The Berlin Biennale was initiated by Klaus Biesenbach in 1996, who considered its exhibition venues as “witnesses of history” and reminders of the scars of the city. Now in its 12th edition its title ‘Still Present!’ seems to stand also as a witness; this time to centuries of domination, subjection, exploitation and “legacies of colonialism, environmental destruction, sexism, social inequalities, racism and sexism”.
It is curated by artist Kader Attia (CAS bought Attia’s work for MIMA in 2016) with an all-women artistic team (Ana Texeira Pinto, Do Tuong Linh, Marie Helena Pereira, Noam Segal, Rashda Salti, Gabriele Horn). Spread across five venues, including the former headquarters of the Stasi police, the four overall concepts include the formation of a decolonial ecology; the role of non-Western feminist movements in reappropriating historical narratives; a reinvention of debates on cultural restitution; and reclaiming what Attia calls the “field of emotion” through art. This is not the first time that Attia has brought artists together. In 2016, Attia hosted La Colonie in Paris; a series of lectures and workshops to engage with debates around colonisation.
The show opens with Nil Yalter’s work greeting the visitor in the historical venue Kunst Werke (KW), formerly a DDR margarine factory. Exile is a Hard Job, 1983/2022 is the title of the work written with bold red letters on the wall. The work consists of a collage of photographs and video recordings replying to the question of what it meant and what it means to live in exile. This has particular resonance in a country that has taken almost 400,000 Ukranian refugees since April; more than double the number of Syrians who arrived in Germany in 2015. The country has welcomed different communities over the years and of course famously also Ai Weiwei, whose apartment in Prenzlauerberg is filled with memories of displacement – not only his own but also those of one of the many who arrived on the island of Lesbos during the Syrian crisis.
Displacement can be tragic but can also be a way of life. Mathieu Pernot’s photographs document the life of a Roma family – the Gorgans – in the outskirts of Marseille. Having been based there all their life the perspective on exile shifts: it becomes a condition. From witnessing the birth of a child, to including the Gorgan’s own photographs, Pernot’s work is both descriptive and emotional.
The exhibition continues in KW’s large exhibition hall. Of great impact is the work by Ariella Aisha Azoulay, The Natural History of Rape, 2017/22 which forensically documents the history of the many Berlin women raped by Soviet soldiers during the last days of WWII, when troops entered the city. This history has largely gone undocumented and Azoulay maps it with photographs, newspapers, and recollections. A map visualises the events across the city.
Upstairs a succession of installations are in dialogue with each other. I am particularly struck by Tejswimi Narayan Sonawane’s woodblock prints and textiles that merge human and animal. Across the city, in the Akademie der Künste in Bellevue the work of Tuan Andrew Nguyen merges similar topics. The two-channel video My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure You of Your Wretched Desire, 2017 offers a reflection upon war, colonialism, and ecology through a voiceover discussion between the spirits of a 15th-century sacred tortoise and the last Javanese rhinoceros (poached in 2010). Rhythmically constructed through a series of sounds and voices, images of animals in the wild – in Hanoi’s Zoo, in natural history museums, in slaughterhouses or forced to perform circus tricks – unfold quickly. This blurs a solely human perspective, forcing us to think about the reciprocity between culture and nature. “The Vietnamese are oppressing the animals just like the French oppressed them,” explains the turtle.
Both at the KW and at the Akademie der Künste in Pariser Platz there is section of shows called ‘documents’. This material is made of magazines, letters and posters from the collection of Egidio Marzona. They seem to fill the gaps between the contemporary works exhibited and the historical times they address. For example, Breakthrough was published in Chicago from 1975 to 1996 to address American White Suprematism and imperialism as a global thread; or La Femme du Vietman which was published in Hanoi from 1966-1975 exemplifies the working conditions of women with social realist style of propaganda. There are also several earlier modernist magazines such as Blast and Der Sturm that take the viewer to another context – with little help to understand it fully. In the city centre, in front of the Brandenburger Tor, the Akademie der Künste hosts has on loan paintings by the German expressionists Emil Nolde and Karl Schmitt Rotluff. They are displayed alongside a series of wooden crucifixes made by Indigenous people from Papua New Guinea, the first part of German’s former colonial empire. This room, considered along the many ‘documents’ is a brilliant solution to the representations of transmodernism and the inequities that ‘modernity’ created.
Across town in Pariser Platz, which used to be Berlin’s heart in the 1920s, stands the iconic Neue Nationalgalerie build by Mies van der Rohe in 1968. The museum is now led by former LACMA director, Klaus Biesenbach, who came back to Germany .
A site-specific installation by American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger occupies the main space. Large and bold black and white words are scattered across the floor. The exhibition “Bitte Lachen/Please Cry”, a shift from the literal translation of ‘Bitte Lachen’ which should be “Please Smile”. The viewer is overwhelmed by the impossibility of reading the floor text. Small video screens project on to bright pink sentences the artist has taken from social media news. Other quotes from notable figures are used, from George Orwell “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever” indicates oppressive structures and a pessimistic view. Other people include .
Entering further into the main exhibition spaces of the Neue Nationalgalerie a rehang reconsiders the traditional Western art historical canon and includes many works by modernist women artists such as Paula Mondersohn-Becker, Marianne Werekfin, Leonora Carrington, Irma Stern. Another room is dedicated to its expressionist painters such as Nolde and Rotluff who eloquently explain German’s colonial ties. Putting ‘modern’ and ‘modernism’ in quotation marks the hanging further makes me think about the contemporary works exhibited at the Biennale and how important it is to include, debate and discuss the so-called order we live in.
Ilaria Puri Purini
Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art runs 11 June until 18 September 2022 across various venues. For more information: www.berlinbiennale.de