Cyprien Gaillard, The Arena and the Wasteland, 2008, bronze and concrete. Installation view, Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum. From “When Things Cast No Shadow.”

Cyprien Gaillard, The Arena and the Wasteland, 2008, bronze and concrete. Installation view, Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum. From “When Things Cast No Shadow.”

the 5th Berlin Biennial


THE BIENNIAL FORMAT may exert a more decisive influence on the field of contemporary art than any other kind of exhibition today, but such shows are also regularly criticized on account of their instrumentalization in the service of both cultural and local political agendas. Noting that this type of large-scale show tends to prioritize post-Conceptual and lens-based practices that engage the historical, economic, and (geo-)political resonances of specific sites in a particular city or region, Julian Stallabrass, in Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art (2004), goes so far as to argue that the biennial, “with all its crude jostling for position in the global market,” performs the same function for a city “as a Picasso above the fireplace does for a tobacco executive,” and as such it “not only embodies, but actively propagandizes the virtues of globalization.”

The curators of the Fifth Berlin Biennial, Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic, appear to have been acutely aware of this kind of fundamental criticism; indeed, in the catalogue they note almost apologetically that it “goes without saying that a biennial is a part of contemporary event culture,” adding that “it belongs to a spectacular order.” Their exhibition itself, in part by attempting productively to engage the conventions of “biennial culture,” prompted many critics in the German feuilletons to complain immediately about the timidity—aridity, even—of the show as a whole, inadvertently exposing a longing for spectacular gestures that these same critics would doubtless have been quick to condemn for some version of the reasons above. For one thing, Szymczyk and Filipovic’s exhibition features a large number of relatively unknown artists, particularly young Europeans, but perhaps more significantly, the biennial is divided into two sections, with the exhibition proper labeled “Day” and an evening program—composed of more than sixty lectures, performances, artist talks, film screenings, and the like—labeled “Night.” These events—devoted, for example, to Lacan’s “Télévision,” “The Dust that Floats Between the Visible and the Invisible,” or the Croatian postwar avant-garde—can be attributed to an impulse to expand the biennial into a manifestation culturelle, one that, according to the curators, “evad[es] the regime of absolute visibility, but also that of the materialized object.” No matter how idiosyncratic their topics, however, it is questionable on the one hand whether these night shifts—which bear the alternative title “Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours” after an “erotic thriller” by Andrzej Zuławski from 1989—may really be regarded as challenging the reign of the spectacle rather than infusing it with the appeal of “criticality” so much in demand in our era of post-Fordist economies of immaterial labor. On the other hand, it goes without saying that critical gestures, even those seemingly opposed to event culture, always already run the risk of being recuperated into the marketing of a cityscape that (inadvertently) characterizes most biennials.

In any case, in the “Day” program, too, one cannot fail to notice that Szymczyk and Filipovic have attempted self-consciously to distance themselves from the approach of their predecessors in 2006—Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick—who orchestrated a sort of processional in Berlin’s Auguststrasse that sent visitors from a church to the site of a former school for Jewish girls to a cemetery, confronted at every step with supposedly existential questions of human destiny. With four venues in different parts of the city, it’s clear that Szymczyk and Filipovic also want biennial visitors to move around Berlin—“but,” they say, “not necessarily towards buildings whose histories are manifest in their peeling paint or picturesque state of ruination.” So the sites for the “Day” program are loaded more distinctively in terms of the specificities of Berlin’s postwar history and post-Wall present rather than merely evoking a somewhat farcical atmosphere of historicity. A series of monographic exhibitions is taking place in the Schinkel Pavilion, for example, which is a tower-shaped hybrid of socialist modernism and Neoclassical decor built in East Berlin in 1969 as an annex to the Kronprinzenpalais on Unter den Linden, while the rest of the “Day” program is distributed among the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, the traditional headquarters of the Berlin Biennial; the 1968 Neue Nationalgalerie, Mies van der Rohe’s icon of late modernism; and an area of vacant lots on the former “death strip” of the Berlin Wall between the districts of Mitte and Kreuzberg that the artists’ collective KUNSTrePUBLIK in November 2006 converted into the Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum.

