“The Contemplative Art Experience no Longer Takes Place” – Olaf Nicolai on the Future of Biennials
one of Germany’s most successful artists, Olaf Nicolai has taken part
in biennials from Busan to Venice. And now, Juan Gaitán, curator of the
upcoming Berlin Biennale, is taking him on board. But how does one
distinguish oneself in the global biennial jungle? And is there any
point to shows that reflect on their location? Kito Nedo met with
Nicolai, many of whose works are part of the Deutsche Bank Collection.
||Mr. Nicolai – In 1998, you were one of the
artists shown in the first Berlin Biennale. How has the role of the
Biennale changed in the German capital since that time?
it actually does take place every two years. That wasn’t the case in
the beginning. At that time, there was just this desire to put on a
biennial. It took some time for the rhythm to set in. That also says
something about how the Berlin Biennale—in
spite of the frequent allegations leveled against it—wasn’t just a city
marketing idea. It’s actually a kind of self-made invention that sprang
out of the Berlin scene, the Kunst-Werke, and Klaus Biesenbach.
In 1998, the first Biennale attempted to show what had become of Berlin
in the 1990s. As a starting point, that was incredibly important.
That’s no longer the case?
gotten pretty professional since then. The Berlin Biennale can compete
with other biennials now. It deals in the concepts of individual
curators and how they position themselves within the global biennial
landscape. The biennials compete with one another now, and they try to
give themselves clearly recognizable profiles so that they can be
distinguished from one another.
Perhaps the turning
point to professionalization was the fourth Berlin Biennale in 2006,
when it became clear that the romantic story of “Art Mitte”—and
especially its reference to the exhibition project “37 Spaces” in
Auguststrasse—no longer worked?
Yes, maybe. Berlin 37 Spaces
was an important show that took place in June of 1992, but today it’s
unfortunately somewhat forgotten. It was this show that gave rise to
the idea of what later became the Biennale. The history of this
exhibition says a lot about the 1990s and the way in which art was seen
in relation to the public at that time. It was a show that regarded,
early on, what we today call “mediation” to be an important component
of artistic production. The close dialogue between the curators of the
various spaces, the artists who created these spaces, and the people
who visited them—it was all pretty good.
Does the Berlin Biennale always have to have something to do with Berlin?
for me personally, I’m not all that sure if it’s absolutely necessary
that biennials always have to reflect on the location they take place
in. When it happens, it’s great—but I don’t consider it an absolute
necessity. Why shouldn’t a curator also introduce a vision for an
exhibition whose main aspect is not its reference to location? If you
look at the group show in Bern that Harald Szeemann curated in 1969, for instance—the legendary When Attitudes Become Form—then
the reference to the location of Bern is secondary. Szeemann could
easily have put up this show in a similar format at a very different
location—and it did indeed travel later in altered form to Krefeld and
Juan Gaitán, the current Berlin Biennale curator, has
taken you on board into his team of advisors. What’s the collaboration
like in the committee?
I got to know Juan Gaitán
personally at a conference in Vancouver. The theme of the conference
was the relationship between economics, emotions, and aesthetics, and I
already knew Gaitán as a curator at the Witte de With
in Rotterdam. When he was elected to curate the Berlin Biennale, he
approached various different people and asked them if they’d be open to
an occasional exchange of ideas. I was more than happy to comply. Then
he started calling us his team of advisors, which was rather
magnanimous of him. I never would have insisted on that, it’s not
really important to me. I can’t really judge to what extent our
conversations have made any real impact on the Biennale. There are an
awful lot of people he talks to just as much, and this doesn’t really
come to fore.
What can a biennial achieve today?
other large events, biennials have reached a point where it’s no longer
about introducing individual artists’ positions or subject matter. It
goes well beyond this, to potential shifts in the complex of art that
focus on certain new phenomena—such as performativity, for instance.
Reflection and mediation have become crucial aspects. The Biennale is
important for Berlin, because the city is lacking a vital contemporary
institution. We have Hamburger Bahnhof, the NGBK, and the NBK, but nothing that corresponds to the city in its role as a contemporary location for art production—as was once the case with PS1
in New York. And so the Biennale is still a place where visibility is
generated—particularly for a local interconnected contemporary scene
that has long since ceased to be merely Berlin, but is highly
So the Biennale does play a role in the competitive struggle between cities?
a long time now, Europe has no longer played as important a role in art
as it still did, say, ten years ago. Today, much more energy and
attention are focused on other regions—not merely in terms of the
market. It’s also about seeing which themes are interesting, which
artists with what regional and stylistic features are providing
completely new impulses. A shift is taking place, during which Europe
is slowly but surely disappearing from this old, obsolete colonial
leadership role. That’s a good thing and offers many chances. And
that’s why it’s naturally even more important now that a place like
Berlin isn’t reduced to a name on a map. London has become a synonym
for Europe—as though it were merely about being the best place for
You were present in Venice and
other places many times. Is it true that biennials have formed their
own genre? There are people who make a claim for “biennial art.”
don’t think much of the term. And not because I take part in biennials
myself. It’s more because the art I see there consists of works that
already existed previously, pure and simple. Or because they’re
projects that, while they might have been developed for a particular
occasion, continue well beyond the biennial itself. It’s a simple truth
that art production today is a relatively cost-intensive matter. This
means that if an artist doesn’t have a gallery behind them that has
invested heavily in the work, many forms of production are just
impossible. That’s why these biennials are often events that make it
possible for artists to produce works they otherwise wouldn’t be able
to realize. In this sense, one could say that biennials enable the
production of works we wouldn’t otherwise have. But they are also
distribution machines. If you want to make your work visible in certain
cultural spaces, they offer good possibilities for doing this.
