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Berlin Biennale: Great expectations

Without time for much reflection after Gallery Weekend, the Berlin Biennale is already here. What do art aficionados expect to see? More importantly, what do they want to see? You can judge the citywide installations yourself starting Jun 4.

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Hito Steyerl: Tank Texture

In between Gallery Weekend and the Berlin Biennale, it’s time to take a breather and think about what it is we want out of art.

Now that the paint flecks have settled from Gallery Weekend, I regret to tell you that the best surprise I saw there is something you can’t see anymore: Tomas Saraceno at Esther Schipper, which closed May 28. Instead of the air-fuelled sculptures/flying machines of his Aerocene project, we got a show centred around a gigantic, live Senegalese golden orb weaver. Even the best documentation photos can’t compare to realising you’re face-to-face with a massive spider that you, just a moment earlier, thought was fake.

This is not to say my Gallery Weekend experience was full of good surprises. Take Hanne Darboven, still on at Galerie Crone. Though thickly padded with celebratory rhetoric, the “Evolution Leibniz” pieces were terribly boring. No sales pitch could have gotten me on board for the one-note work of Harland Miller – paintings of novel covers, adorned with quippy titles like “Hell It’s Only For Ever” – at Blain Southern. Rirkrit Tiravanija at Helga Maria Klosterfelde was too cluttered; Aleksandra Domanovic at Tanja Leighton, a bit inaccessible. I did find some shows that shined much brighter than expected. Michael Rakowitz brought great concept and technique to Barbara Wien, and Uwe Wittwer’s powerful photographic paintings at Galerie Judin are each like a time machine into the dark history of Nazi-looted art.

It all comes down to expectations, often raised by PR campaigns and social media hype. Galleries want sold-out shows and museums want ever-growing attendance numbers to appease board members and donors. But good publicity is a double-edged sword – raise expectations too high, and it’s a guaranteed set-up for disappointment.

What do we expect from exhibitions today, anyway? Have art aficionados become too demanding? This brings me to the much-anticipated 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, opening June 4. Its curators, the NYC-based collective DIS (see next page), have decided to challenge our expectations by calling them out. One of the many taglines on the “BB9” website reads, “The expectation to be relevant / The expectation to be critical / The expectation to communicate / The expectation to be representative / The expectation to be remarkable.”

With a slogan like “The present in drag”, BB9 intends to seriously critique, laugh at and co-opt art’s ability to straddle creative, intellectual and capitalist pursuits all at once. One of the main venues is a Blue Star sightseeing boat by Reederei Riedel – calling out the tourist attractions that major art events are. And did I mention that the Prancing Elites, Oxygen’s reality TV cheerleading/dance troupe, have been hired to run around the city and promote?

While the participant list is heavily weighted with Berlin artists, from Kathleen Daniel to Hito Steyerl, there are also lots of LA- and NYC-based Americans, like Ryan Trecartin, Wu Tsang and Camille Henrot. Not to mention internationals: Cao Fei, Korakrit Arunanondchai, and the collectives CUSS Group and GCC. There’s no distinction between “conventional” artists and creative entrepreneurs like Babak Radboy and Martine Syms, who keep the line between their personal and commercial gigs blurry. And the inclusion of fashion labels like Hood by Air and TELFAR, along with artist/DJs like Fatima al Qadiri and Juliana Huxtable, is a bold move considering how protective the art world is of its territory.

Most of the artists were born in the 1970s and 1980s, and few are based where they were born. Post-internet aesthetics run through a lot, and I mean a lot, of the work. But what looks at fi rst glance like a worrisome level of uniformity comes from the cultural exchange the internet has enabled. Not only has it propelled forward our ability to invent new visual languages, it’s killed the necessity for categories within the creative fields. If DIS’ selection represents any demographic, it’s a generation influenced by globalised, digital aesthetics.

To find out if BB9 will be the perfect meta reflection of cultural production in a screen-saturated world, which seems promising, or if it’ll be a cool kids’ club only, we’ll just have to see for ourselves – in person. Who knows, BB9 just might prove that art is as IRL as ever.

Michael Rakowitz, through Jul 30 | Barbara Wien, Tiergarten

Uwe Wittwer, through Jun 18, Galerie Judin, Tiergarten

Berlin Biennale, Jun 4-Sep 18 | Citywide, see website for details

Originally published in issue #150, June 2016.