According to the biennial’s “short guide,” the no-man’s-land of this last venue “reads not only as a scar left behind by the Berlin Wall—a reminder of a dramatic past—but also as a monument to failed urban development in conditions of sluggish economic growth and as a locus of investor fantasies.” This section of the show is, however, its weakest segment, if not its biggest failure: The curators seem to have relied too much on the exceptionality and supposed self-evidence of the site and—contrary to their curatorial mission statement—its “state of ruination.” The Skulpturenpark contains many works that seem like “plop” sculptures, unrelated to the site where they have been installed. This is true, for instance, of a construction of metal and wood by Polish artist Ania Molska that also appears in her film piece W=Fs (work), 2008, at the Kunst-Werke, where it does at least succeed in provoking an allegorical reflection on the heroic icono­graphy of physical labor in the Russian avant-garde and in the context of postcommunist Poland. When literally displaced, works like this makeshift structure can at most be interpreted—generously—as ironic commentaries on the ongoing crisis of “art in the public sphere”: One cannot but be aware that the biennial here partakes in the logic of public art programs that recodes contemporary art as an interim solution for abandoned sites. The pieces that do take on the demands of site-specific relevance, by contrast, tend to exhaust themselves in a more illustrative than reflective relationship to Berlin’s history and present status as it is allegedly manifested here. In Cyprien Gaillard’s installation The Arena and the Wasteland, 2008, for instance, a group of pole-mounted floodlights garishly light up an area of the sculpture park covered with weeds and garbage, as if to evoke the former surveillance apparatus over the death strip as well as to expose the still-undeveloped terrain as an object for speculation in real estate. A similarly simplistic model of site-specificity can be seen at work in the film installation Berlinmuren, 2008, by Norwegian artist Lars Laumann, which is projected inside a construction incorporating debris found at the site and tells the story of an “objectophile” woman who married the Berlin Wall in 1979 and has been mourning its loss for the past nineteen years.

Cyprien Gaillard, The Arena and the Wasteland, 2008, bronze and concrete. Installation view, Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum. From “When Things Cast No Shadow.”

IN ANOTHER GESTURE OF contrarianism against biennial culture, the series of exhibitions in the Schinkel Pavilion began two weeks prior to the biennial’s official opening, and will end two weeks after its finishing date—with the intention, according to the curators, of “upsetting the demand for a single, spectacular beginning and end.” And the shows in this section of the exhibition are themselves atypical fare for biennials: Each involves a young artist (whose own productions appear elsewhere in the biennial) presenting the work of an artist from a previous generation who has had a significant influence on his or her practice—figures whom Szymczyk and Filipovic characterize grosso modo as representing “counter-modernist positions.” The first of the exhibitions in the Schinkel Pavilion, titled “La Lampe dans l’horloge” (The Lamp in the Clock) and organized by Berlin-based artist Nairy Baghramian, featured a selection of “mirror objects” created between 1989 and 2008 by ninety-eight-year-old Swiss designer Janette Laverrière. Using Laverrière’s Paris apartment as a point of departure, the two artists collaborated on a roofless construction with a small staircase, an aluminum floor, and colorful walls, whose inside and outside served as a support for works fashioned by Laverrière out of wood, metal, and reflective surfaces. In front of several of these assemblages, shutters that had an almost late-Surrealist look undermined the objects’ functionality as mirrors; while Laverrière’s titles frequently reference particular figures (e.g., Cocteau, Courbet, Hugo) and works (e.g., Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) from the canon of modern literature and art. The interior of the installationincluded a bookshelf with a few volumes from Laverrière’s library, providing a partial glimpse into her varied horizon of references.

