PRINT January 2008

International News

Brian Sholis on the 5th Berlin Biennale

IF THERE IS ANY CONSENSUS regarding the contemporary megaexhibition, it’s that it is in need of reinvention. And, increasingly, a focus on performance and pedagogy seems to offer one way forward. The prime example here is Mai Abu ElDahab, Anton Vidokle, and Florian Waldvogel’s attempt, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, to reimagine Manifesta 6 as an experimental art academy, but one could also mention Documenta 12, with its emphasis on workshops and colloquy, or New York’s performance-only biennial, Performa, now heading toward its third edition. Displacing the emphasis from object to experience, performative and pedagogical tactics provide a way around what is now disparaged as the static nature of the Grand Show.

For the Fifth Berlin Biennial, opening on April 5, curators Adam Szymczyk, director of the Kunsthalle Basel, and Elena Filipovic, an independent art critic and curator, have extended this nascent tradition by dividing their exhibition into halves, which they call “Day” and “Night.” “Day” consists of artworks and commissioned projects on view at three main venues—the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, which oversees the biennial; the upper level of the Neue Nationalgalerie, Mies van der Rohe’s late-modernist glass box just southwest of Potsdamer Platz; and the artist-run Skulpturenpark Berlin Zentrum, a network of sixty-two centrally located vacant lots situated in the former no-man’s land between East and West Berlin. “Night” is a program of lectures, performances, workshops, field trips, and other presentations that will take place during each evening of the biennial’s run.

If biennials now have two publics—artworld jet-setters who fly in for a quick tour of the show and for the opening-weekend events, and locals who will hopefully be enticed to visit the ongoing exhibition—Szymczyk and Filipovic’s bifurcation makes explicit their own stance toward reconciling those audiences’ divergent needs. Citing frustration with biennials that offer “special events that happen once and then are unavailable to a public that comes at a later point,” Szymczyk posits the evening events as a way to contribute concretely to the exhibition’s local context and to enliven what he terms the “daily affairs” of the exhibition. “We see the night program as a possible subversion or inversion” of “Day”: “The show is stable, visible, and lasts over two months; the night events are fleeting moments in the dark.” The presentations will be arranged “without hierarchy . . . so that people interested in very different things—from the history of levitation to the functioning of robots to gesture in Soviet cinema—might take part.” It is increasingly rare to find exhibition programming that is neither rote illustration of artworks included in the show nor “artistic intervention” decoupled from the concerns of those artworks; the trick for Szymczyk and Filipovic is to find the middle ground.

Advance discussion of the Fifth Berlin Biennial, in any case, will unavoidably center on the meaning of the “Night” programming, since the curators, while anticipating that there will be about eighty artists in the show, have opted not to release a final list until the exhibition opens. Some projects, though, have been confirmed: The curators disclose that Warsaw-based artist Paulina Olowska will produce a series of paintings based on the work of Zofia Stryjenska, a Polish multidisciplinary artist of great renown between the two world wars, whose work was later discredited by the Communist regime because she refused to join a government-run artists’ union. Susan Hiller’s video The Last Silent Movie, 2007, which pairs a black screen with a sound track comprising archival recordings of people speaking various endangered or extinct languages, will also be on view, as will a new work by Turkish artist Ahmet Ög˘ üt that has been commissioned for the biennial. How well these artworks and others resonate with the three main venues and the historically charged cityscape—a strength of Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick’s Fourth Berlin Biennial, which engaged directly with the physical premises and history of the Mitte district’s Auguststrasse—will likely determine the esteem in which the biennial is held by the local population as much as the nightly programming. Szymczyk seems particularly interested in the relationship between the Skulpturenpark Berlin Zentrum and the Neue Nationalgalerie: “The sculpture park embodies the transparency and openness that the Neue Nationalgalerie can deliver only metaphorically.”

Having spent a few years researching and coediting The Manifesta Decade (MIT Press, 2006), a book that examines the rise in Europe of what art critic Peter Schjeldahl has termed “festivalism,” and having also studied Marcel Duchamp’s role as a designer of exhibition spaces, Filipovic came to the Berlin project convinced of “how vital the form of the exhibition is as a terrain for the reflection upon the work of art.” Szymczyk, for his part, drew lessons from the recent presentation at the Kunsthalle Basel of material from curator Harald Szeemann’s archives. That exhibition, organized by Roman Kurzmeyer, focused on the period when Szeemann, not long after organizing “When Attitudes Become Form” (1969), left the Kunsthalle Bern and was appointed curator of Documenta. Szymczyk sees this movement “from the institution toward an event” as precipitating “the proliferation of biennials and a certain demise of institutional exhibitions.” To that end, the Fifth Berlin Biennial’s structure—day and night, distinct venues, fewer artists than is typical—aims for “a lasting effect on viewers, beyond the logic of the event.” That Szymczyk and Filipovic seek to go beyond this logic in part by devising a program of more than sixty events may seem paradoxical. But such a contradiction speaks not only of the discord over what constitutes an “event” in an art world constantly performing its conflicted relationship to spectacle, but also of the particular dilemmas biennial curators now face.

Brian Sholis is editor of