Banner made by occupiers, hung on the facade of KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2012. Photo: Maciek Kalinski.

Banner made by occupiers, hung on the facade of KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2012. Photo: Maciek Kalinski.

the 7th Berlin Biennale

Banner made by occupiers, hung on the facade of KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2012. Photo: Maciek Kalinski.

“THIS IS NOT OUR MUSEUM / THIS IS YOUR ACTION SPACE,” reads a banner greeting visitors to KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Berlin Biennale’s main venue and traditional host. Its authors, members of Occupy Berlin and affiliated groups invited to set up shop there by the biennial’s curator, the artist Artur Żmijewski, are the exhibition’s main attraction and set its tone. They paradigmatically stand for the concept of art to which Żmijewski has dedicated his “biennale for contemporary politics”: “Art that actually works, makes its mark on reality.”

Żmijewski, who organized the biennial with Joanna Warsza, doesn’t have much faith in the professional art world, where (as he writes in the book accompanying the show) “what is at stake for the curator is the next project, not any radical social or political goal,” and artists pursue the same “individualistic politics of survival.” The biennial’s publications and the discussions affiliated with it develop a notion of engaged art in the best avant-garde tradition, of art as a tool serving political causes and turning “spectatorship into citizenship,” which is convincingly pitched against autonomous art that is still “aestheticizing reality, changing ideas into spectacle, and transforming the political into a call that no one follows.” In order to find “art that brings change, art that is not critical in an empty fashion,” the curators looked outside the art world “for people who have ‘stumbled’ into art when they were supposed to be working in other fields . . . in parliaments and government, or in the media . . . or even therapists or doctors.”

One is thus surprised to find among the participants quite a few professional artists, such as Yael Bartana, Paweł Althamer, Olafur Eliasson, Teresa Margolles, and Żmijewski himself, who shows his 1999 video Berek (The Game of Tag), which was recently “censored” by being removed from an exhibition at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau. Especially at KW, which holds three-quarters of the biennial’s installed works, the curators nevertheless manage to maintain an improvised look and feel, cluttering up the space and deliberately avoiding elegance or a unifying design. With focused presentations at three more venues and a handful of projects in public space, the exhibition feels less overwhelming than past editions. And yet it conveys a sense that the biennial eludes one’s grasp. Several actions and events preceded the exhibition itself, or are happening elsewhere, like an artist residency in the shrinking East German city Eisenhüttenstadt on the Polish border. Some works represent social conflicts or their mediation while themselves remaining clearly located and contained within the art context—for example, Margolles’s PM 2010, which presents one year of covers from the Mexican tabloid PM, each of which pictures drug-war victims juxtaposed with the pinup of the day.

Next to such works, one does indeed find art that exceeds this context in more or less consequential ways. Khaled Jarrar, for example, offers to stamp visitors’ passports STATE OF PALESTINE. The significance of the stamp is obviously more concrete in Ramallah, where Jarrar first undertook the action, but even in Berlin one thinks twice before thus marking one’s position. Martin Zet released—through the biennial’s press office—a call for copies of Thilo Sarrazin’s infamous book, Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Gets Rid of Itself, 2010), for exhibition and subsequent recycling. (Within sixteen months of its release, the book had sold more than a million copies and been heavily criticized for its explicit racism.) The installation component of Zet’s work, Deutschland schafft es ab (Germany Gets Rid of It), 2012, is not very impressive in itself: Only four copies were donated, and they are exhibited pressed against the wall by a metal rod, next to a video narrating the course of the project. Months before the exhibition, however, the work sparked heated debate. By alluding to—while significantly differing from—the book burnings organized by the National Socialist German Students’ League in 1933, Zet managed to confront a wide and diverse audience with a fundamental question: Can ideas be fought on the level of ideas, by means of argument, or do they have to be fought on the level of their material substrate?

Besides advocating artistic practices that are geared less toward fairs, galleries, and collectors than toward biennials, grants, and academic institutions, the curators succeeded in identifying practices of “real action within culture” located—until now—outside the art world. Cairo-based collective Mosireen, for example, made a name for itself reporting about the Egyptian revolution on the ground, conducting live-streaming workshops, and initiating a “cinema” at Tahrir Square during the sit-ins of July 2011. Christ the King, 2010, a 170-foot-high statue of Jesus—the world’s tallest—that is installed in the Polish town Świebodzin, was commissioned by church officials, local authorities, and citizens and is a work of sacral art. Russian artists Voina lead an underground existence so as to be able to live up to a concept of art that includes burning police cars and painting a two-hundred-foot-long penis on the Liteyny drawbridge, facing the Federal Security Service headquarters in Saint Petersburg.

