Go West
The Berlin Biennale 2014

Old West Berlin is undergoing a revival. The international art community is not only traveling to Auguststrasse, but also to Dahlem and Grunewald. If it’s up to Berlin Biennale curator Juan Gaitán, that is. Achim Drucks set out to see the show and met with an array of works by artists represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection.
Berlin is famous for its unusual locations. Empty girls’ schools, a power station, a former juvenile prison: instead of sanitized white cubes, there’s a preference for exhibition locations imbued with history and feelings, places that bear the visible traces of time. The current Berlin Biennale has departed from this romanticism of ruins—and from the district Mitte, where the art show started out in 1998.

As always, of course, part of the Biennale can be seen in Auguststrasse, although curator Juan Gaitán, a Canadian of Colombian heritage, selected his other two exhibition venues in the southwest part of the city: the museums in Dahlem with their ethnology collections and the Haus am Waldsee. With the result that the art scene is now making the trip out to the villa districts of West Berlin’s educated middle class—not exactly the media image of young hip Berlin.

The first station of Gaitán’s Biennale is the Haus am Waldsee. The factory owner’s villa, built in the 1920s, has been serving as an exhibition house since 1946—initially for the modernism vilified by the Nazis, and for contemporary work thereafter. Its glory days were roughly concurrent with those of Kudamm, West Berlin’s major shopping boulevard. Kinetic art was shown here in the 1960s; the 1980s brought Cindy Sherman. While the house has been enjoying a renaissance over the past several years, it can well use the boost brought by the Biennale. As in a prelude, some of the motifs introduced here can be encountered again at the other two Biennale venues, such as an investigation into modernism and colonialism. An installation by Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, for instance, combines the colonial history of black Africa with his own private family history. The artist, who was born in 1977 in French Guiana, is a good example for the positions selected: Gaitán’s Biennale is young and highly global. Never before have so many participants from South America, Africa, and Asia been invited.

Many of the Biennale’s artists share both Abonnenc’s interest in the past and his penchant for archival research. Matts Leiderstam, whose work is also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, derives his imagery from museum galleries and storage depots. The artist, who was trained as an art historian, is in search of the “double unknown.” His series Unknown Unknown consists of reproductions of portraits of which both the subject and painter remain unidentified. The works do not hang flatly against the wall; like open windows, Leiderstam lets his reproductions jut out into light-filled gallery spaces such that the reverse sides of the portraits can also be seen. And some of these tell terrible stories, like the swastika stickers that declare the painting “Property of the Prussian Finance Ministry.”

Patrick Alan Banfield, who studied at the Städelschule, shows how old the modernist residential buildings of the 1960s have come to look; his video installation juxtaposes the austere cement architecture with impressions from the forests of the Taunus: knotted roots, rain-drenched ferns, tree stumps. At first glace an apparently flat dichotomy between nature and culture, the work turns out to be an evocative scenario with apocalyptic undertones: devoid of people and with crumbling facades and plants that have long since begun reclaiming their territory.

Banfield’s video screens almost spill out of the rooms they are squeezed into. Most of the works shown at Haus am Waldsee, however, are living-room-sized formats and possess a “private” character of art that the curator seeks to underscore here. On view, for instance, are a small abstract work by Wolfgang Tillmans and a flat screen showing a video by Anri Sala. Each of these artists from the Deutsche Bank Collection has an entire room to himself at the next Biennale station, yet even while this is a prelude, the presentations make a statement—the poetic/political art fits astonishingly well into the upper-middle-class context.

With the Biennale, Gaitán roused the museums in Dahlem from a deep slumber. After the painting collection was moved elsewhere, only very few visitors took the trouble to visit the remaining collections. Soon, these too will be transferred to the center of the city—to the Humboldt-Forum, where the ethnographic artifacts can be seen in the “imperialist architecture” of the reconstructed Prussian palace, according to the curator. More and more, art and culture will be concentrated in Mitte, due not least to the interests of Berlin’s improved efforts in tourist marketing. The fact that Gaitán resists this development and shifts attention to the “periphery” is one of his Biennale’s true achievements.

One of the few works to directly address Berlin can be seen in the museum’s lobby: Olaf Nicolai, who is also a member of the Biennale’s “Artistic Team,” had abstract floor ornaments painted here that originate in the atrium of an empty shopping center in the East Berlin district of Lichtenberg. It’s like a migration of forms in which the vocabulary of modernism can be found both in shopping malls and the museum’s 1960s building.

Only a handful of artists have incorporated the artifacts on display into their work. One of these exceptions is Carsten Höller, whose lights flash in staccato tempo onto showcases containing pre-Colombian treasures. On the other hand, Wolfgang Tillmans combines worn-out explanatory museum panels on the theme “cultural change through European influences” with works of his own—photographs of computer screens, duty-free shopping areas, or the martial border facilities separating the US from Mexico. The vitrines contain the “influences” that repress local products in today’s globalized world: fetish-like high-tech sneakers, vintage-style jeans with manufactured rips. For his part, Alberto Baraya zeroes in on the ethnological perspective in his installation: photographs show the Colombian being measured with obscure devices scientists once used on the indigenous “primitives.”

In addition to film and installation, Gaitán has concentrated on the medium of drawing which, as he formulates it, “emphasizes the propositional character of the work of art.” On the other hand, painting is for the most part missing because, according to Gaitán, its presence is too strong. This assessment appears questionable, however, particularly regarding the powerful film images of Biennale artists such as Rosa Barba, Carlos Amorales, and Anri Sala, whose work Unravel was already on view at the Venice Biennale of 2013.

In Dahlem, the drawings are concentrated in one room. A work by Kemang Wa Lehulere covers one entire wall; the South African artist recently took part in the exhibition The Circle Walked Casually at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. In his chalk drawing, he blends allusions to the Apartheid era with media imagery and text to produce a visual stream of consciousness.

The large hall in the Kunst-Werke is also dedicated to drawing. In reduced lines and spots of color, Irene Kopelman records her observations on the ecosystem of vines and the tracks crabs leave in sand on an entire battalion of paper sheets. Like some of the other contributions to the Biennale, the work comes across as somewhat aloof, not particularly urgent. One misses some of the hysterical atmosphere of the controversial last Biennale, when Artur Zmijewski transformed the show into an agit-prop spectacle.

Happily, though, there are also works in the Kunst-Werke that, although quiet, cut to the chase. Shilpa Gupta, for instance, with the Chitmahals—Indian or Bangladeshi enclaves situated on each other’s territory. Around 51,000 people live in these regions as pawns for the two enemy states. The Indian artist, whose work occupies an entire floor in the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt, uses photography, drawing, and video to depict the difficult living conditions of the Chitmahals. Her approach is not one of grand gestures and indignation; instead, she draws white lines over images of plush green landscapes to demarcate the boundaries that categorize people as either natives or foreigners.

You don’t necessarily need an exhibition guide to understand works like these. On the other hand, one can feel a bit clueless in front of other works, even after reading the accompanying material; one wonders why this of all works is included in the Biennale. Gaitán very deliberately decided against a guiding principle for the show, and the works are not meant to illustrate a particular thesis. The problem with this appealing approach is that the selection doesn’t seem at all imperative. His show comes across as too well-tempered, too hermetic. Regarding his predecessor’s strategy, he observed that “Artur Zmijewski has more of an agit-prop approach. He likes to shake the tree.” By comparison, Gaitán’s tree sways gently in the breeze. A few strong gusts of wind would have done his Biennale good.

8th Berlin Biennale
through August 3, 2014
KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Haus am Waldsee, Dahlem Museums