John Smith, The Girl Chewing Gum, 1976, black-and-white film in 16 mm, 12 minutes. Installation view, Dresdener Straße 19, Berlin, 2010. Photo: Uwe Walter.

John Smith, The Girl Chewing Gum, 1976, black-and-white film in 16 mm, 12 minutes. Installation view, Dresdener Straße 19, Berlin, 2010. Photo: Uwe Walter.

the 6th Berlin Biennale

IF POSTWAR ART BROUGHT US the “return of the real,” an unruly move from high modernism down to materials, sites, and bodies, this year’s Berlin Biennale intended yet another such return—but minus many of the complications. Under the title “Was draußen wartet” (What Is Waiting Out There), the show’s curator, Kathrin Rhomberg, straightforwardly proposed a renewed investment in “reality” as a means of countering art’s entrenchment in insular, “art-immanent and formal problems.” Yet the rapid-fire and often wanton deployment of the word reality in the exhibition materials mainly left a sense of that term’s fundamental opacity.

Within the show itself, reality often meant the postcolonial, globalized, politicized world familiar from Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002 and last year’s Istanbul Biennial—or even those exhibitions’ desire to bring into the center the marginalized “other” latent in Rhomberg’s “out there.” Against this background, the show’s inclusion of a selection of Adolf Menzel’s gouaches and drawings—organized by art historian Michael Fried and shown separately in one of the biennial’s six venues, the Alte Nationalgalerie—was more of a conundrum than a historical anchor. It remained unclear whether Rhomberg was, for instance, positing parallels between Menzel’s realism (per the title of Fried’s 2002 book) and current documentary practices, or arguing that nineteenth-century realism’s rebellion against the Grand Manner is echoed in politically engaged opposition to the latter’s present-day equivalents. A polemic along these lines could have been a fruitful starting point for a biennial-size debate, but—in spite of the show having only about forty artists—sprawl muddied any hoped-for clarity.

At the same time, unspoken themes intermittently emerged. Several works took up documentary’s time-honored inclination toward pedagogy. Most obviously working in this vein was Mark Boulos’s room-size, double-screen projection All That Is Solid Melts into Air, 2008, which shows traders flashing hand signals at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on one screen while we see on the other inhabitants of fishing villages in the Niger Delta near Royal Dutch Shell oil rigs who have “declared war on everything white.” The two are evidently linked. As the traders gesticulate, one tribesman brandishes his machete, threatening to kill the camera crew and warning them never to return.

The man’s accusation—that the camera is a tool of exploitation, if not itself a weapon—found an echo in Renzo Martens’s feature-length Episode 3, 2008, in which the Dutch artist travels through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, teaching the locals how to benefit from their own poverty. To this end, he carries around a generator-powered neon text piece bearing the injunction ENJOY POVERTY, with a flashing PLEASE. Martens investigates poverty both as image and as political fact, often slicing to the quick. For example, he encourages a wedding photographer to switch to taking pictures of malnourished children, horrifically demonstrating in a hospital ward what constitutes a “strong,” sellable photo. Everyone—artist, subjects, viewers; journalists, politicians, donors—is complicit. When a villager asks whether he’ll be able to see the video, the artist’s curt response is “The film will be shown in Europe, not here.”

Fried claims of Menzel’s Unmade Bed, ca. 1845, that “one might almost say it produces the reality it ostensibly records.” This is controvertible in the case of the striking drawing, yet the underlying notion reemerged in a number of pieces, such as Martens’s, that take place in the gray area between producing, documenting, and exploiting a situation. The events of Avi Mograbi’s Details 2, 2004, in which the artist films a heated argument with Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint, are largely determined by the involvement of both camera and artist, while in Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir’s Beyond Guilt #1, 2003, the camera’s presence draws out the drunken exhibitionism—and military machismo—of the young Israeli men and women the artists meet during their outré exploits in the bar restrooms of Tel Aviv.

John Smith, Girl Chewing Gum, 1976. (Excerpt.)

The majority of the show’s artists working in the documentary genre reject its pose of neutrality, even as they invoke its historical left-wing sympathies. Installed on its own in a former café, John Smith’s classic The Girl Chewing Gum, 1976, turns the documentary concept inside out: As Smith’s voice-over “directs” an everyday, completely undirected London street scene, he exposes the proximity of documentary to both surveillance and control. Sebastian Stumpf’s Tiefgaragen (Basement Garages), 2008, stages a subversion of inside/outside at a more literal level: The artist films basement garage doors closing, only to run from behind the camera at the last moment to body-roll through the shrinking gap. Stumpf’s dive into the interior is a successfully multivalent metaphor—not least for its Bas Jan Ader–like cross-pollination of desperation and transcendence.

Perhaps most typical of the biennial’s many film and video pieces, however, was a mixture of social documentary with confessional, diaristic, intermittently therapeutic aspects—as in a striking presentation of nearly twenty of George Kuchar’s “Weather Diaries,” 1985–, the filmmaker’s deadpan shorts devoted to the trivia of his life and to the Americana that surround him during regular trips to Oklahoma in tornado season.

Such reworkings of the documentary mode are not opposed but, rather, profoundly tied to the epitome of “art-immanent and formal problems”: the crisis, or even the failure, of representation—of communicating what’s “out there.” Indeed, this question of legibility was central to Shannon Ebner’s weirdly engrossing film Between Words Pause, 2009, shown in the Kunst-Werke Berlin, the biennial’s traditional home. The exhibition’s bid for the real slipped still further out of reach here, as rapid sequences of letters spelled out only-just-decipherable phrases on the very edge of another, more mysterious kind of beyond.

Alexander Scrimgeour is a senior editor of Artforum.