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Berlin Biennale: “The neighbours asked if it was even art.”

The 11th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art launches has launched and will be one of the year’s most exciting events. We caught up with co-curator Lisette Lagnado about her journey from South America to Wedding.

Image for Berlin Biennale: “The neighbours asked if it was even art.”

The 11th Berline Biennale launches across four venues this weekend. [Pictured: Osías Yanov, “Soplo de humo”, 2019, courtesy of Osías Yanov]

The 11th Berlin Biennale, one of the most exiting art events in Europe, opens this Saturday, September 5th across four venues. Its team of South American curators, María Berríos, Renata Cervetto, Agustín Pérez Rubio and Lisette Lagnado, arrived in Berlin to work on the Biennale last year and went on to develop a programme split into three “Experiences” with the 11th Berlin Biennale being “Epilogue” of it.

Julia Belyaeva met with Lisette Lagnado to hear about the curators’ Berlin experience, and the impact they might have left on the Wedding neighbourhood they called home.

Where did the inspiration for this Biennale come from? 

When we arrived in Berlin to start work in March 2019, there was an acute sense of brokenness in the world. Australia was on fire, there was deforestation, struggles for land and vast ecosystems collapsing under extreme capitalist exploitation. The Corona pandemic was arguably a consequence of humans pushing nature to its limits.

This exacerbating awareness of brokenness has been guiding us all along. But, back in 2019, Berlin welcomed us. It was amazing when I arrived. From our very first events we immediately met a large community of non-Berliner artists, including cutting-edge names. Of course, we got to know a big scene of Latin American artists, but also many other artistic communities, like the artists of African descent from the SAVVY initiative active in Berlin. Tanz im August, Haus der Kulturen der Welt – the art scene here was so abundant, so globally interconnected and so rich that, at the beginning I even thought that a Biennale here would actually be superfluous. I had those moments doubting if this city even needed its own Biennale.

The 11th Berlin Biennale launched a year ago with three exhibition projects: Experience 1, Experience 2, Experience 3. The 11th Berlin Biennale is the Epilogue. Where does that format come from?

In our very first meeting in January 2019, we visited ExRotaprint in Wedding, an artist-run project space. We knew straight away, it was the perfect venue to start the 11th Berlin Biennale. We started in the most human-scale way, and our very first public gesture in Berlin acknowledged that sense of brokenness and the luggage that we brought from the South with us when we came to Berlin. My personal trauma was the fire in the National Museum of Brazil in 2018 that destroyed 20 million objects.

Back in September 2019, we launched three human-scale exhibitions and archival projects on the ExRotaprint complex. The notion of “experience” comes from the Brazilian architect and modernist artist Flávio de Carvalho (1899–1973), who initiated three experiences where he explored the psychology of masses in different ways.

Throughout the year, we worked with several projects. There was Die Remise, a collaboration between an elementary school in Kreuzberg and an artist documenting instances of institutional racism. Experience 2 included the Feminist Health Care Research Group, who collect history on the second wave feminist movement and aim to develop the feminist perspective on health care. And Experience 3 was a glimpse into the Tamil diaspora, presented by a political geographer and activist, Sinthujan Varatharajah and a beautiful immersive show by artist Osías Yanov using the object of the spoon as a tool of “re-sensitization“.

How were the initial reactions from the public?

I was pleased with the reactions. Some of the neighbours asked if it was even art. It was the idea of experimentation that we consciously brought into the space. We tried to open ourselves up, to learn as much as possible from the city and its inhabitants. It was part of our listening-to-the-city process. Our lived experience.

How has the pandemic impacted on what will be shown at the Berlin Biennale?

The Corona situation impacted the Berlin Biennale in so many ways. From artists not being able to come for installation, to projects that had to be completely changed, to dealing with the psychological states of artists who are still in lockdown. Some of them have been in this situation since March. It’s become so obvious that we are in a privileged situation in Berlin. Yes, we did some home office for a while, but it was fine compared to being under strict confinement.

Unfortunately, we’ll be missing works from the Pinacoteca museum in São Paulo and from the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro. Museums are very insecure and reluctant to lend their art and potentially put it at risk. What if there is another wave of Corona? How long are these pieces are going to stay here? In what conditions? It is not only a technical discussion. Some of these pieces have never been shown outside their home countries.

Image for Berlin Biennale: “The neighbours asked if it was even art.”

María Berríos, Renata Cervetto, Agustín Pérez Rubio and Lisette Lagnado arrived in Berlin to curate the 11th Berlin Bienalle last year. Photo: F. Anthea Schaap

Does your theme “The crack begins within” indicate an attempt to crack the Berlin Biennale from within?

Not at all, we’re not arrogant. It’s more complex. Indeed, the idea from the very beginning was to challenge the practices of a global Biennale as an institution. For instance, an international exhibition of this level has to attract more than 50,000 guests. A lot of art couriers and technicians have to travel to accompany art works. It leaves an enormous impact on the environment, a massive carbon-dioxide footprint.

At the same time, a global Biennale is supposed to have an obligatory list of prominent names. With our list of artists, most critics were perplexed. They said they didn’t know any of them. When we say, “The crack begins within”, we hail each and every individual. I personally had many plans after the Berlin Biennale to visit European museums and see art. The Hermitage Collection in Russia was top up of my list. But I have changed my mind. I don’t have the same excitement to take a flight, see something and fly back. And now I might die without the Hermitage. So what? The same goes for chasing big art names.

Is there a contribution to the Berlin Biennale you’re particularly proud of?

I’m glad to be introducing Flávio de Carvalho, a Brazilian artist, theoretician, essayist and proto-performer who was active from the beginning of the 1920s. He belongs to the modernist avant-garde tradition, but stands out on its fringes. I feel his name has been forgotten, even in Brazil. And I feel especially proud – not only because of Carvalho’s artistic value – but also because of the way we decided to go about presenting him. It’s not only about rediscovering his legacy, but also exposing his failures and deconstructing a wave of modernity.

How has it been to work in Wedding for a year?

During the last week, I was crossing the road next to ExRotaprint when an unknown man greeted me in the street. I realised that, after a year, this person knew me – I was part of this community, or at least the landscape! It took one year. We also started working with Duygu Örs, who was actually born here in Wedding and later introduced us to Sinthujan Varatharajah. We then invited him to participate in Experience 3, with his research into the history of Tamil diaspora.

It would be too presumptuous to believe that we will be able to establish a long-term relationship in the city. We realise the sensitivities around this, too. Biennales like ours can gentrify, which would be the complete opposite of what we want. I have a dream that the ExRotaprint space will somehow continue for the children who visited, listened, made films and chilled here.