Out of Site


Left: Artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. Right: Kunst-Werke director Gabriele Horn, 8th Berlin Biennale curator Juan A. Gaitán, MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, Federal Cultural Foundation Hortensia Völckers, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation president Hermann Parzinger. (All photos: Kito Nedo)

IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL Monday afternoon when the group exhibition “Everyday Life” opened at the Hamburger Bahnhof. In the courtyard, armed with beer and bratwurst, stood a few dozen art people, from Berlin Nationalgalerie director Udo Kittelmann to dealer Lars Friedrich, artist Mariana Castillo Deball to Paris Bar owner Michel Würthle. It was a low-profile opening, which matched the general “wait-and-see” attitude suffusing events around the launch of the Eighth Berlin Biennale, this year curated by Juan A. Gaitán. Since Artur Żmijewski’s poorly received “Occupy Biennale” two years ago, the thrill of anticipation was limited.

One of the grand traditions of the Berlin Biennale is the use of unexpected locations. Since its first iteration, organized in 1998 by Klaus Biesenbach with help from Nancy Spector and Hans Ulrich Obrist, art has been shown in defunct churches, old department stores, auto-repair workshops, and even a cemetery. An important part of the curator’s job, then, has been to explore the city in search of new venues. This year, in addition to the traditional institutional headquarters, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Gaitán looped in the Haus am Waldsee, a communal art center in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, and the Museen Dahlem. The last of these is perhaps the most significant, a group of anthropological museums, far from the center in west Berlin, which has in recent years been host to a separate program, called Humboldt Lab Dahlem, that stages interventions of contemporary art in the collection. Waldsee is so far from the center of Berlin that, when we reached Krumme Lanke, the final stop on the U3 line, on Wednesday, all that remained on the train were black-clothed art people and a sleeping man.

Left: Haus am Waldsee artistic director Katja Blomberg, Neue Nationalgalerie director Udo Kittelmann, and Johnen Galerie director Cornelia Tischmacher. Right: Artist Florian Slotawa.

The satellite-exhibition approach also inspires other, more conservative-minded institutions and artists, and occasionally leads to confusion: When we took a shortcut through the government district on our way back from Mitte to Kreuzberg, we came across a colorful pavilion. Inside the brightly lit box, right in front of the Bundestag, stood a lone security guard checking messages on his iPhone. What’s this? Another hidden Biennale location? Above the locked entrance, a large poster read MARKUS LÜPERTZ – DAS GRUNDGESETZ. Lüpertz? Das Grudgesetz (The Constitution)? How strange! How wrong! How beautiful! This is art as a big nail hammered into the dark and bleeding heart of German politics. But, apparently, not a Biennale project, and since the night was chilly we continued on our way to Kreuzberg.

The next evening I took the bus to the Circus Cabuwazi in Spreewaldplatz for a performance by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. It had rained all day, and outside, artists, curators, critics, and collectors jostled against one another in the cold and wet under the small canopy, awaiting admittance. Before Gonzalez-Foerster herself entered the circus, dressed as a Lola Montez revenant, a group of talented child acrobats performed on big red and blue medicine balls, fishing for applause.

Does the art world long for lost innocence? Children also played a principal role on Wednesday evening’s performance by Danh Vo and Xiu Xiu frontman Jamie Stewart for the biennial’s opening in the foyer of Dahlem’s Museum of European Cultures. For the work, titled New Collaboration, Vo and Stewart composed a sort of Gregorian chant for a boys’ choir, conducted by a very serious-looking choirmaster. In their school uniforms (rather unusual for German everyday life), the boys looked as though had just flown in from an English boarding school. To the right, one boy continuously pressed a single key on a synthesizer for twenty minutes, while on the left, a woman in a floralina-print tracksuit rang a Chinese gong, to which the boys sang the German national anthem. How strange! How wrong! How beautiful! Artist-musician Michaela Melián later explained to me that the boy with the synthesizer had produced a “burden tone,” a continuous drone used for structural purposes. But to the artist, a founding member of the German band F.S.K., it seemed overly laborious to manually hold a single key for so long: “John Cage simply might have put down a stone.”

Left: MIT List Visual Arts Center curator Henriette Huldisch and curator Ilke Penzlien. Right: Artists Adam Linder and Shahryar Nashat.

