Berlin Biennale

Various Venues

WITH EACH NEW VERSION OF A BIENNIAL, be it an established institution or an upstart like Berlin's, a simultaneous weaving and unraveling often takes place. As on Penelope's loom, a new texture arises. Various mechanisms may seem inescapably embedded in the process—the close adherence to a municipality (rather than its lived local context); a certain number of artists (thirty being the apparent minimum; maximum as yet unknown); and invariably, too few new commissions—but that's not necessarily to suggest that what's known as a biennial is a preordained operation. The success of a biennial depends on its being more than just another instance of the same. Maybe the second version of the Berlin Biennale, curated by Saskia Bos with Waling Boers as deputy curator, came a step closer than most to a critical involvement with the Penelope-like nature of recurrent large-scale exhibitions.

The biennial took place in four venues, but the sections at Kunst-Werke Berlin and Postfuhramt stood out. The spotless but almost too masterful hanging at Kunst-Werke hinged mainly on a broad-ranging presentation of installations, while critically contemplative video works dominated Postfuhramt. A common focal point in both venues was interactivity, which Bos summed up with the “three c's” of her exhibition: “connectedness,” “commitment,” and “contribution.” However, the “I'm OK, you're OK” atmosphere of the exhibition's bars, kitchens, hangouts, massage parlors, and interactive platforms at times came close to tainting the biennial as a Wohlfühltheater without inherent resistance or unexpected conflicts.

Not that the curators were afraid to look aesthetic conflict in the eye at crucial moments in the exhibition. At Kunst-Werke, Surasi Kusolwong's massage parlor Happy Berlin, 2001, where weary biennial wanderers could receive physiotherapeutic first aid, shared an uneasy neighborhood with Tatham/O'Sullivan's unflinching execution of taste, Glamour, 2000. The latter deliberately struck an impressive array of the false notes in contemporary artmaking. By over-associating with certain idioms (which incidentally included pink strip lights, mirrors, and barbed wire), Glamour looked like the day everything went irrevocably wrong for Mario Merz. Where Kusolwong staged everyday experience with alluring transparency, Tatham/O'Sullivan allowed themselves the pleasure of complicating artistic codes of presence and absence.

If anything, the second Berlin Biennale also showed that Nicolas Bourriaud's “relational aesthetics” is no longer an avant-garde paradigm, if it ever was one, but is now part of the discourse of mainstream exhibition making. Still, issues such as identity politics and class remain discursive sidecars to the formal insights of Bourriaud's cartography of contemporary art. Transgender politics (multicultural at that) were extensively covered by Never My Soul, 2001, Kutlug Ataman's multiscreen video portrait of a Turkish transvestite which, were it not for its medium, could very well have been an epic mural or a series of elaborately knotted tapestries, laden with fateful sexual watersheds and garishly colored challenges to the beholder's normality. In the context of the documentary genre, what remains open to interpretation in this work is the question of subject/object relations. The dangers and traumas of borderline sexual identities are painfully exposed, but it isn't clear how aware the protagonist is of the visual economies that will be engaged in the context of an art exhibition.

A biennial, like any art exhibition, will never become architecture in the sense of a building that has permanence. It can't make spatial utopias, but it can engage various kinds of social ones. In this way, the second Berlin Biennale encouraged the proliferation of relationships in terms of cultural participation. It was a diverse reflection of today's artistic concerns, and its success consisted in making space for the particular themes raised by individual works without neglecting broader political discussions.

Lars Bang Larsen