroom, the lounge area as well as the inadvertent display, advertising, music videos, anime, the gamer, and ‘comfort’ generally via mechanisms of the mashup, all over digital wrap, ‘Future Orientalism’, AI digital assistant automated voices, and plants, fake plants, pictures of plants.
It is worth mentioning that the age old problem of black-out room seating has been solved. They took a sculptural installation approach, and thank god. Exquisite seating to view the walls covered in art surrounded by plants. 1880’s salon or #berlinbiennale 2016?
The ‘spiritual home’ of the Biennale was in the mall-like Akademie der Künste built in 2005 within a hundred meters of the Brandenburg Gate. The building is a venue dominated by its glass shelled atrium with a network of ramps and staircases. A perfect display for this Berlin Biennale.
Simon Fujiwara’s The Happy Museum framed potent real world fragments that make up a peripheral sketch of the political environment in Berlin at this time. It was sited centrally in the Akademie der Künste, in a ground floor room that by all indications was the remnant of another structure.
Rhythmic placement of standard museum style plinths of equal width and depth, 3 across, 5 deep is Fujiwara’s display mechanism of choice. Each displays a contemporary artefact; a selection. On the back side of each plinth is the didactic label. A considered yet simple solution to orchestrate the audiences appraisal of each selection, creating a delay in completion of concept. A pile of beige dust is the foundation make-up of Angela Merkle. Supposedly. A mannequin (performing actual man during the opening) in flight attendant body paint is a recreation from the Berlin Pride parade. One plinth is made of ginger bread. Another places the controversial white only soccer team Kinder eggs next to an equal number of spargel. And so on. Everyday, today’s, German, local objects plucked and highlighted. Put on view and lined up as a military inspection.
Hito Steyerl’s two part piece occupied the bunker like – unfinished geometrically designed – deep basement of the Akademie der Künste. Comprised of 2 multi channel video installations, each with stepped seating. ExtraSpaceCraft is projected onto plastic tarps. Both include footage of the Iraq observatory, now in partial ruins. The tower uses drone footage shot on site and offers comparison to the Tower of Babel and Saddam Hussein’s grandiose delusions and revisionism.
Nik Kosmas had what is best described as usable exercise equipment ala Gillick. New Eelam by Christopher Kulendran Thomas proposed in an almost fully believable ‘start-up’, utopian multi-culturalist, utterly elitist app advertisement – “You can live anywhere”. The environs were a show room filled with sculptures and paintings. Ryan Trecartin dishes out LA’s nightmare of banality in hi-def action. Its psychotic internal monologue and aspiring reality TV are hypnotic. It’s like being decelerated on drugs. Molly specifically. The seating was a conference room and bunk beds. <3
Exaggeratedly gross selfie sculptures by Anna Uddenberg capture a ‘grotesque’ and dangerously anorexic portrait of what great lengths women go to for self appraisal. Although ‘4th Wave’ feminists might disagree. These selfie sculptures were dismissed for their decadence, but are the critics protectors of morals and decency? Ei Arakawa’s How to DISappear in America: The Musical, is a mini play or Rave Performance takes place on the opening night. Its combination of astute observations and comedy are blended nicely.
Across town, appearing at the front door to KW was the most photographed piece of the show. Which was also the least understood piece of the show, arguably. That is Juan Sebastián Peláez’s monumental sculpture of headless Rihanna in a bikini with her face photoshopped onto her chest. At first glance it appeared comic, which it was, but further research reveals the overt reference to the Acéfalo, a dehumanising representation of the colonised other.
Amalia Uhlman struggled with the difficult task of overcoming her own success. The work on show was a mixed collection of contemporary post-internet references to Snapchat and recent memes (Damn Daniel), fictional autobiographical self portraiture, MSQRD filters, and her own quirky and seemingly random addition of a pigeon. It reflects back at the present.
