Berlinde De Bruyckere, lichaam (Corpse), 2006, horsehide, horsehair, epoxy, and iron. Installation view, Alter Garnisonfriedhof (Old Garrison Cemetery), Kleine Rosenthaler Strasse, Berlin, 2006.

Berlinde De Bruyckere, lichaam (Corpse), 2006, horsehide, horsehair, epoxy, and iron. Installation view, Alter Garnisonfriedhof (Old Garrison Cemetery), Kleine Rosenthaler Strasse, Berlin, 2006.

the 4th Berlin Biennial

Various Venues

WHERE DOES THE 4th Berlin Biennial (BB4), organized with the title “Of Mice and Men” by the team of artist Maurizio Cattelan, curator Massimiliano Gioni, and writer Ali Subotnick, actually begin? The trio’s Gagosian Gallery, Berlin, opened last September, an act of “guerrilla franchising” parodying the high-end dealer’s international expansion; but the project clearly has its roots in the Wrong Gallery, the group’s locked door of a space nestled until last year among Chelsea’s blue-chip galleries (it now resides at Tate Modern). Likewise, the publication Checkpoint Charley appeared in November as a visual diary of the curators’ “encounters” with artists during the past year; the fat volume features more than seven hundred artworks, some of which Cattelan, Gioni, and Subotnick came across during studio visits (though others had merely been dropped off by artists at the biennial office). But this endeavor was an overt continuation of the already-existing Charley magazine, with its willfully trashy reproduction quality and deadpan nod to the list-making approach of much contemporary curating. And when considering the team’s integration of mass media into this biennial—the popular Berlin city guide Zitty featured a regular column in which the curators put five questions to twenty-six artists (only two of whom were represented in the physical show)—one cannot help but recall Cattelan’s 6th Caribbean Biennial in 1999, an event comprising little more than its own announcement and the press that followed. By the time BB4 opened in March, Cattelan & Co. had not only created an exhibition in Berlin but had promised an experience—a sprawling event where art would be seen through the prism of the trio’s commentary on its world. Replete with this team’s line of products, BB4 became a thoroughly branded biennial.

While the Wrong gallerists may have started curating in the manner of a PR team, “Of Mice and Men” turned out to be a finely crafted exhibition. Titled after John Steinbeck’s 1937 tragic novel—itself inspired by Robert Burns’s 1785 poem about good intentions gone awry—the biennial was integrated into the city landscape, using (in addition to the more conventional KW Institute for Contemporary Art and the fake Gagosian galleries) a series of twelve exhibition sites along Auguststrasse in the Mitte section of the city. Among them were a vacant church, some old stables in a post office, a former school, several private homes, a dance hall, an office, and a closed cemetery. As is often the case in the former East Berlin, these venues—intended by the curators to comprise a kind of life cycle, beginning at the church and ending at the cemetery—had been renovated only recently or were wasting away, providing dramatic environments for the work. Seeming to have petrified in a decrepit classroom of a former school (at one time the Jewish School for Girls), for instance, was a schoolboy puppet from Tadeusz Kantor’s installation Die tote Klasse (The Dead Class), 1975. In a private apartment at Auguststrasse 23 were such plays on domesticity as Damián Ortega’s “possessed” pieces of furniture, which literally shake when one passes; and Aneta Grzeszykowska’s Album, 2005, in which the artist carefully erased her own image from her family photo album. And Sergej Jensen’s painterly Waiting Room, 2006, set up in a freshly renovated apartment, made it clear how a bureaucratic scene of waiting—was it for an HIV test? An entry visa? A root canal?—may bring together public spheres and private traumas. The street’s progression ended with a sculpture made from the whole hide of a horse, Berlinde De Bruyckere’s lichaam (Corpse), 2006, standing among gravestones in the cemetery’s lapidarium.

As these examples suggest, it was not always clear whose history was on display: the artist’s or the city’s. Cattelan, Gioni, and Subotnick chose artworks that resonated with the decaying microcosm of the street, but they hardly invited artists to execute traditional site-specific interventions. Indeed, in their catalogue essay, the trio insists that the exhibition is about neither Auguststrasse’s past nor Berlin’s present. (Audiences would learn the history of each display venue only by reading texts in the biennial catalogue or exhibition guide.) Rather, they write, “this street is an archetype or maybe just an example.” And yet there was more of a correspondence than that, as many projects in “Of Mice and Men” cast the city as a kind of living museum. Consider two works installed in the Post Office Stables at Auguststrasse 5A, Jeremy Deller’s Theme for the 4th Berlin Biennial, 2006, and Pawel Althamer’s Fairy Tale, 2006. Deller revived Mitte’s Jewish musical history by inviting Klezmer Chidesch—a local quartet whose players are mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union—to compose a melody for the biennial, which he recorded on video and projected here. Althamer, who was once an illegal immigrant living in Berlin, assisted a young Turkish man named Besir Olcay in avoiding his then-imminent deportation. This politicized Cinderella story was represented in the exhibition by only two objects in the otherwise empty stable: one of Olcay’s running shoes and an open letter from Althamer pleading his case to the city’s representative for internal affairs.

In this regard, BB4 raised increasingly pertinent questions about the degree to which biennials should engage their respective locales. Its oblique use of the urban setting recalled the most recent Istanbul Biennial, where artworks also appeared in dilapidated architectural settings, bringing an awareness of the city into play without making it the sole subject. Yet I believe a truer model for this organizational approach (and its effects) may be found by looking much farther back, to an ancient mnemonic tool described by Dame Francis Yates in The Art of Memory (1966). In the days before the printing press, orators commonly memorized speeches by associating each part of their discussions, which they “impressed” on the room around them, so that architecture effectively doubled as a writing pad. Walking through the rooms—mentally or in reality—an orator would “see” these imagines agentes and thus recall the parts of the speech. As a theater of memory, architecture tells neither its own history nor the history of its surroundings, but it sets the scene for the psychologically charged repetition of stories composed elsewhere and mapped within its own terrain. BB4 transformed the buildings on Auguststrasse into stages for imagines agentes, recollecting not speech but the trauma of living, of attempting to find balance between one’s own humanity and animality, between being a master or a prisoner of one’s fate.

