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Agitprop on Linienstraße: The 7th Berlin Biennale

INTERVIEW. Polish artist Artur Żmijewski on curating Berlin’s seventh Biennale: a regular at major exhibitions and biennials the world over, Żmijewski is known for ruffling feathers.

Image for Agitprop on Linienstraße: The 7th Berlin Biennale
Photo by Riku Vejander

A regular at major exhibitions and biennials the world over, Polish artist Artur Żmijewski is known for ruffling feathers. Last September, his video work Berek – showing naked Poles playing catch in a gas chamber – was installed at a Martin-Gropius-Bau group show, only to be removed from the exhibition a couple of weeks later after Jewish leaders complained.

This time Żmijewski is here to curate other artists’ works, and already the KW website has been flooded with political projects, campaign calls and various artistic translations of protest from around the world. This year’s Biennale is sure to be Aktion-packed.

The Biennale will resolutely be ‘engaged’ this year. How did you go about selecting artworks?

When there is an answer to the questions that we try to formulate, then I am satisfied.

What kind of questions?

There are questions about culture, about art, how art is located in society. What artists can do and what is the role of the artist as a social actor and a political actor. And what can we really propose instead of this aesthetic fun?

By “aesthetic fun” are you referring to contemporary art in other places? The Biennale two years ago?

No, at the Biennale last year there were some aesthetic objects of course, but I am thinking rather of this aesthetic art ‘adventure’ that people usually expect from exhibitions. I don’t want to discredit it – it’s fantastic, we should keep it – but you know even if there are political ambitions, these gestures are rather empty. The artists are busy asking questions. I don’t think we need more questions in this world.

That’s an interesting position, because there is a tendency to value questions, to cherish them as a process, rather than answers!

I can ask you some questions, but what will be the result of that? For example, this conversation: are you interested in exchanging questions? I can also answer you with questions. Would you be happy with that?

There are good questions and bad questions…

I don’t think it’s productive. You come and don’t expect questions – you expect answers. And I expect the same. I don’t expect good questions from the artists. I expect good answers. It’s more interesting and more challenging.

So, when you do an artwork – let’s take Berek – were you giving answers there?

It was not my exhibition. It was an exhibition by Anda Rottenberg, and it was her curatorial concept to create a narration, and through the narration, the story of the two neighbouring countries.

But when you decide to show naked people playing catch in a gas chamber, do you see it as an answer to something?

I didn’t declare it was a work which gives answers. The aim now is to look for answers.

Can you give me some examples of works that provide answers?

Marina Naprushkina’s, an artist from Belarus. She does comics in a really obvious political way… against Lukashenko and against the whole political situation in her country. Change is not an easy thing, and she’s trying to help the process, to make a difference. This is an answer. She’s doing it in a very pop way. This is a pop style. She doesn’t want to approach intellectuals, but just ordinary people who are very smart sometimes, smarter than intellectuals.

The example you’re referring to is a comic newspaper that reads like a political tract rather than an art project. Part of her project is a small Amnesty International video made on Pariser Platz re-enacting the way political prisoners are shot to death (point blank in the back of the neck) in Lukatshenko’s Belarus… (My friend who’s in it never thought she might one day be part of an ‘art’ exhibition like the Biennale)… In other words, it’s great, ingeniously done, laudable, etc. But is it art?

I think you expect too much. I will not tell you what is artwork and what is not. Let’s drop the paranoia that everything should be an artwork. Art has crossed all borders. How can I try to define what art is? Impossible. I’m not interested in looking for borders. My aim is to mix: art-non-art, politics with art. I am a kind of DJ. I try to make something effective, sexy, interesting. Everything can be a piece of art because you declare it is a piece of art.

So you, as Biennale curator can decide what art is…

That’s another social structure: an institution can define what is an artwork. It’s not really a democratic situation. I can say “this is an artwork.” [grabs author’s notepad and writes his name] I’ve signed it: that’s an artwork now.

But that’s a shameless act of neoliberal speculative economy, which you’ve been criticising so much! You’re arbitrarily adding value to a worthless piece of scribbled paper by putting your ‘famous’ name on it. Now I can probably sell it for, say, €5.

Sure… that’s lunch in Café Bravo.

A project which has already been attracting a lot of attention – and a small scandal – is Deutschland schafft es ab (Germany gets rid of it), an installation by Czech artist Martin Zet based on and named after SPD politician Thilo Sarrazin’s infamous anti-immigrant bestseller. What interested you about it?

