Don’t Look Back

Daniel Boese at the 6th Berlin Biennial


Left: Curator Nicolaus Schafhausen. Right: Berlin Biennial curator Kathrin Rhomberg; art historian and critic Michael Fried; and Hortensia Völckers, artistic director of the German Federal Cultural Foundation. (Except where noted, all photos: Magnus Bjerk and Britney Anne Majure)

A STRANGE MIX of nostalgia and anticipation accompanied the opening of the Sixth Berlin Biennial. Last Tuesday night, artists Wolfgang Ganter and Kaj Aune raised a giant heap of trash on a small forklift in a parking lot in front of Vittorio Manalese, Bruno Brunnet’s new gallery. The performance brought to mind two “trashy” installations from the legendary First Berlin Biennial in 1998: the maniacal videos and sculptures of the (now forgotten) Honey-Suckle Company and those of Jonathan Meese.

Curator Kathrin Rhomberg dispersed all notions of nostalgia right away during the press conference on Wednesday morning, arguing that this year’s Biennial embraces the present moment. “No pleasure-ful gaze,” she said. This obviously meant forgoing the glamour of the Mitte district. The press conference was held in the Alevitic cultural center in Kreuzberg, close to the Biennial’s main location at Oranienplatz, in the most culturally diverse area of Berlin. Artist Katharina Sieverding sat in the front row, taking pictures, and MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach also attended, of course. The conference was cut short––only a handful of questions were asked––because the minister of state for cultural affairs, Bernd Neumann, wanted the first view and had a tight schedule. A strong political realist himself, he used his speech mainly to explain one thing: how he had heroically saved the federal cultural budget from cuts after the Greek/Euro crisis. As far as the speeches were concerned, Michael Fried’s elaboration on über-realist Adolph Menzel was the clear highlight of this event. Fried spoke very passionately on Menzel: “Clearly one of the best draftsmen of all times—completely ambidextrous.”

Left: Dealer Martin Klosterfelde with Peaches. Right: Dealer Christian Nagel with Fondation Beyeler director Samuel Keller.

While viewing the exhibition, I noticed that a sense of nostalgia also seemed to be at play in Phil Collins’s documentation of the memories of former Marxist-Leninist teachers from the GDR and Hans Schabus’s mutilated dinosaur and mammoth from a defunct amusement park in East Berlin (one of the few sculptural works on view). The installation was decidedly sparse, with plywood walls and secondhand carpets.

I quickly made my way over to Kunst-Werke, but found the doors blocked. Entering through the basement, I came across the most compelling artistic statement of the Biennial: Petrit Halilaj’s reconstruction of his parents’ new house in Kosovo. It not only fills KW’s ground floor but emerges through its roof. Next up, I stopped by the opening of “Edge of Saudi Arabia” at Soho House. The art? As one German critic remarked: “It’s not great, but it’s really not so bad.” Most surprising: no alcohol, only “Saudi Champagne”—whatever that is. Finally, I made it to the Temporäre Kunsthalle, where brothers Olaf and Carsten Nicolai were warming up their turntables. The bass lines were impressive, but I left before the battle was over: King Size was waiting. The bar/club on Friedrichstraße had emerged as a new art-world epicenter during Gallery Weekend in April (Samuel Keller dancing, Johann König headbanging). Tonight, tape artist Gregor Hildebrandt had switched to records and performed on the turntables: The floor was hot, crowded, and drunk.

Left: MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. Right: Artist Maurizio Cattelan (right)

The next morning, the first reviews in the daily papers arrived: No paintings! So much video! Tagesspiegel, Berlin’s local paper, called it “pale”; the FAZ: “sobering.” (Peter Richter in Sunday’s edition of the FAZ called it the “most disappointing” Biennial. That’s what happens when you deny the right to a pleasure-ful gaze and force critics to see more than a dozen videos in one day.) I rejoined the art world in the early evening with the private tour of the Menzel works arranged for the American ambassador, Philip D. Murphy. Fried was showing Menzel’s realist drawings and paintings, including works depicting the artist’s foot, his bed, and Frederick the Great addressing his generals.

Later that night was the Art Basel dinner for special guests, across the street from the Alte Nationalgalerie at Kronprinzenpalais. Pop as can be: Michael Stipe with boyfriend Thomas Dozol, Peaches (in the best dress of the week), Elmgreen & Dragset, Maurizio Cattelan, and Sturtevant. Even later was the official opening party on the banks of the River Spree, at the club Kiki Blofeld. The Biennial team had their private stack of beer bottles but shared freely with bystanders. This was clearly the place to be, as was proved by the presence of guests like Biesenbach; artists Tal R, Monica Bonvicini, and Martin Eder; and collectors like Angelika Taschen.

Left: Artist Ingar Dragset and Kunst-Werke curator Susanne Pfeffer. Right: Artist Olafur Eliasson with collector Maja Hoffmann.

Friday night brought many more openings: Sturtevant at Neu, Lara Favaretto at Klosterfelde, and John Smith at Tanya Leighton, to name a few. The Künstlerhaus Bethanien finally moved into its new space––after squatters had taken over parts of its old building. Meanwhile, the worst form of Kreuzberg nostalgia (combined with some “activism”) appeared: Someone posted pictures of Rhomberg, KW director Gabriele Horn, and KW press director Denhart von Harling with the slogan I AM A GENTRIFIER on walls in Kreuzberg, replete with the victims’ mobile numbers and e-mail addresses. Whether this was meant to be art or anticapitalist action remained unclear. The KW team took it as art: They left the posters up but blacked out the contact details.

I managed to squeeze in a performance by Nevin Aladag at Ballhaus Naunynstraße before heading over to Borchardt for dinner. No collectors or curators here; only artists and writers were invited to this event hosted by Birte Kleemann of Pace Gallery. The Nicolais were there, as was Hildebrandt (not to mention dealer Larry Gagosian). Afterward we slouched on to King Size once more, bumping into artists Martin Rosengaard of Wooloo.org and Tue Greenfort. While drinking red wine from whiskey glasses, Rosengaard summed up the Biennial: “It is a depressing show. I really like it.”

Left: Michael Stipe with photographer Thomas Dozol. Right: Artist Sturtevant.

Left: Artist John Smith. Right: Dealer Daniel Buchholz. (Photos: David Velasco)

Left: Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum (left). (Photo: Magnus Bjerk and Britney Anne Majure) Right: Bill Arning, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. (Photo: David Velasco)