These activities, however, are included in the exhibition in very different ways—ranging from referencing and support through restaging to appropriation and repurposing—and the inconsistency of the curatorial methodology is one of the great weaknesses of the biennial. Although no documentation of it features in the show, Voina’s work is most radically and, arguably, most successfully “exhibited”: Their appointment as associate curators has increased the visibility of their interventions and provided communication channels in the form of interviews, news coverage, and a statement within the biennial’s press package. Furthermore, Voina profit from the biennial’s financial resources and legal support, while continuing their practice within its original context and according to their customary method—without bothering to actually curate, let alone come to Berlin.

Mosireen, The People Want the Fall of the Regime, 2012, still from a color video, 4 minutes 11 seconds.

The participation of Occupy follows the opposite logic. Instead of, for example, declaring the site of Berlin’s actual occupation an official venue of the biennial, the curators invited the protesters to stage a replica of it within the exhibition space. This symbolic occupation of course lacks any symbolic power, as that would require a concrete basis of confrontation. The result is relational aesthetics and an extensive program of lectures and workshops not uncommon today within the context of critically minded art events—all on a minimal budget, as the highly skilled activists proudly work for free. It will be interesting to see whether they will depart quietly once the biennial is over.

While Mosireen’s coverage of the Egyptian revolution undoubtedly fit the bill of “real action within culture” when screened in the midst of that very revolution on a public square or circulated online to counter official news reports, it takes on a different quality when inserted into the section of the biennial titled “Breaking the News,” a black-box nine-channel video projection that also features footage from eight other initiatives. Decontextualized and playing next to a parade of Polish neo-Nazis, a march of Hungarian gay rights activists, and anti-papal protests in Germany, with massive sound bleed and in a visually overwhelming moving-image environment encompassing the viewer, the material is reduced to pornography: bodies in motion, engaged in collective struggles, but abstracted from all specifics, including the very causes for which they are struggling.

As a work of sacral art, Christ the King’s was created solely to glorify Christ and the Catholic Church. The biennial, however, invited its sculptor, Mirosław Patecki—who, unlike functionaries of the church, is not even mentioned on the statue’s website—to set up his studio within the exhibition, where he is creating a full-size replica of the statue’s head. Thus foregrounding the figure of the artist, celebrating both craftsmanship and individual authorship, the reproduced fragment is a perfect example of the autonomous art Żmijewski claims he seeks to avoid.

The curators deserve credit for their spot-on analysis of the problems of the contemporary art world and its claims to political efficacy, as well as for putting forth a concept of art that would emancipate it from this institutionalized field and take these claims seriously. They succeed in identifying practices that correspond to such ideas. And yet the resulting exhibition falls short of their ambition.

Practices such as those of Occupy, Mosireen, and Voina exist and are visible and effective independently of the art world. What, then—to paraphrase the curators—can the biennial do for such practices? If one espouses “artistic pragmatism,” why reinscribe it within the bourgeois art institution? One could well imagine an excellent exhibition documenting the work of activist groups, analyzing and comparing their methods and functions in relation to different contexts and goals, all the while acknowledging its distance from them—making clear that it displays documentation, not the art itself. With their research, discussion formats, and publications, the curators took steps in this direction. Ultimately, however, this impulse collides with the stated ambition not just to represent and exhibit but to enact “real action within culture.” One wonders what the biennial might have looked like had the curatorial approach exemplified by the association with Voina been followed through on. If one seeks “real action within culture,” why not conceive a whole biennial as financial, legal, and PR support for activists? Surely such an approach would encounter massive opposition. In fact, pulling off projects like Zet’s or the association with Voina alone must have required great determination and stamina on the curators’ side, as is acknowledged in the biennial’s somewhat pompous title: “Forget Fear.” If “it is enough for artists to engage in substantive political activity to face threats, censorship, repression, or imprisonment,” who wants to blame the curators for not going all the way?

Paradoxically, the curators therefore end up being less concerned with “art that brings change” than with rehabilitating the art institution as its site. What, then, are the effects of a discourse that eventually always collapses art with the art world, that claims emancipatory potential for practices that remain inscribed within this social field? It might make one trade the street for the more comfortable exhibition space. And while artistic labor is often cheap, political action might even come for free. The question (posed by the curators in a recent issue of Camera Austria), What can art do for real politics? might actually serve a different interest: What can politics do for art?

The 7th Berlin Biennale remains on view through July 1.

Jakob Schillinger is a writer and curator living in Berlin.