The vast main gallery was occupied by a jaw dropping video by Cécile B. Evans, surrounded by strange sculpture tanks and 18” of water acting as a reflection pool. The video uses a fictional and opaque, yet unmistakably familiar, language of news broadcasts. The tone and graphics present us with an unending narrative of tension and anxiety. BB9 states that “What the Heart Wants examines what constitutes a person in the digital age and how machines (technical, social, and political) shape how we are “human.”” I witnessed a man there in the darkened space stumble into the water, thrash about, soaking his shoes and slacks.
Beneath the stairs lay a luminous little room, covered in gravel with a single video, Josh Kline’s Crying Games. Using the simple, and now highly accessible, trick of face swapping technology, actors in prison uniforms ‘wear’ the faces of the US leaders that brought the world the second invasion of Iraq (Operation Enduring Freedom, 2003): Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, et al. And they tearfully and repeatedly apologise. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
In the upstairs floor, one is met with a seating display advertising nothing in particular. Cushions and plugs in alcoves provide assumably ‘chill out’ spots to recharge amid ambiguous idealised advertising imagery. Large photo prints by Lucie Stahl are a new kind of still life: assemblages on a flatbed scanner.
A relief simply by way of daylight meets us as we traverse upwards. Exaggeratedly cartoonish easels hold the lightness of contour line animal paintings. The floor is cluttered with printed emails. They are bulk newsletter mail outs for mass audiences, written in a personal tone, for a super abundance of ‘good causes’. The artist has taken taken the time to reply to them personally. A futile but solely humanising task comprises Camille Henrot’s Office of Unreplied Emails.
To the side of the stairwell is a showroom display of a totally unclear nature. Tiled both with the ceramic and digital sort, amid light-boxes there is a refrigerator stocked with mineral water and a bidet in an all encompassing wooded setting. It gives reason to pause at the confusion it instills.
Upstairs again, there is a hyper detailed maquette of a contemporary music festival by Anne de Vries. A video work by Wu Tsang addresses the real story of Chinese revolutionary, feminist, and writer Qiu Jin and her relationship with female calligrapher Wu Zhuying. The work plays off of Chinese warrior myth tropes and even though it was acted out by the artist and her long time collaborator Boychild, genders are thrown into question in this love story.
A privately owned World War Two bunker called The Feuerle Collection sits along a canal. It is a football field sized concrete box with a literal chilling effect.
A light-box the size of a car glowing with an artificial sunrise, car tyres and rims, and metallic pastel painted, hybrid bronze sculptures by Guan Xiao fill the space immediately to your left. It exudes a Tumblr famous vaporwave or seapunk glossed Neo Liberal aesthetic. New Media Express, is a miniature train complete with benches atop the graffitied passenger cars. It provided timed rides down the length of the structure. It was the method of choice to view a series of photographs by the same artist, Josephine Pryde.
On the opposite long wall is Yngve Holen’s piece. Evil Eyes, enlarges the middle-eastern talisman to ward off bad luck with the same name to airline window size. The length of an airplane is mimicked with as many glass eye ‘windows’.
A large multi-channel installation with floor to ceiling mirrors and screens project cityscapes. Some of a stormy day in front of the “abandoned ECB building” others of the “abandoned ECB building” amid Blockupy protests of March 18, 2015.
And of course the touring river boat. The Blue-Star sightseeing boat was immersed in bad bio-mechanic party décor, bean bag seating around a flatscreen inside. This was by Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic.
As I walk between venues a man plays Amazing Grace on the bagpipes on Unter den Linden
The ESMT School of European Management is made use of by the Biennale. An unmistakably GDR style stained glass work dominates the lobby. It is after all the former State Council building. A few satanic looking, Doom™-like, flat, translucent perspex horn and flame sculptures by Katja Novitskova are placed around the same space. They echo the stained glass as an effective gamers protest and rebuttal to the change in the structure’s function.
I pass through Biennale security and enter a set of business convention styled displays. The appear to degrade, becoming more abstractly constructed with ever increasingly absurd materials. They showcase ‘proposals’ for stamps.