On Friday night, I was eager to see other things, so I followed artist Roman Schramm to an event as incongruous as the Lüpertz Pavillon: German painter Albert Oehlen had arrived from Switzerland to open a survey of all the album cover art he’s produced over the years, including a very rare 7-inch single by Felix Kubin titled “I hate art galleries.” The exhibition, which wasn’t advertised (except for e-mails to a chosen few), took place in a private Kreuzberg apartment near Südstern, and was mainly attended by members of the old Cologne establishment—Diedrich Diederichsen, musician Thomas Fehlmann of the Orb, dealer Max Hetzler, artist Marcel Odenbach, and techno producer Wolfgang Voigt. Everything was very odd: Was it possible that we were in Cologne and not in Berlin? But no, the afterparty was at the storied Panorama Bar at Berghain. OK. Before that, we followed the Oehlen crowd for dinner to nearby Infarm, a very hip new indoor-farming project run by three young Israelis that also serves delicious vegetarian food in the style of Yotam Ottolenghi.

Would Monika Grütters, the conservative German minister for cultural affairs who opened the biennial on Wednesday night, have approved of Danh Vo and Xiu Xiu’s rendition of the German anthem? During her short speech, Grütters seemed on the one hand quite pleased by the curatorial decision to bring the main part of the biennial to Dahlem and Haus am Waldsee, since both venues are located in the western part of the city, which is also her constituency. But she couldn’t resist the opportunity to lobby for the largely unpopular construction of a castle, the so-called Humboldt Forum, smack in the center of Berlin: “Which nation has the chance to redefine the central spot of the republic anew?” She directly addressed Gaitán, who had been critical of the project in several newspaper interviews, calling it a “very ideological” and “conservative” project, whose main raison d’ętre is defined by cultural industries and tourism.

Whereas the Humboldt Forum is still a much-debated issue, the eighth edition of the Berlin Biennale is perhaps too nuanced to arouse much popular response. There are highlights, like Wolfgang Tillmans’s interventions—including a single, oversize basketball sneaker and three pairs of ragged stonewashed jeans—amid the existing displays in Dahlem’s museum for non-European cultures, and Carsten Höller’s strobe installation down the way in a room filled with gold pre-Colombian antiquities. Another stunning work was Shahryar Nashat’s dance-performance-film Parade, a revelatory adaption of an earlier theater production by Adam Linder (which itself cited the seminal 1917 Ballets Russes ballet of the same name), which debuted at Delphi Filmpalast near Bahnhof Zoo. But in general, this edition too often leaves you disoriented, and there’s little in the way of wall texts or other signposts to guide you through the frequently complex material. And so that familiar drifting feeling comes. For some it only confirms the already known: “The most beautiful thing in the Biennale in Dahlem,” dealer André Schlechtriem told me after his visit, “is Dahlem itself.”

Kito Nedo

Left: Museum Ludwig Cologne director Yilmaz Dziewior and BMW Group’s head of cultural engagement Thomas Girst. Right: Humboldt Lab Dahlem managing director Agnes Wegner and Asian Art Museum Berlin director Klaas Ruitenbeek.

Left: Dealer Nadine Zeidler and artist Simon Denny. Right: Kunsthalle Basel director Elena Filipovic and artist Thea Djordjadze.

Left: Art collective Slavs and Tatars. Right: Berlin’s secretary of state for cultural affairs Tim Renner (center).

Left: Artist Roman Schramm with artist and curator Nina Pohl. Right: Kunsthalle Wien director Nicolaus Schafhausen.

Left: Artist Maurizio Cattelan. Right: Curator Kasper König, Kunst-Werke director Gabriele Horn, Federal Cultural Foundation’s Alexander Farenholtz.

Left: Curator Eva Wilson and critic Timo Feldhaus. Right: Musée National d’Art Moderne deputy director Catherine David.

Left: Artists Tarek Atoui and Olaf Nicolai. Right: Curators Milena Hoegsberg and Ute Meta Bauer.

Left: Dealer Max Mayer, artist Nadira Husain, and Künstlerhaus Bremen curator Fanny Gonella. Right: Visual Arts DAAD director Ariane Beyn and dealer Mehdi Chouakri.

Left: Architect Tobias Engelschall and artist Philip Wiegard. Right: Critic Jennifer Allen and artist Bojan Šarčević.

Left: Artist Dennis Loesch. Right: Artists Lothar Hempel and Marcel Odenbach.

Left: Diedrich Diederichsen and Texte zur Kunst editor Philipp Ekardt. Right: Artists Mariana Castillo Deball and Irene Kopelman.