Shadow Company


Left: A view of the performance for Koudlam and Cyprien Gaillard's Crazy Horse, 2008. (Photo: Lillian Davies) Right: Berlin Biennial curators Elena Filipovic and Adam Szymczyk. (Photo: Miguel Amado)

Is it just me, or are biennials getting bigger? While last Friday marked the official beginning of the fifth Berlin Biennial, titled “When Things Cast No Shadow,” the exhibition actually got under way last month, with an opening at the Schinkel Pavilion, where younger artists have been asked to invite older mentors to contribute works. The compact charm of that exhibition—Nairy Baghramian installed mirrors by Janette Laverrière with immaculately intimate precision—was but an appetizer to the smorgasbord of events that kicked off last week. Biennial curators Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic—not content to stick to traditional installations at the biennial's four venues, including the Schinkel Pavilion, Kunst-Werke, the Neue Nationalgalerie, and an outdoor sculpture park—added a whole slew of happenings every evening except Mondays under the axiom “Mes Nuits sont plus belles que vos jours” (My Nights Are More Beautiful than Your Days), also the title of a 1989 French film by Andrzej Zulawski. As an extra feature, if you got lonely, you could book a “blind date” through the biennial’s website and end up with a participating curator or artist. With a day shift, a night shift, and blind dates in between, this biennial isn’t simply bigger—it’s working overtime.

Beyond the official biennial offerings, there was the usual slew of satellite (parasite?) events, from openings to parties. Just how does one choose between an invitation to celebrate with Texte zur Kunst at Cookies and another from Ömer Koc and René Block to see Kutlug Ataman’s Küba at Tanas Berlin? What does one wear on a night when one attends both Johann König’s bash at Ballhaus Mitte and Autocenter’s eschatological soirée “The End Was Yesterday”? And didn’t all the Basel-based invitations (such as Art Basel at Rodeo and Kunsthalle Basel at Grill Royal) get confusing? Aside from too many events (and too many travelers stranded at Heathrow, thanks to all the debacles at Terminal 5), there were tons of secrets. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, in town for an exhibition at Esther Schipper, was mum about her forthcoming installation at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. (To my every question, she replied, “Oh no . . . that would be telling too much.”) Then, I narrowly missed a scoop in the bathroom at the restaurant Prater, where Frieze held its wingding. “So I heard the next Documenta curator is . . .” someone said. As I pricked up my ears to hear the blessed name, a hand dryer vroomed, obscuring the answer. And despite a carefully honed guest list at Sammlung Boros, I finally broke into the bunker—but only on the condition that I never report what I saw inside!

Left: Dealers Philomene Magers and Monika Sprüth. (Photo: Lillian Davies) Right: Biennial artist Tris Vonna-Michell. (Photo: Andrew Berardini)

The best secret was the biennial itself; there, revelations outnumbered frustrations—at least if you were sticking to the artworks. (Szymczyk’s response to most of my inquiries was simply a contemplative “Hmm . . .”) After the preview, many were heard to moan “too polite,” “nothing spectacular,” or “no big names.” But don’t listen to them. Listen to critic Raimar Stange, who gave an instant overview at neugerriemschneider’s dinner party: “It’s by far the best biennial to date—and I’ve seen them all.” BB5 is all about the hidden life of subjects and objects, veering between day and night, the visible and the invisible, presence and absence, articulated meanings and unconscious destinies, sanctioned practices and secret uses. At Kunst-Wurke, while ruminating on Pushwagner’s cartoonlike drawings of an imaginary metropolis dominated by hellish routines, I thought to myself, “It’s all about urban critique.” When I came across Kohei Yoshiyuki’s photographs of lovers fucking in Tokyo public parks at night, “the secret life of cities” seemed the theme. But another aspect presented itself while watching Tris Vonna-Michell’s slide-and-sound installation on the institution’s top floor, which features a voice narrating the history of a derelict Detroit building. Do buildings become more “historical” when they become ruins? If their meaning changes when they fall into disuse, what happens to them at night when everyone goes home?

Left: Biennial artist Pedro Barateiro. Right: MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach with collector Julia Stoschek. (Photos: Miguel Amado)

BB5 turns critiques of representation on their head by unsettling the processes by which we invest objects with meaning. Wandering through the Skulpturenpark—really a series of empty lots running along the former no-man’s-land of the city’s old East-West border, now littered with trash instead of land mines—I had to ask myself at one stop: “Is this an artwork or an abandoned bicycle?” (It turned out to be a bit of both—an abandoned artwork, Auflösung, 2007, by Sofia Hultén, left over from an earlier project at the site last year.) If parsing the artworks from the trash didn't clarify matters, perhaps one could find illumination in Lars Laumann’s film Berlinmuren (2008). The short documentary, screened in a wooden hut amid the debris, follows a Swedish woman with “object-sexuality,” who married the Berlin Wall in an official ceremony in 1979. (For emotional—not political—reasons, she was devastated by her husband’s destruction in November 1989.) At the Neue Nationalgalerie, I was mesmerized by Melvin Moti’s ESP, 2007, a super-slo-mo film of a bursting soap bubble narrated by a man whose dreams foretell the future. After Moti’s reveries, little surprised me—not even Susanne Winterling’s installation in which the museum’s twin coat checks were emptied and transformed into mini exhibition sites, while visitors’ belongings were slung over bright yellow metal sculptures by Gabriel Kuri. Why shouldn’t coats hang from sculptures and coat checks store pictures?

That evening, the first of sixty-three nightly events got under way at the Skulpturenpark, as the French composer and singer Koudlam provided a live sound track to a screening of Cyprien Gaillard’s Crazy Horse, which was projected onto the side of an apartment building. Gaillard’s film documents the ongoing transformation of a mountain near Rushmore into a massive sculpture of the Lakota leader, whose face gradually emerges from the mountain. (The project won’t be finished for another eighty years.) “Even the rain seems appropriate,” remarked curator Luca Cerizza, one of hundreds of viewers huddling under umbrellas in the park. Much later that evening, reading the BB5 guidebook, I caught my own name listed as one of three interns for the biennial. Was there something I'd missed over the last year? Had I been dreaming?

Jennifer Allen

Left: Biennial artists Ahmet Ögüt and Pilvi Takala. (Photo: Miguel Amado) Right: Tate Modern director Nicholas Serota. (Photo: Lillian Davies)

Left: Beyeler Foundation director Samuel Keller. (Photo: Andrew Berardini) Right: Roos Gortzak, Kunsthalle Basel exhibitions manager, and De Appel director Ann Demeester. (Photo: Miguel Amado)

Left: Artist Susan Philipsz. (Photo: Andrew Berardini) Right: Daniel Reich director Laura Higgins with dealer Daniel Reich. (Photo: Miguel Amado)

Left: Artist Julieta Aranda. (Photo: Miguel Amado) Right: Curator Gabi Scardi with critic Lorenzo Bruni. (Photo: Andrew Berardini)

Left: Cosmic Galerie's Claudia Cargnel and Frederic Bugada. (Photo: Lillian Davies) Right: Artist Filipa César with CAC Vilnius curator Catherine Hemelryk. (Photo: Miguel Amado)