Different issues. For example, he uses forbidden language, ambiguous language. He creates this situation in which people don’t really know what will happen with the books and have these strange associations: maybe they are Nazis and want to destroy books. I think ambiguity is a very important part of artistic activity.

Did you expect people to have such an outraged reaction to the possibility that he would destroy, and maybe even burn, books, a no-no in Germany?

For me, the whole process was interesting.

Part of the concept was for people to ‘donate’ their copies – he placed the bar high: 5 percent of the 1.3 million copies sold. People who bought the book in the first place are obviously not the progressive, KW, Biennale fan types. How many books has he collected so far?

I don’t know exactly. Less than 10. But it doesn’t matter. It’s a quite immaterial artwork. It’s more a political campaign. We don’t really need an object. The project is already done.

In the case of Ukrainian Body: Exhibition Forbidden, you are curating the act of censorship and not the actual artwork? There was that exhibition in Kiev called Ukrainian Body and the rector decided it was pornographic and locked the room and decided it shouldn’t be shown.

It’s an act of solidarity. They are our comrades because they are involved in art, and they were exposed to this political brutality. It’s not really an artwork in itself. They asked us to help them. It’s the duty of the Biennale to do this.

Is solidarity also the reason you chose the Russian art activists Voina as co-curators? Because concretely, they won’t produce or curate anything, right?

Yes, of course. They don’t accept assignments anyway. So it was more helpful to invite them as curators. It’s in fact symbolic, nothing material.

Why do you like them?

First, because they call themselves ‘Voina’, which means ‘war’. In the name you have a declaration, a statement: “This is the war.” And they behave like that. I think they represent a kind of lost ethos of art, ethos of culture. I like Voina, because they use art to make politics. Their position is very strong. Their symbolic position.

Isn’t it maybe easier to have these ethics when you are in a country like Belarus or Russia – because what you can do is obvious? Maybe in a softer situation like Germany, you tend to be more passive?

Yes, in Belarus it’s obviously more dangerous. But it’s also more interesting to be a political artist in Belarus than in Berlin, because there, maybe the whole system will react, maybe even Mr. Lukashenko will have a statement. But if you do political art here, who cares? Who will react?

So isn’t it more difficult to be an artist in Berlin?

Somehow, yes. The system doesn’t really react.

Let’s talk about the projects you have so far: they deal with anti-immigrant racism, the Holocaust, Jews and Poles, Palestine, political oppression in Belarus, censorship in Ukraine… These are all important issues, but ones that are quite consensual among the mostly left-wing audience of events like the Biennale. I was surprised you didn’t present us with more divisive issues, ones that really strike a nerve among progressive intellectuals. What about issues surrounding the place of Islam in our societies for example? Remember Theo van Gogh’s assassination and the Prophet cartoon. There seems to be a real malaise there…

It’s not the aim of this exhibition to support controversial artworks by definition. I know you think maybe we want to be glamourous and support ourselves with some sexy topics. For me this is not an honest question. You already started by discrediting the topics. Don’t you think the politics of history is a question in our society?

Yes, I do. So do most people. Planting trees is a good, interesting way to deal with memory. But from a curator who likes ‘therapeutic’ art, I was expecting work diagnosing more acute symptoms. Everyone agrees we should commemorate the Shoah. Few agree on how to address Islam, for example.

We cannot really talk about everything. This is only one exhibition. There are many problems in the world, and the western societies are busy with these problems. And should I care about the problems of western societies? Do you think it’s good to be so self-focused? To support this Islamophobic hysteria?

What about the fact that out of the five books Martin Zed got for the Sarrazin project, one was a Koran. That’s a symptom of something, isn’t it?

It’s more of a comment than a symptom, a comment by someone infected with this exact Islamophobia. I don’t really think that the Muslim religion is dangerous. Maybe the ideological use of it is dangerous. I don’t understand your question.

Alright, back to the Biennale. In your call for artists you asked applicants to mention their political leanings. I saw somewhere you defined yourself as a “leftist masculinist”. What is a ‘masculinist’?

Among men there should be the same kind of unity as among feminists. We live shorter lives than women. Homeless people are mostly men. Why? At the moment we are blamed for hegemony and for victimising women, so this is another reason to be stressed: I am a man, so I make you a victim… so what can I do? The female population made this effort and developed this critique of society called feminisim. We should also develop a critique of society, from a male point of view.

7TH BERLIN BIENNALE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART Apr 27 – Jul 1| Full programme and other details at www. berlinbiennale.de