The Berlin Biennale 2012

Bottom floor of the Berlin Biennale, "Occupy Berlin," photo courtesy

To transport an Occupy movement to the sanitized dominion of a museum is, as my art historian friends would say, problematic.  This year’s incarnation of the Berlin Biennale (the seventh) has thus far received anemic reviews, with some hinting at real vitriol.  The exhibition is partly as curator Artur Zmijewski envisioned it; full o’ problems.  In interviews Zmijewski offers cryptic monologues about equally cryptic solutions.  I think there are plenty of strategies to be found in the Biennale, but they are buried beneath sprawling and lofty ambitions, making it feel, as Frieze writer Christy Lange writes, like “an awkward slog.”

The impulse to undermine traditional artistic hierarchy by including documentary filmmakers, self-identified social activists and other non-artist-artists is good and worthy and exciting.  And there are moments in the Biennale where ideas ignite and excite viewers to imagine a world with a more porous understanding of art and the things it can accomplish.  The Biennale is awash in beautiful gestures: Lukasz Surowiec transplants trees from Auschwitz-Birkenau,  Yael Bartana stages the first ever international congress of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, Khaled Jarrar creates postal and passport stamps for the non-existent state of Palestine.

But these gestures are at times overshadowed by an exhibition layout at Kunst Werke that is heavy-handed and foggy.  It’s like it was curated by the gruff classist landlord of a turn-of-the-century New York tenement: the poor students and occupy protestors have the ground floor where they take care of the garden, ride a solar revolution bike and lead wacky seminars about street art and self-sustaining garden communities.  They conduct casting calls for a porn movie, make mandalas out of tobacco shavings and read leftist literature on the ragged arms of a hand-me-down couch.  There are no museum guards there (trust!) and the offices of Kunst-Werke employees are conspicuously ajar (transparency!).  It’s a dirty little utopia in the middle of one of the richest streets in central Berlin, a hypocritical, twingy concession in a district full of wealthy patrons and designer yogurt.

Meanwhile, the “real” artists can be found on the remaining 3 floors.   This architectural caste system is no exaggeration; the participatory element ends with the blackboard paint (which covers the entire ground floor).  Suddenly the walls become the shade of primeval white that we as gallery attendees are accustomed to.

 Marina Naprushkina’s oversized comics hang in the stairwells on the way “up.”

*Sorry, I don’t want to indulge in this super easy metaphor; I’m just really tired (maybe the curators were too?).

Marina Naprushkina with newspapers © Olga Karatch, image courtesy

Naprushkina’s pieces are lovely and sincerely concerned with gender inequity and Russian nationalism in Belarus.  She uses graphic works to disseminate information, and last year created a comic newspaper documenting the police brutality that took place against protestors in Belarus in December of 2010.

Naprushkina is one of few object-makers in the Biennale, as the Biennale is focused largely on ephemeral actions and intervention (and the resulting footage of said ephemeral actions and interventions).  Pawel Althamer combines these pursuits with his beautiful if somewhat staid exercise in communal creation; a draw-in called “A Draftsmen’s Congress” at the St. Elisabeth Church.

This Biennale was one of the more anticipated in recent years, in part because it was helmed by controversial Polish artist Artur Zmijewski along with the Russian activist group Voina acting as associate curators.

Zmijewski received quite a bit of attention for his short film Berek, which was pulled from an exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin last year.  Zmijewski includes Berek in the top floor, offering one of the Biennale’s most affecting statements.  In it we see men and women of various ages, naked, engaging in a game of tag inside a former nazi death camp gas chamber.  Their child-like delight at the game borders on manic glee, an emotion belied by damp and ghastly surroundings.  Their nudity, innocent and liberating, forces us to imagine those for whom nudity was neither innocent nor liberating.

Artur Zmijewski "Berek", 1999 (Videostill), Foto: © Artur Zmijewski, Courtesy Foksal Gallery Foundation

Occupying most of the top floor is Berlin-Birkenau, an installation and acccompanying video by Polish artist Lukasz Surowiec.  Surowiec brought 320 Birch trees from the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau to Berlin, planting many of them in front of Kunst-Werke, enlisting the help of local students in his effort.  Surowiec offers Biennale visitors the chance to take a birch sapling with them, along with a certificate of ownership and directions for its care.  He asks that participants report the final location so as to be included in a “living  archive” of repurposed history.  Maybe it’s a bit treacly, but watching German kids plants those trees made me cry.

I wish I had equally touching reactions to the other videos screened at Kunst-Werke, but the majority were installed next to each other in one giant room, with cries from Tahrir Square co-mingling with anti-capitalist chants from European Action Day.  I would have liked to spend more time with each video, but instead I just got annoyed at the buzzing amalgam of multiple videos sonically invading each other.  And I think this might sum up the Biennale; it’s full of great moments, but the noise around it can be deafening.