This series of shows—curated by artists, apparently immune to any anxiety of influence, in homage to artists’ artists—represents in condensed form the dominant modus operandi of the biennial as a whole. Symptomatically, the catalogue is a voluminous tome that not only compiles essays on architectural and urban theory by the likes of Beatriz Colomina and Georges Didi-Huberman but also replaces any discussion of individual artists or works with an endless cascade of “source material” provided by all the participating artists, along with literary texts (selected by the curators) by Francis Ponge, Henry Green, Robert Walser, and others. If Szymczyk and Filipovic emphasize in their own contribution that their intention was not to organize their exhibition around content defined a priori, it nevertheless becomes clear that this Berlin Biennial—even though its title, “When Things Cast No Shadow,” summons a metaphorical suspension of historical indices—reflects above all contemporary art’s current interest in modernism’s formal languages and revisits the concomitant aspiration to artistic autonomy. These concerns were amply evident in last year’s much-debated Documenta 12, but whereas that exhibition for the most part emphasized morphological correspondences between the abstract forms of high-modernist art and premodern aesthetics, Szymczyk and Filipovic instead present projects that, by way of references to specific historical moments and aesthetic currents in artistic modernism and modernity at large, continuously link an engagement with this legacy to the sites of the exhibition.

This itself may reflect broader trends in art today. Art historian, critic, and curator Helmut Draxler has written that “virtually everywhere the relationship between situation and reference is at issue,” defining “situation” as “the various spatial relations that almost every contemporary work in fact creates to the site of its appearance,” while “reference” describes “all sorts of allusions, denotations and citations, which perhaps to a special degree represent the communication code of contemporary art.” Against the backdrop of this observation, one might even speak of a prevalent mode of referentialism in contemporary art, an artistic model that integrates pointers to particular works of preceding generations of artists, a vast array of historical episodes, theoretical writings, or aesthetic codes outside the field of art proper. And this Berlin Biennial, although it lacks any theoretical or curatorial approach that might offer insight into this process of constant allusion and citation, nevertheless offers ample opportunity to take stock of the currency of referentialism in contemporary art, in both its formulaic and its productive variants.

IN THE KUNST-WERKE, references to the history of modernism’s reactionary as well as progressive currents are everywhere apparent. A series of drawings by Danish artist Pushwagner, Soft City, 1969–75, for example, depicts the minutely identical behavior of the inhabitants of a city characterized by endless streets and Brutalist architecture. In more than 150 pencil sketches, the work shows Soft City’s heavily medicated denizens carrying out repetitive work in the arms industry and in administration, or engaging in disciplinary consumerism. This dystopian vision is dialectically countered by David Maljkovic’s Lost Memories from These Days, 2006–2008, in which a series of collages and a video expose the specters of modernist utopianism in 1960s Yugoslavia. In a structure made of green construction plywood whose still-visible serial numbers seemingly allude to Constructivist principles, the Croatian artist brings together photographs of the now-derelict site of the World Fair in Zagreb with newspaper clippings and snapshots from its heyday, allowing a sobering present-day perspective to coincide with past hopes for progress and prosperity in a palimpsest-like arrangement. As if to allegorize this mode of nonsimultaneity, the video next to these photographs shows models lounging in rigid poses beside shiny new cars in the fair’s Italian pavilion, which is thus recast as a futuristic car showroom.

