The 7th Berlin Biennale: political enough

Berlin Biennale

On the 19th of May a group of ECLA students attended a guided tour of some of the events of the 7th Berlin Biennale.The interest that I had in the event (I saw the first promotion materials in September 2011) had only increased to that day. Plus, since the beginning (27th of April 2012), I had only been encouraged (provoked) to visit the Biennale and its headquarters at KW (Kunstwerke): rumors that it was so political as to be bad or that it was simply “not working” kept circulating.

I tried not to have any expectations, although the question of how this (political art or aestheticized politics) could actually ever really work had been in my mind for some time. Whether, for instance, inviting Occupy to occupy the Biennale means more than a gesture, whether it could foster action on a larger scale (and I am not even asking the reflexive question about “what’s happening to art then?”—perhaps because it seems too emphatic a question to ask in the year 2012).

As the Polish artist and curator of the Biennale Artur Zmijewski puts it, what the organizers are interested in is production of reality (Realitätsproduktion), through exposing art that is efficient, that can influence reality and open a space for politics.

In this sense, as the guide pointed out, much of the curators’ intention was to create a free space for interaction (that is how the Occupy space on the ground floor is mainly conceived).

From the beginning it felt somewhat incongruous to be guided, organized (instead of organizing ourselves)—it seemed imbedded in the spirit of the Biennale, as it was unfolding in the courtyard and interior spaces of KW, and later in St. Elisabeth-Kirche, that one would rather have to discover it all on one’s own, be brought in contact with other participants, be lured into this whirl and somehow become active.

I went back two weeks to test the difference. And it’s true that once I entered the Occupy space, on the way to which the famous picture of Einstein sticking out his tongue announced The end of capitalism (Das Ende des Kapitalismus), reality felt totally atomized.

Yes, a group of people was just discussing sexism and one of the leaders was just drawing a clustering vis-à-vis the subject, but around that, the agglomeration of posters and slogans, of open roads and of dead-ends was simply mind-blowing (and no doubt some may argue that it is precisely in these conditions that action is born).

More palpably, many of the works invited a specific, guided reaction. And when I say more palpable, I mean, for instance, the one-ton steel Key of Return, brought all the way from Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, covered with messages of support for Palestinians in different languages as if having a symbolic Palestinian passport.

The theme is certainly dominant; on the first floor, one can see the documentation of the work of Palestinian Khaled Jarrar, who has been stamping passports of people around the world with a “State of Palestine” stamp and following their stories (i.e. their difficulties in crossing borders with the stamped passports) and who has also created post stamps with the same concept.

Facing this, a giant head of a Christ statue denounces the “institutionalized power of the Catholic Church in Poland”—artist Miroslaw Patecki is recreating a replica of the head of the Christ the King from Swiebodzin, supposedly the tallest Christ monument in the world (is recreating—because for the past weeks the space has been a workshop; Patecki works with light material and gives it a stone finish).

Size, this time not in the physical sense, but in the sense of spread, is important for a couple of other works/campaigns included in the Biennale. Czech artist Martin Zet is responding to the extremely successful (over 1.5 million copies sold) and controversial book of anti-immigrant spirit written by the German politician Thilo Sarrazin titled: Deustchland schafft sich ab (Germany liquidates itself) with a campaign of collecting copies from their owners: Deutschland schafft es ab (Germany gets rid of it).

The campaign starts in January 2012 and soon animates vivid, even violent reactions (meetings of protest included). A series of interviews and documentation is screened in one of the spaces at KW. Jonas Staal’s project is even more radical, although the New World Summit, a meeting of an “alternative parliament” planned for the 4th-5th of May, brought disappointingly few of the representatives of “organizations currently placed on international terrorist lists” to Berlin (which, for reasons of security, is perfectly understandable).

On the same floor, Teresa Margolles exposes 313 covers of the tabloid PM from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s most violent city. The covers have the same template: a pin-up girl on the left, explicit depiction of the previous night’s crimes on the right. The headlines are breathtaking: 7 women killed in 7 hours; They tear him to pieces; They push him from the bridge, etc.

In perhaps one of the central projects, the Polish artist Lukasz Surowiec brings some hundreds of birch saplings sprung from seeds of birches in Auschwitz-Birkenau—to be distributed and planted around Germany (and beyond).

Those who decide to adopt one of the tiny birches signs an agreement and receives extended documentation on care instructions. All in all, the project is successful, judging from the fact that two people out of nine in our group adopted a birch each: one will go to Romania, another— to Denmark.

In the same space as the hundreds of baby birches bathed in light and warmth, somewhat hidden in a small and dark room, the curator’s (Artur Zmijewski) own work is slightly disturbing: the projected film Berek, a 1999 work of the artist, shows a group of naked persons playing tag in a former gas chamber.

Controversially enough, the work had been removed from the exhibition Side by Side. Poland—Germany. A 1000 Years of Art and History at Martin-Gropius-Bau in 2011. The screening, Zmijewski says, is also a reaction to this act of censure.

It would probably be hard to quantify the real impact of the political Biennale, as it is hard to evaluate what I have seen, heard and felt against my expectations. But I can recall the special feeling most of us had when we were brought to St. Elisabeth-Kirche after the visit to KW.

The former church is being used during the Biennale as a giant painting workshop, a participatory work in which each visitor can simply take some paint and cover a portion of the wall and complete or even cover someone’s previous signs. Nothing is determined, guided or taught. When we came, in the middle of the action two blond putti were in the process of creating some chef d’oeuvre, walking around extremely composed, their arms up to the elbows in paint. Then, I was struck when one of our group took some red paint and simply painted her own face (in a martial arts-like pattern).

Ultimately, I don’t know what exactly it was in the atmosphere (perhaps the incense they were burning?), but this, although and because very subtle, felt political enough.

Aurelia Cojocaru (2nd year BA, Moldova)

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