The Berlin Biennale grapples with big issues (and itself) – The New York Times | Candle Made Easy

BERLIN – In order to imagine a new world, Karl Marx wrote in 1843 after studying in the German capital, one must first rigorously unpack the old one with “a ruthless criticism of everything that exists”.

That energy permeates this year’s Berlin Biennale, which spans five of the city’s museums and is curated by Franco-Algerian artist Kader Attia. No matter how you approach the event, you are immediately confronted with art that deals with the legacies of war and colonialism; domination by race, sex, class and caste; ecological damage; Disinformation; and social control.

Start at the KW Institute of Contemporary Art and encounter a wall-sized installation of photographs and video interviews of working-class Portuguese and Turkish immigrants in Paris in the 1980s. Feminist artist Nil Yalter’s work is entitled Exile Is a Hard Job.

In the Museum Hamburger Bahnhof, the first room shows a continuous image of clouds in a horizontal band along four walls. It is not a photo, but a digital composition by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, constructed from data from 15 years of Israeli surveillance Flights in Lebanese airspace.

And in the Academy of Arts next to the Brandenburg Gate, one enters a room adorned with giant works on paper by Moses March, chronicling the political networks and intellectual histories on issues such as radical ecology, the restitution of looted art, and black politics and anti-racism in Germany.

This biennial, which runs until September 18, is serious. Very seriously. It borders on the humorless, but also contains moments of grace and some really stirring tracks. The roster of 69 artists and collectives includes well-known war horses from the racetrack, but also many newcomers. It’s not a ‘Global South’ exhibition – Europe is well represented – but tends to be nonetheless, including notable clusters from Vietnam, India and Arabic-speaking countries.

A strong show more than a pleasant one, the Biennale struggles both with itself and with the themes. After all, biennials and museums are places of power; the curator is a gatekeeper. Noting that today’s “profusion of sprawling, monumental exhibitions” reflect “the material excesses” of global capitalism, Attia’s curatorial statement asks, “So why add yet another exhibition?”

The answer he arrives at is that art can – perhaps uniquely – reclaim our attention from algorithmically enforced social control. The title of the Biennial, Still Present!, sounds part admonition, part proof of life. It aims at the transition point where this ruthless critique bears fruit, where the old is shed for the new, with the artists taking the lead.

The experience can feel unrelenting. There are countless screens of documentary and investigative art. Forensic Architecture, the pioneering data and video research collective, has a strong presence, including a large installation recapitulating some of its most important investigations over the years, another on a Russian airstrike in Kyiv (timely if not very insightful), and separate ones Projects by researchers associated with the group. Videos by Susan Schuppli explore Canadian police brutality against tribal peoples and abuse of migrants by US border officials; In a more evocative and personal multimedia installation, Imani Jacqueline Brown journeys through Louisiana’s polluted wetlands, mapping toxicity to suggest redress.

In den KW, a textual work by renowned scholar Ariella Aïsha Azoulay examines how visual recordings of the aftermath of World War II avoid the widespread rape of German women by Soviet soldiers. Her project is presented as pages of fine print on the wall, plus a tabletop display of related books that visitors aren’t allowed to pick up and browse – a frustrating staging for an important subject.

And in the middle of the Hamburger Bahnhof section sits a work so grotesque and intentionally mean that it risks destabilizing the entire show. Poison Soluble by Jean-Jacques Lebel, a French artist and veteran of activist causes, is a room-sized maze installation with partitions covered in giant explosions of the snapshots American soldiers took abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

As art it is obscene – and certainly effective, at least for rekindling anger at these events, although trying to linger in the installation to pick up deeper signals, I was distracted by visitors turning on their heels in disgust and others they pushed their way through, awkwardly navigating the bloody panels around me.

Poison Soluble was previously featured in a joint exhibition by Lebel and Attia in Paris in 2018; the two are friends. It is by far the most shocking work at this Berlin Biennale. But Lebel is involved with another piece in the show, half a century older: the 1960 Large Collective Antifascist Painting, made with five other European artists in response to French soldiers torturing Algerian activist Djamila Boupacha for a cause célèbre. The painting is a somewhat garish piece of the period, violent in its own way.