Whereas the artworks in the Kunst-Werke generally refer to histories and politics independent of the site of their display, the Neue Nationalgalerie, which features by far the most convincing part of this biennial, provides a productive spatial and historical context for the exhibited works. Indeed, Mies van der Rohe’s steel and glass square is the ideal location for art that creates a self-reflexive relationship between situation and reference, encoded in this instance as the architectural parameters of the site, on the one hand, and the aporias and aspirations of the project of modernism, on the other. Even here, however, one at times encounters the merely self-legitimizing use of references. This is most apparent in the row of flags, titled Nationalgalerie, 2008, that Romanian artist Daniel Knorr installed on the edges of the building’s flat roof. While bringing to mind Color Field painting, these flags are in fact copies of the banners of Berlin’s deeply conservative, not to say outright reactionary, student fraternities—but Knorr’s work (all the research that went into it notwithstanding) ultimately seems to propose merely that even modernist abstraction can be coded in antiprogressive terms. Indeed, the tenuous nature of the link between the work and its site is only made clearer by the title’s misleading implication that these flags present a mode of national representation without further ado comparable to that of the building itself. Indoors, Susanne M. Winterling uses Mies van der Rohe’s structure in a more sophisticated way by incorporating the Nationalgalerie’s two symmetrical coat-check areas into her piece Eileen Gray, The Jewel and Troubled Water, 2008. This formally convincing installation consists of a projection, an architectural model, and photographs, each replicated in the opposite cloakroom space as if by its mirror image. Her abstract film of the condensation that forms on the museum’s plate-glass windows, defying the architect’s goal of transparency, may be a laconic site-specific commentary on the relationship between calculation and contingency, but since Winterling refers not only to Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray but also to her relationship to Le Corbusier, modern furniture design, and Kenneth Anger, the work ends up seeming overly freighted with culturally sanctioned references that have already been engaged critically ad nauseam.

In one corner of the Nationalgalerie’s ground floor, Marc Camille Chaimowicz domesticates the space with For MvR, 2008. A large lace curtain hangs in front of the architect’s glass walls, and slabs of marble, propped against the air shafts, are covered with wallpaper patterns that themselves reappear in adjacent collages along with images of decorative interiors in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. The work thus confronts the building’s Minimalist severity with the opulence of early-modern domestic style. Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer likewise use a curtain to section off part of the museum for their collaborative work Pygmalion, 2008, which focuses on Henri Matisse’s design for the liturgical garments of the priests at the Chapelle du Rosaire in Venice, connecting these costumes to ancient myths of statues coming to life with a series of clay models of horses’ legs whose “originals” are shown in a Plexiglas floor mosaic, and with reproduced book pages—in the process also revealing the often hidden interrelationships of modern abstraction and applied crafts, while decidedly abjuring the corporate-minimalist style relied on by too many recent artworks concerned with design history.

One of the most rewardingly dense works in the show is right at the back of the building: Baghramian’s sculpture La Colonne cassée (1871), 2008, in which two black-lacquered rectangular metal plates with small circular cutouts, their lower ends bent into right angles, face each other on either side of the museum’s glass wall, creating at first sight the illusion of a spectral mirror image. The two parts of this arrangement are seemingly held upright only by white steel blocks, without which they would inevitably crash through the glass. Not only does the work’s dynamic yet static construction allude to post-Minimalist sculpture while emphasizing the fragility of the materials used by Mies van der Rohe, but the cutouts are carefully arranged so that the viewer’s gaze, when looking through them, is reflected rather than passing through the glass wall as the architect desired. Additionally, the piece refers to Laverrière’s mirror object La Commune, hommage à Louise Michel, (The Commune, Homage to Louise Michel), 2001, featured in “La Lampe dans l’horloge,” which has similar cutouts reminiscent of bullet holes and is a tribute to a little-known female activist who participated in the uprisings that led to the Paris Commune in 1871, during which the column of Baghramian’s title was toppled in the Place Vendôme. Crucially, this twofold reference to Laverrière and Michel is not merely an idiosyncratic point of interest but is physically mirrored in the exhibition situation both addressed and produced by Baghramian’s work, which makes undoubtedly clear that the literally exclusive context of institutionalized contemporary art cannot be easily transcended by means of referential formalism alone, and instead makes palpable, in the phenomenological experience of an abstract sculpture, how the Neue Nationalgalerie and the architectural ideals it embodies function as part of an aesthetic ideology—that of modernism—whose progressive logic of expansion always presupposes techniques of exclusion. It is such forms of critically reflexive referential density that bring about the several truly productive moments in this year’s Berlin Biennial.

André Rottman is a Berlin-based art historian and critic, and an editor of Texte zur Kunst.