Bleak Chic

Claire Bishop on the Berlin Biennale


Left: Biennale curator Massimiliano Gioni looks at a piece by Marcel van Eeden. Right: Anri Sala with Olaf Nicolai.

The idea of The Wrong Gallery curating a biennial inevitably conjures a myriad of preconceptions—daft japes, irreverent pranks, slapstick-a-go-go. Six months ago, Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick set up a renegade franchise of Gagosian Gallery. It was also rumored that whenever they were asked a question about the Biennale, they replied with an answer/work by Tino Sehgal. Their chosen title, “Of Mice and Men,” thus seemed to auger a panoply of stuffed animals (as befits Cattelan’s oeuvre) and trickster hoaxes, rather than an engagement with John Steinbeck’s melancholic novel. Last Thursday morning, as I wandered down Augustrasse looking for the press office, I encountered three people in medieval garb advertising pizza outside a ballroom (a satirical jab at the two-thirds-Italian curatorial team?); next to them were five dwarfs in Bavarian shorts and capes bearing placards announcing The Midget Gallery. I’d surely arrived at the right place.

But it turned out I was wrong. Sure, the press office was inside this ballroom-cum–pizza restaurant (glitter curtains, mirror balls, bier vom fass) but the midgets were an unofficial intervention by Polish artist Katarzyna Kozyra. The show itself turned out to be sombre, poetic, and bleak. “Of Mice and Men” was just a (non-)thematic umbrella for assembling work imbued with anxiety and unease, as Gioni explained at the press conference. He gently ribbed the heaving crowd who—having endured thirty minutes of mind-numbing pleasantries by no less than six Kulturstiftung des Bundes-type bureaucrats—were now hanging onto his every word: “Erwin Panofsky used to say that, given the choice between going to paradise or hearing a lecture about paradise, people from Hamburg would choose the latter. I guess a lot of you here are from Hamburg.” The rest of his talk went down better: The show was about interiority, possible worlds, nostalgia . . . it was antitheoretical . . . in short, it was the opposite of the previous Berlin Biennale (Ute Meta Bauer’s controversial excursus into sociopolitical issues via research-based art).

To these curatorial ends, the exhibition relied heavily on atmospheric environments, from a church to a forlorn cemetery (featuring a poignant sound piece by Susan Philipsz, whose work in the Turin Triennale allegedly turned Cattelan to prayer) to a number of private apartments. Sometimes this intimate mode of viewing worked, sometimes it didn’t. When the art was meagre you found yourself defaulting to apartment-hunt mode (nice light, good-size bedroom . . . how much is the rent?). The heavy redolence reached its peak in the main venue, a former Jewish girls’ school, opened for the first time since 1996. Peeling ceilings, faded colors, and kids’ pictures provided a melancholic backdrop for five floors of beautifully installed work by over thirty artists—a mise-en-scène that made even unconvincing art look passably appealing (in the dock: Paloma Varga Weisz, Marcel van Eeden). It also added an elegiac boost to already elegiac work, such as Mark Manders’s exquisite installation -/-/-/-/-/-/-/-, 1992–2006, and a Francesca Woodman mini-survey. Her photographs, along with Paul McCarthy’s psychotic Bang-Bang Room, 1992, a room with doors in each wall banging diabolically, were clearly a linchpin for this section of the show.

The evening brought only a handful of private views, as most were held on Saturday night. Olafur Eliasson was on a Smithsonlike nonsite vibe at neugerriemschneider, having relocated several large hunks of twenty-eight-thousand-year-old Icelandic ice to the freshly refrigerated gallery (a perfect work for the next Sharjah Biennale, apparently themed around art and ecology, quipped one curator). An Icelandic DJ supposedly accompanied the opening, but he was inaudible in the mobbed courtyard. The Gagosian opening was equally inundated, although this time the show (curated by Martin Germann) was inexcusably dreadful. After the artists had been fed (and the rest of us just drank), it was time to head to the Frieze party. Located in a vast former East German swimming pool, it was hell to get into and occasionally hell to be at. Even Cattelan had difficulty making it through the mob, and bailed out—presumably to link up with his fiancée, the Italian MTV presenter Victoria Cabello. Once inside, the joy of a free bar was countered by a total lack of ventilation that, combined with Germany’s liberal smoking policies and an overactive smoke machine on the dance floor, meant that by 3:00 AM the place looked like an Ann Veronica Janssens installation. Where’s the exit? Have I met you before? And whose idea was it to put the lounge (six empty chairs) in the pool’s deep end and make us dance in the tiny cramped showers? While I tried to remain vertical on a dance floor lethally strewn with spilled beer and broken glass, the rest of the Euro-jugend frenetically pogoed to the tunes of DJ Jeremy Deller. The sharpest moves came from lithe-limbed, slim-suited gallerist Jan Mot.

Left: Deborah Berger and collector Julia Stoschek. Right: Jeremy Deller and Rory Crichton DJing at the Frieze party. (Photo: Dafydd Jones)

The next day’s recovery demanded a big breakfast, but every café on Auguststrasse was brimming with Biennale guests. The first person I bumped into was Sehgal, who entered the bar with a perky wave and compared the bleary-eyed assembly before him to one big family. Across the road, his Kiss, 2002, turned out to be one of the exhibition’s highlights: a “sculpture” in the penumbral and crumbling ballroom above the press office that involved a man and woman making out on the floor, choreographically snogging in poses drawn from an art-historical repertoire of embraces (Rodin, Brancusi, Klimt). Moving to other venues required high-level social slaloming among an onslaught of artists and curators (Roman Ondak, Pawel Althamer, Anri Sala, Tirdad Zolghadr, Ann Demeester, Marta Kuzma . . .) who were also pounding the 920-metre Auguststrasse strip.

I headed to Kunst-Werke, where I was greeted by the fantastic Bruce Nauman installation Rats and Bats (Learned Helplessness in Rats II), 1988, in which the artist is shown noisily beating the crap out of a black bag in front of a yellow Plexiglas maze with video monitors showing a rat scurrying around. The Beckettian repetition/oppression, together with the vermin/human theme, clearly made this the exhibition’s signature work. If only the curators had shown it alone, without putting it alongside a vacuous installation of Roberto Cuoghi paintings. Kunst-Werke, like the Biennale as a whole, often suffered this uneasy whiplash between gravitas and the merely fashionable. Gioni knows how to install a show—Kunst-Werke has rarely looked better—but the overall effect was of flipping the pages of a magazine: visual pleasure in spades, and some truly wonderful works, but a total absence of meaningful connections between them. As a result, “Of Mice and Men” never managed to add up to more than the sum of its parts—even if most of those parts were admittedly rather good.

Taking a beer break with the exuberant Mai Abu ElDahab for a quick lowdown on the manifold trials of curating Manifesta 6, I then joined the mob queuing for Jens Hoffmann’s “Wrong,” a bijou group show at Klosterfelde. Hoffmann was overheard referring to the show as his “little homage” to the curatorial team, but the main shock was finding that he had selected his own work for the show, and spurning his preferred strategy of curatorial delegation. It was uncannily cosy, but one final queue beckoned—the VIP entrance to the Biennale opening party at the Postfuhramt, the enormous and sprawling former post-office. The phrase VIP had very little meaning in this context, since there were leagues of unknown Italians bearing down on all sides and asserting their privileges. The only civilized option was to join the queue to climb onto the roof and then jump through the first-floor window. Once inside, it really wasn’t worth the effort. Berlin’s deliberate refusal of Venice-style glamour and exclusivity made the Biennale a liberatingly downbeat treat during the day, but generally missable at night.