In between the last two of these displays, and through a slight doorway lies a capacious space for GCC’s installation, Positive Pathways (+). You enter on a sprinter’s track. Only it is not nearly long enough and paisley shaped. Leading the participant not in a loop, but in a confrontation with its beginning. Sand lies to the side and centre and a white sculpture of a woman and child are contained.
“Our work for the Berlin Biennial comprises two sculptural figures set in the center of a running track. A woman faces a child and performs a Quantum Touch healing gesture on him. The woman’s potentially ominous yet maternal hand gesture creates a harmonious tension with the boy, and refers to the mysterious dynamic between the mother and child in the Pietà theme of Renaissance art.”
Arab and English audio alternates, espousing the benefits of positive energy. And like many of the works I am unclear as to the artists’s intentions. Do the believe this in earnest, or even ironically? Or are they underscoring the futility of such rhetoric? The track seems an impossibility, a farce, something mimicked from an other place and plonked into this art desert inappropriately.
The unified aesthetic presented also underpins the shows success; what to me had been previously intermittent surfacy works; art with a focus on commercial production techniques emphasising a strange cgi veneer have become, via BB9, a new prevailing aesthetic. BB9 is nothing shy of landmark in this regard.
In many ways this new style demonstrates resoundingly the seductive visual language of capitalism with its stock images of sunsets, sex and rebellion despite not corresponding to its content. Concerns and political expression that come with post-internet art, along with the complexity and inherent layering that is present in the Biennale was seemingly lost on many. However, reflecting on this highest stage of alienation; dwelling on idiosyncrasies, glitches… Looking and finding the philosophical and human in the digital tools that increasingly fill the time of our lives is a significant curatorial gesture.
What I found was the exposition of a deep dilemma for younger artists and a general generational shift. That is: a deeply dystopian frustration with being a human in a period of the absolute dominance, and seductiveness, of capitalism. Unfortunately, in my opinion, an older generation is so completely unfamiliar with the language being employed that they risk missing BB9’s key thrust simply because “idgi”.
BB9 was quickly, and strangely eagerly, derided by some critics (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jun/13/berlin-biennale-exhibition-review-new-york-fashion-collective-dis-art), but these reviews became predictable in their dismissiveness and negativity. The outpouring of criticism for the exhibition on the opening night and following weeks was the default position for artworld insiders perhaps because it was not in the visual language of International Artspeak. It was in fact a knee jerk reaction to a powerfully new aesthetic and tack. Perhaps they didn’t read they text? Or worse, the naysayers are out of touch. They dismiss the curators for being young and coming from outside the sphere of fine art, as if they have no cultural awareness, or that art has to be interpreted by art insiders. DIS are in my opinion responding to a new visual language full of its own subtly that the art world status quo are not fully versed in. The Biennale, The Present in Drag, apropos of everything, persists in its challenges to the normative art sphere dialogue, and to conventional art narratives and modes of display that many take for granted.
When people write of this exhibition as being vapid they are ignoring the possibility that highlighting this vapidity, which is a fact of our times, is with intent.
After attending the opening a few of us dined at the gaudy and self-declared “Exotic” Indian chain mega restaurant, Amrit, just around the corner from KW (http://www.amrit.de/). A place filled with faux cliched orientalist motifs of the most garish sort. It was like the Biennale. A friend, with unknowing profundity, jokingly stated “The Biennale is challenging our perception about everything in the world as we know it. It’s challenged our ability to discern art from not art. Making us ask questions about reality itself”. I can’t think of a stronger statement of accomplishment about DIS and BB9.
BB9 creates a range of experiences, some small, quick and easy, others monumental, challenging, nuanced, and much in between. The cumulative whole of the biennale is greater than the sum of its parts, making for a probing critique of arts function in an advanced capitalist world – an advertising dominated ‘free’ market.
1 An overlapping Tumblr side project, perhaps best know for its humorous flirtation with the inane and absurd reinterpretations of popular culture, generating images that blur lines becoming almost believably “What if someone did something so stupid” http://thejogging.tumblr.com/