This tension was apparent in Kai Althoff and Lutz Braun’s memorable installation in an office, which features, among many things, a drawerful of M&M’s, a video of an aesthete seeming to ape Carmelo Bene’s film Hermitage (1968), and fresh shit—so that all markers of civilization are made to smell like a pigsty. This intense atmosphere permeated even the more conventional galleries at KW, where Mircea Cantor’s video projection Deeparture, 2005, followed a wolf and a deer trapped together in a white cube, the unfamiliar environs taming their animal instincts to attack or run, so that the creatures appear to take on the more human emotions of fear and uncertainty. Gillian Wearing’s classic video triptych Drunk, 1999, similarly blurs intentionality and instinct by portraying a menagerie of alcoholics who stumble between fulfilling vague intentions and simply passing out. These subtle constellations did not benefit from the presence of Bruce Nauman’s Rats and Bats (Learned Helplessness in Rats II), 1988, a video sculpture pairing footage of a rat rushing through a maze with footage of the artist whacking a sack with a baseball bat.

This sort of mnemotechnic may explain why some people disliked the exhibition. Compared to the histories summoned by the show’s locations—there was the nearly palpable sense of the missing in empty classrooms, for example, and among the cemetery’s marked and unmarked graves—drawings by Dorota Jurczak, Christiana Soulou, or Roland Flexner (of fairy tales, skeletons, and disfigured faces, respectively), in the school, risked seeming decorative or simplistic. But the weakest points in fact occurred when the curators seemingly ignored their avowed archetypal approach, fusing artworks too closely with their surroundings. Robert Kusimirowski’s Wagon, 2006, a life-size facsimile of a train cattle car, impressively invokes the Holocaust, but displayed near an actual site where Jews living in Berlin were collected for deportation to the death camps, this otherwise excellent work became a historical ghost ride, if not a movie prop. Far more compelling was Kris Martin’s allusive Mandi III, 2003, a blank information board hanging in the barren St. Johannes-Evangelist-Church, listing no destinations, no trains, no times. Significantly, the very site and solemn atmosphere of the latter piece also underscored the way in which the biennial’s Auguststrasse feels like the setting for a Catholic procession (twelve stations of the cross, anyone?), with art-historical discourse displaced by a kind of ritualistic repetition of traumatic themes. In this context, it was impossible to miss the Biblical overtones given to pieces like Deeparture or Corey McCorkle’s Spirtual Midwifery Rush, 2005.

At times, Cattelan seemed to be recalling his own oeuvre. And certainly, if one may linger specifically on the artist member of the curatorial team for a moment, more than a few pieces here made it seem that he might be staging his own history. The countless dummies in the show—from Markus Schinwald’s Otto, 2004, a fatherly but Janus-faced puppet in the school, to Andro Wekua’s sacrificial mannequin altar, set up in the church—warrant an entire discussion by themselves. It was also interesting to see a self-referential curatorial move in the somber tones of Thomas Schütte’s The Capacity Men, 2005, a trio of giant sculpted ghost figures, wrapped in long cloaks of papal purple, royal gold, and princess pink.

But the signature aspect of this biennial, and the curators’ most faithful self-portrait in this regard, was its very structure. The sight of visitors scurrying along Auguststrasse from one address to the next at the opening was ample indication that “Of Mice and Men” functioned like a giant maze, if not an experiment in human behavior. This quality was perhaps felt most acutely at KW, where audiences were made to go up one stairway and down another, each visitor’s journey transformed, in effect, into a one-way passage through a four-story obstacle course. Appropriately enough, this trip began on the ground floor with Nauman’s Rats and Bats, offering another clue that the spectator was about to become part of an experiment. Cattelan, Gioni, and Subotnick used much softer tools than bats—questionnaire, catalogue, guerrilla gallery—but they were just as determined to lead audiences down a labyrinth of passages.

Which inevitably forces one to ask, Is it all a big mousetrap? Shadowing this complex exhibition, both before and since the doors on Augustrasse first opened, was the role of humor, as well as the possibility of this show’s being an exercise in curatorial slapstick. This is not to sidestep those jokes that worked in Chelsea—like Charley or the Wrong Gallery—but fell flat (and then became dead serious) in this context. Indeed, many artists did not laugh when they discovered their work reproduced from photocopies, faxes, or jpegs—without their permission—in Checkpoint Charley. (BB4 must be the very first exhibition to integrate the Salon des Refusés, and without artists’ input at that.) Others wondered how a gallery could be a guerrilla operation when funded handsomely by the European Union’s Culture 2000 program. Also receiving a less than enthusiastic response was Subotnick’s reply to a question from Zitty asking why only a quarter of the artists in the show were women: “We simply did not find so much good art from women artists.” However, equally troubling was the fact that, just as one couldn’t be sure where BB4 began, one couldn’t necessarily tell when the joking had ended. The exhibition itself would have been unquestionably solid without the one-liners and marketing tricks. But with a curatorial crew that New York magazine recently dubbed one of “the art world’s JT Leroys” what else would you expect but an intelligent game of cat and mouse, with a little bit of cheese?

Jennifer Allen is a critic based in Berlin.