The historical line between the two Lebel pieces is perhaps the least productive vector of this Biennale – except as a textbook example of how a certain European and masculine brand of anti-racist and anti-colonial art, although forged in genuine political struggles, lost its way and succumbed to exploitation. Outside of Poison Soluble, a warning sign indicates that the work depicts intense violence, but does not indicate the subject. His directive that people “who have experienced racial trauma or abuse” should not enter feels paternalistic and exclusionary.

Fortunately, this biennial works in several registers. Although the exhibition as a whole closely aligns with Attia’s concerns as an artist, he has been supported by a cosmopolitan curatorial team of five women – Ana Teixeira Pinto, Do Tuong Linh, Marie Helene Pereira, Noam Segal and Rasha Salti – and it’s a relief when they come together Efforts open up space for the poetic.

This is remarkable at the other location of the Academy of Arts in the western Hansaviertel, where the exhibition is ecologically oriented and at the same time remains lively in terms of social and imperial history. A stunning installation by Sammy Baloji includes tropical plants in a small greenhouse, like those used by traders to ship specimens to Europe; a narrator softly plays drums and singing of a Congolese veteran of the Belgian Army in World War I who was captured by the Germans and forced to take part in their ethnographic recordings. Nearby, exquisite drawings by Temitayo Ogunbiyi showcase okra, water leaves and other vegetables of Nigerian cuisine, along with recipes.

Even as the show examines current crises, it benefits from the mix of documentary and non-documentary techniques. “Oh Shining Star Testify”, an installation by Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme on three large screens, is lyrical and dramatic, the projected images are broken up by stacked planks forming a kind of stage set. The work uses surveillance tape of the killing by Israeli soldiers of a 14-year-old Palestinian boy who was crossing a separation wall to pick an edible plant, along with other footage, a soundtrack, and concise text cards. It has the power of ancient tragedy.

French collective PEROU bet on absurdity: overlaying video documentation of the police crackdown and eviction of a Roma camp in the Parisian suburbs with a reading of the long, highly procedural municipal order authorizing these actions, showing complete disconnection from bureaucracy from imagination from the human stakes.

On an item-by-item basis, there is much more to enjoy at this Biennale. Mai Nguyen-Long’s Vomit Girl and Specimen series of sculptures oscillate between the playful and the macabre as they grapple with the aftermath of the Agent Orange bombings in Vietnam. Set in the mangroves of Angola’s Kwanza River, Mónica de Miranda’s lush film deftly blends matrilineal knowledge, civil war and ecological dreaming. A remarkable suite – photography, sculpture, video, text – by Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige combines photographs and human remains of the indigenous peoples of Sri Lanka in European museums with the island’s landscape and even the artist’s own body through a sculptural self-portrait in the manner of an ethnographic one Exhibition.

Even more blunt are Mayuri Chari’s cow dung-sculpted vulvas and fabric-sewn works that address the shame of the female body in India amid conservative Hinduism’s obsession with purity. Chari and two others, Prabhakar Kamble and Birender Yadav, are Dalit artists from the lowest-ranking communities in India’s caste system. Her works come straight from the front lines, with a material urgency—dung, brooms, urns, clumsy sandals from construction sites—that is clearer than any political manifesto.

It couldn’t be further from Lebel’s Abu Ghraib monstrosity or other conceptually outdated entries in terms of impact and clarity. This biennial is confident and engaging, and one senses a broadly congruent global perspective in its roster and curatorial team. But the results are scattered everywhere – one has to study the scattering to try to understand the collision that produced it.

I suspect their contradictions reflect those of the “decolonial,” a concept Attia invokes profusely in the exhibition texts, as well as in his earlier projects. The term has lingered around the art world for about a decade since it jumped out of academia. It originated with Latin American scholars who claim that the entire construction of the modern world – in fact since 1492 – has been contaminated by the racial and other hierarchies of colonialism.

While decolonization in the classical sense was a political, territorial project with no inherent grudge against modernity, today’s “decolonial practice” is about changing systems of knowledge—a fuzzier, potentially endless project. This Biennale presents itself as a gathering of “decolonial strategies”. The task, writes Attia, is “to tend to all the wounds that have accumulated in the history of Western modernity.”

If so, then every institution needs decolonization because it perpetuates harm, including biennials and museums. But the risk is solipsism: more institutional thinking, just different. This Berlin Biennale feels so tangled, overloaded with its own conceptual apparatus. Yet many of its parts point beautifully to freedom.

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