Where, for instance?
The Sharjah Biennial,
for example: the United Arab Emirates are not exactly a place where I
have friends that I can produce something with, or where there are
institutions that could invite me. The Sharjah Biennial is the only
platform where you can be present in this region. Or Busan and Gwangju
in South Korea—these are places where you come into contact with
completely different cultural constellations that can be fruitful for
the work. You can always take research trips, of course, but it’s
always more productive if someone says in a very concrete way: “We’d
like to do something together here.”
Is that the biennials’ secret of success?
at least one of the reasons why many artists are grateful to
participate in biennials. If they were the rape machines they’re often
claimed to be, there would be no explanation for why people take part
in them. The biennial is also an event that offers curators a chance to
try things out and to work in formats that are otherwise only available
to institutions: they’re exhibitions that bring different artists
together on a larger scale and enable works to be produced.
Biennials are often criticized for their event character.
clear that they tend towards being festivals. But the festival has
turned into a form the institutions themselves often adopt in a major
way in order to win over the public. Take, for example, the Nouveau Festival at the Centre Pompidou.
It’s all about events happening continuously, all about activity. In
this way, the public is given the chance to get involved at various
different levels. That’s something completely different than the
contemplative art experience that someone in the early nineties might
still have had in mind when they talked about museums. That doesn’t
take place today anymore at all. This gives rise to a contradiction, of
course, which manifests mainly on the temporal level. You can’t achieve
intense involvement and reflection with entertainment alone.
As an artist, what position does one assume?
the one hand, people want to be entertained. And a world without
entertainment would be just terrible. But the question is to what
extent entertainment can also taken on a certain intelligent form.
Take, for instance, the productions of the Berlin theater director René Pollesch—they’re
a clear expression of the possibility of using entertainment formats
for intellectual investigation. I regard Pollesch as an extension of a
And beyond theater?
parallels in art are in performance. The audience is simply different
today. It’s harder to get people to commit, but when they do, they tend
to get very involved. There are completely different possibilities
today for understanding something: “What is he doing now? What’s it all
about? What’s happening there?” A greater intensity comes about through
this. Whether or not this is of a longer duration is something I can’t
easily say. Again, time factors into it. You see a lot of people that
otherwise have nothing to do with contemporary art, but all at once
they’re willing to delve into it.
When did this happen to you?
I experienced this in Munich, at the Pinakothek der Moderne, when I put on a one-year performance series in 2011 titled Escalier du Chant. For the project, eleven composers including Elliot Sharp, Mika Vainio, Jennifer Walshe, and Tony Conrad
were invited to compose new songs on current political events. These
were then played on the last Sunday of each month. There’s this large
stairway situation in the Pinakothek, which is still basically public
space, because you don’t have to pay the admission here yet. The stairs
are orchestrated in such a way that they seem to be there to be used,
like a reference to the agora. Working with this space was a kind of
test of whether this could work. It was not without risk, and it could
have gone very wrong—people could have been annoyed and complained, and
just hurried through the space. Because serious contemporary music is
not exactly a format with mass appeal.
And something else happened?
result was that, in the end, some of the visitors gave us photo CDs in
which they’d documented the entire year. They also came on a regular
basis. It turned out that they hadn’t had any real contact with serious
music beforehand. Whether or not this interest will continue I can’t
say. But they dedicated themselves intensively to the sound
experiences, and kept asking when and how things were going to
continue. Other things were on offer, too, such as four talks in the
context of which Friedrich Kittler’s
last major lecture could be heard, for instance—or booklets that were
published to accompany each song. It would have been impossible to
achieve something like this with a classical concert alone.
Your works can be found not only at biennials and in museums and galleries, but also in places such as the Neue Leipziger Messe and at the yet to be opened Berlin Airport. Why are such non-locations interesting for artists?
an artist, you’re invited to take part in public art projects.
Traditionally, you’d speak of applied arts in this context. But the
fact is that this separation no longer exists today—you just have to
think of Tobias Rehberger’s café, for which he was awarded the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale.
Even still, it’s a special area, very different than working with an
institution. It gets interesting when you’re able to actually get
involved in the planning or can address the functional processes. Like
with the work for the Berlin Airport, which is a highly functional
installation entailing light signals that are directly connected to the
procedures at the gate.
As a kind of cybernetic sculpture?
And it has something to do with Berlin too, of course—this “as though”
character, all the glitter and facades. This is why it’s titled Gadget.
Even if I say “it’s like applied arts,” I still hope that these works
will nonetheless enter into a dialogue with the location they were made
for. This means that they enable an investigation of the location to
take place that goes deeper than a statement like “Oh, this here is so
beautiful.” At the fair in Leipzig, for instance, there’s a huge,
romanticizing silhouette in an enormous hall that recalls a hothouse.
Together, the plant silhouette image and the landscape in a glass hall
bring together two versions of the world as an interior. One can
certainly draw connections between this idea of total design and the
degree to which the market itself is designable. Or simply walk over
the beautiful black and white floor ornament. In the end, whatever you
think and wish for depends on who actually encounters the works.
8. Berlin Biennale
5/29. – 8/3 2014
Haus am Waldsee, KW Institute for Contemporary Art & Museen Dahlem, Berlin