The Berlin Biennale

Various Venues

The inaugural installment of the Berlin Biennale, which opened on September 28, took place under a lucky star: One day earlier, Helmut Kohl was voted out of office. Under the new governing coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens, many of Berlin’s cultural producers came together and, after sixteen years of Christian Democratic governments, transformed Germany’s lumbering vision of itself. There was much talk about a future “Republic of Berlin,” complete with a national minister of culture; the SPD candidate for the job, Michael Naumann (who has since been confirmed), could be seen at various openings around town. Add to this the parallel festivities held for the opening of the Daimler-Benz building at the “new” Potsdamer Platz, and it seems there has never been so much culture stirring in postwar Berlin.

Unfortunately, organizing an international art event of national significance brought with it inevitable problems. The Berlin Biennale was criticized in advance for its timing and for being a mere extension of the nation-state’s interests. Moreover, the exhibition was supposed to examine the open, changing cultural landscape at the end of the twentieth century. The biennial conceived of itself—according to its artistic director, Klaus Biesenbach (in the catalogue’s introduction)—as an interventionist project in a time of urban restructuring: “How much of the past needs to be erased, how many streets and places renamed, how many people need to be dislocated, to achieve the dreams of a powerful few?”

If one evaluates the seventy-odd artists and artist-groups who exhibited their work with these questions in mind, the result is enormously disappointing. Practically no engagement with the idea of gentrification, or with the disappearance of public spaces, was in evidence. Instead, all bets were placed on the work of young artists which, in its pursuit of international recognition, left behind few lasting impressions.

To be fair, diverse projects concerned with Berlin’s architecture were to be found in the exhibition—Sean Snyder sociologically documented recreational society with his television tower at Alexanderplatz, and Wolfgang Tillmans took an astonishing, billboard-sized photograph of Berlin by night in which police helicopters circle the city’s silhouette. But such imposing urban portraits were lost beside the fashion(able) exhibit of designer shoes by Markus Schinwald, for example, or the admittedly brilliant Tiergarten-Bilders (Tiergarten pictures), 1998, which photographer Rineke Dijkstra adapted from motifs in Edouard Manet’s Le déjeuner stir l’herbe.

Because video (Pipilotti Rist, Douglas Gordon) and photography (Vibeke Tandberg) were the fulcrum of the biennial, the treatment of urban space was confined to the repetition of prominent images: Again and again, Berlin architecture emerged as mere ornament. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s installation, Cinema de ville, I998, included a film projection (“Berlin-Bangkok”) that linked arbitrary impressions of the two cities; Philipp Oswalt provided wrapping paper decorated with Berlin building facades for the museum shop. Instead of site-specific, contextualized work, there was a proliferation of logos, labels, and overflowing archives. Berlin-based performance artist Jonathan Meese set up a labyrinth full of “Marquis de Sade” film posters; the Honey Suckle Company presented an installation of children’s bunkbeds that reduced pop discord to mere MTV noise. Carsten Höller connected two floors of Kunst-Werke, the Mitte venue that served as one of the three sites for the show, with an infantile slide. Fabrice Hybert produced a video work that he shot along the Venice canals last summer during his stay at that city’s biennial.

From this blur of everyday culture, art history, fashion, and club design, Berlin emerged as a kind of Metropolis Lite. Even more disappointing was the catalogue, which attempted to summarize city history according to a set of topics arranged alphabetically. There were no entries for Kristallnacht, Hitler’s bunker, or building speculation since the fall of the wall; instead, one discovered that the fashion entrepreneur Jil Sander has opened “a wonderful new store on the Kudamm,” Berlin’s main shopping street. For a project that cost roughly $1.5 million and was researched for two years, there was too little to be learned.

Harald Fricke

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.