the 3rd Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art

Various Venues

There’s an anecdote that sums up the reaction to the third Berlin Biennial: Philip Guston recalls meeting Willem de Kooning at Barnett Newman’s first show in New York in 1950. After a long silence, de Kooning finally declared: “Well, now we don’t have to think about that anymore.”

As the artistic director of “BB3,” Ute Meta Bauer has single-handedly managed to epitomize—and to extinguish—the curatorial style that blossomed at Documenta 11, for which Bauer served as cocurator. Any lingering doubts about the documenta(ry) approach—too historical? too museal? too politically correct? too theoretical?—were not only confirmed in Berlin but also writ so large that the artworks in the show ended up creating a monument to this curatorial model while simultaneously announcing its obsolescence.

Hosted by KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Martin-Gropius-Bau, and Kino Arsenal, the biennial was structured around five “hubs” (Migration, Urban Conditions, Sonic Scapes, Fashion and Scenes, Other Cinemas), which were organized by “cultural producers,” from filmmaker Hito Steyerl (Migration) to film theorist Mark Nash (Cinemas). Despite the nod to airport and computer hubs, the real hub was Berlin, whose history was connected in an often unconvincing way with the histories of other points on the globe. Thus, Ingrid Book and Carina Hedén’s documentary video Going for a Trip with the Norwegian Mushroom Society, 2002, was shown in a room installed with the pair’s homage to the German garden architect Leberecht Migge. Other strained aesthetic ententes included Mika Taanila’s documentary on the Finnish electronic-music pioneer Erkki Kurenniemi, which was presented near replays of Rolf Wolkenstein and Christoph Dreher’s German techno TV show Lost in Music from the ’90s. Whatever the artworks’ country of origin, the lack of new ones produced for this biennial and the familiarity of the ones shown—even Ulrike Ottinger’s 1989 series of black-and-white photographs of the crumbling Berlin wall and Thomas Struth’s 1992 shots of former East Germany were dusted off for the event—showed that Germany must get serious about financing its only biennial, which delays have turned into a triennial.

Bauer’s didactic approach left one wishing for more than just a bigger budget. A twofold selection criterion seemed to hang over every work like a death sentence: Art must teach something, ideally about Berlin, or art must deal with the “other,” whether workers, women, or the homeless. The first criterion reduces art to information, while the latter risks reducing politics to cliché. Under the information aesthetic, artworks served primarily to facilitate reading materials and became mere illustrations. Liisa Roberts’s collective project What’s the Time in Vyborg?, 2000–, documents the fate of a public library in Vyborg, but, judged on its appearance here, as a walk-in panel installation, the piece could have been a presentation on solar systems or retirement plans. Monica Bonvicini’s and Peter Friedl’s proposals for the Sky Lobby of Berlin’s Federal Chancellery were documented together on a single wall panel; the artists looked like collaborators whose only artistic medium is writing letters to the state. The few painters represented here—Amelie von Wulffen and Dierk Schmidt among them—work in a figurative style, integrating documents like photographs that ground, if not bury, the equivocal possibilities of paint in history. Worst of all, the info aesthetic subjected not only art but also visitors to humiliating pedagogical exercises. Take fashion hub organizer Regina Möller’s contention, presented on yet another panel in the Martin-Gropius-Bau: Fashion is a “complex realm that goes beyond apparel . . . ” Really? Get Miuccia on the horn.

The second criterion, of otherness, led to an appearance of political engagement without any actual context. An “axis of alterity,” also in the Martin-Gropius-Bau, moved from works about African Americans (Isaac Julien) to gay men (Piotr Nathan) to migrants (Hito Steyerl) to striking workers (Melik Ohanian) to the German-Jewish diaspora (Aura Rosenberg), the alignment suggesting that the very different demands of these groups are fully commensurable, if not interchangeable, with one another. The collective A Room of One’s Own may have intended to revive feminism, but their project shows how style can liquidate any political movement: A video featured women wearing large aprons that double as banners and carry slogans like “Feministische Förderungen sind tragbar” (Feminist demands are wearable). The demands come in several colors, like IKEA sheets, but who knows what the demands are.

Amazingly, even sophisticated works were utterly destroyed. Bojan Šarčević’s Workers’ favourite clothes worn while s/he worked, 1999/2000, became strange artifacts in Bauer’s realist aesthetics, which verges on reducing art to vacant propaganda. The soiled clothes in Šarčević’s installation, paired with Fernando Bryce’s drawing series “The Spanish Revolution” and “The Spanish War,” both 2003, could have been those worn in the ’30s by the members of the Marxist workers’ party portrayed in Bryce’s careful reproductions of their newsletters. In this biennial, Duchamp’s urinal would be all about social hygiene, ceramics, and hidden notions of masculinity.

So, we don’t have to think about that anymore, but one hopes that BB3’s overplay of politics will not lead to its neglect in a conservative backlash of pure formalism—already apparent in a spate of painting shows in Germany last year. Now the work begins: to free art from the determinate concept. And from the overdetermined curator.

Jennifer Allen is a Berlin-based writer.