Has the discourse of the 10th Berlin Biennale been invalidated?

By Xi Lei, translated by Long Xingru, Image Courtesy of The 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art

The 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art: We Don’t Need Another Hero Venues of the 

10th Berlin Biennale / Berlin

9 June - 9 Sep 2018

Nowadays, it's hard to deny that art biennales have become an extension of politics.

In the first instance, “biennales” have always been tinged with power and political undertones. It was in 1895 that Riccardo Selvatico, then Mayor of Venice, established the first Venice Biennale in celebration of the silver anniversary of the reigning King and Queen. But more than a royal celebration, the event had serious political ambitions: the Venetian City Council, by way of inviting modern artists from neighbouring European countries – particularly France – had hopes of re-energising its own artistry. It was to be a restoration of the city's Renaissance splendour.

Over the following century or so, the biennial/triennial model of cultural policy has been adopted globally. In particular, the 1990s saw an explosive boom of art festivals worldwide. Up until this point biennials had been rare, but in the wake of the 90s, the biennial as a kind of cultural industry has become as profligate as Apple Stores: there are currently over two hundred biennials/triennials registered at the Biennial Foundation.

In this day and age, “Biennials” are no longer a grand testament to civic prosperity: they symbolise a production model that can be reproduced at low cost. Dumped in every corner of the world, they are strangely reminiscent of bargain-bin merchandise as they claim to be “affordable for everyone”. On the other hand, since the Cold War biennials have ceased to exist as tools for cultural policy making or urban planning, or as catalysts for economic growth – they have become directly involved in a wider political discussion. In short, biennials today are the side- products of critical discourse, rather than manifestations of avant-garde art.


Mario Pfeifer, Again / Noch einmal, 4K video transferred to HD, 2-channel installation, 2018

The redistribution of the global landscape after the Cold War impacted culture worldwide with post-colonial type repercussions: the overall collapse of the Socialist alignment, the West's changing cultural policy, and the rise of developing nations are all intertwined – leaving cultural gaps and even vacuums that badly need to be filled. Against the backdrop of a reforming global order, biennials move swiftly between capital, the discourses of the art world and metropolitan cultural policy, and occupy these gaps physically, with support from multiple powers. Biennials are not merely a means of exhibition: they support intricate narratives.



The Curatorial team of the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art

The Berlin Biennale, for instance, is one of the most significant events of its kind. Throughout its history, political and critical narratives have observably been in control of the event overall – so much so that the 7th Berlin Biennale was entitled “Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Politics” by the chief curator Artur Zmijewski, who claimed that if art is considered a tool for political intervention, then the Biennale is where such tools are available to all.

Having historically placed such emphasis on classic narratives such as biopolitics, genealogy, and post-colonialism, the theme of the 9th Berlin Biennale – new issues arising from developments in technology – seems distinctly contrary to the event's nature. However, it's precisely this controversial theme which most corresponds to the Biennale's founding mission, that of “heightening the profile of contemporary art in Berlin”. Rather than adhering to its legacy of self-contradictory “revolutionary objectives”, it focusses instead on the emerging conflict between technology and society. While this theme has been widely criticised as too market-driven, and lacking critical discourse in terms of its curatorial approach, ironically this iteration was most faithful to the objectives of the Biennale: to present the most avant-garde art and envision its future.

Unfortunately but predictably, the 10th Biennale returned to the original trajectory: Chief curator Gabi Ngcobo stated that the “Rhodes Must Fall” protest movement a few years ago inspired its curatorial concept .

The curatorial team claimed to refrain from stereotypical critical discourses; to let the art itself reveal the issues under discussion. But is this a valid circumvention? Has the effort of introducing the new become a superficial practice? In an interview, Ngcobo refused to categorise her research as the study of post-colonialism, but in a further discussion of her curatorial objectives, she demonstrated a standing relevant to critiques of post- colonialism: to confront the chaotic situation of contemporary de-colonization with art. In the meantime, although the official texts of this Biennale avoid words such as “Africa”, “colonialism” and “post-colonialism”, the exhibition nevertheless showcases multiple artworks with themes and critiques of colonialism. Most of these works rely heavily on texts to offer context to audiences who are unfamiliar with the artist's background – texts which, inevitably, refer to critical theories about post-colonialism and cultural hegemony. The political dilemmas of post- colonialism are real, relevant and urgent, but has “art as the extension of critical.


discourse” become a cliché? Are biennials still valid political tools? Have we exhausted the vitality of art festivals with self-contradictory theories, controlled by past discourses?

While they seem irrelevant to the topic of biennials, we might find an alternative perspective in these examples: Three years ago, the young rising artist Nik Kosmas, decided to quit art. In an interview, he described his practice as “meaningless” as he could no longer find any value in art. Quite aside from the market or public barriers, the reason behind his decision is the divorce between theory and reality, and art's passive situation in all kinds of discourses. The major interpretations of art today – which can't avoid misinterpretation – have been unconsciously driving art towards political goals that are not even within their own reach. At the same time, criteria-missing art has become a conspirator in this game: the result is that art has become the weak spot in critical narratives.

Two artworks stand out in this year's Berlin Biennale, in that they still operate within the framework of curatorial discourse: they are less open to the possibility of being arbitrarily interpreted by old-fashioned theories.

The first of these is Mario Pfeifer's Again (2018), a piece based on a recent incident that seems highly racist. A moving image artist, Mario has produced a film reminiscent of Twelve Angry Men, but with a journalistic style. In Dresden, east Germany, a young Iraqi refugee was tied to a tree by four men with a cable binder, following a confrontation with a supermarket cashier. He was later absent from court, and his body was eventually found in the forest outside town. The four men who tied him to the tree were acquitted. Mario has cinematically re-enacted the case, and interviewed dozens of citizens from various ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds, documenting their reactions to the scene. The film goes beyond the boundaries of an ethnic discussion, and reveals a disconnected society. In addressing acute social issues, within an art space, the film instils a mixture between alienation and journalistic-type imagery, fostering its self-interpretative approach. Although abiding by the objective set by the curatorial discourse, the film manages to reclaim the power to interpret itself.

The second piece continues in the spirit of the previous Berlin Biennale. A video installation with a tongue-twisting title, IT'S IN THE GAME '17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection implies a theme related to technology. In the piece, African-American artist Sondra Perry sets forth a discussion on the concept of “body” and the interrelated subject of racism in the virtual world. The work is a result of Sondra's personal experience: the artist's twin brother Sandy Perry is a basketballer whose physical likeness and statistics were sold by his sport association to video game developer EA – without his knowledge or consent. However, “Sandy” in the game turned out to resemble the artist's twin brother very poorly, both physically and statistically. The virtual body, based on data, is a counterfeit.

In the film, the artist presents family photos with his twin brother (all images are out of focus), a remake 3D model of Sandy, some rotating 3D antiques, and video footage of them looking at the original antiques in a museum. The content, which reflects the relationship with the in-game “Sandy”, demonstrates a newly-formed relationship of power between art and discourses. In research on information technology and their relationship with physical bodies, images and sounds can be interpreted faster than text, implying the potential for art to break through the control of discourses.

Without doubt, discourses are a fine alternative to the criteria of art, as they offer a countering effect to art's discursiveness. However, in the ephemeral moment in which discourses are invalidated within these two pieces, a child-like sincerity makes itself felt, and we reconnect with the forgotten power of art.



Mario Pfeifer, Again / Noch einmal, 4K video transferred to HD, 2-channel installation, 2018


Mario Pfeifer, Again / Noch einmal, 4K video transferred to HD, 2-channel installation, 2018