Firelei Báez, for Marie-Louise Coidavid, exiled, keeper of order, Anacaona, 2018, oil on canvas. Installation view, Akademie der Künste. Photo: Timo Ohler.

Firelei Báez, for Marie-Louise Coidavid, exiled, keeper of order, Anacaona, 2018, oil on canvas. Installation view, Akademie der Künste. Photo: Timo Ohler.

The 10th Berlin Biennale

Various Venues

Firelei Báez, for Marie-Louise Coidavid, exiled, keeper of order, Anacaona, 2018, oil on canvas. Installation view, Akademie der Künste. Photo: Timo Ohler.

THE TITLE of the Tenth Berlin Biennale, “We don’t need another hero,” came from a 1985 Tina Turner hit, but it also brings to mind a passage from Helen DeWitt’s 2000 novel, The Last Samurai: “What we needed was not a hero to worship but money. If we had money we could go anywhere. Give us the money and we would be the heroes.”

The previous edition of the biennial, curated by the New York–based collective DIS, received criticism for its slick, high-gloss provocations. Many saw little more than smug nihilism, a cynical attitude smacking of privilege. So, for the latest edition, the biennial wisely took a quieter approach, handing over design of the show to a group of five curators of color, led by Gabi Ngcobo, who brought together forty-six artists and collectives for a graceful, subdued exhibition.

The biennial was spread across three major institutions. The spaces felt ample and open. Works from a single artist—such as Lubaina Himid’s paintings dedicated to black intellectuals—often appeared across multiple venues. The repetition was welcome, like running into old friends on a new block, and gave the biennial a sense of coherence.

Lubaina Himid, So many dreams, 2018, acrylic and pencil on paper, 28 3⁄8 x 40 1⁄8". From the series “On the Night of the Full Moon,” 2018.

Much of the art on display dealt with historical memory. At the ZK/U Center for Art and, a former railroad depot in Moabit, one of Berlin’s forever “up-and-coming” neighborhoods, Zuleikha Chaudhari paired the writings of Nazi collaborator and Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose with recent propagandistic lectures given by government officials in New Delhi. Set in a dark recording studio the performance mixed reenactments of Bose with footage of the lectures, making the viewer witness to the rerecording of history. The video illustrates the seeming ineradicability of nationalist ideology, showing how easily it mutates and moves, continually reasserting itself in a range of guises and contexts. In the dank basement, Tony Cokes screened facts about American inequality and political cruelty while pop songs blared. The material was often familiar (who doesn’t know that Republicans want to take away health care?), but the usage of, say, Morrissey’s 1994 “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get” in Evil.27.Selma, 2011, deployed pop doubly: as a seductive counterpoint to the bleak text and to remind us that our most celebrated iconoclasts routinely become handmaidens for xenophobic agendas.

The work at Akademie der Künste, a large, Brutalist building central to German arts education, was more varied. Here, Firelei Báez jammed the story of the German imperial residence Sanssouci up against the Haitian castle and revolutionary leader of the same name with a large archway plunked in front of the entrance. Sara Haq’s reeds, jokingly titled Trans:plant, 2018, poked up from the floor throughout the exhibition, their gentle encroachment suggesting botanical creep in a derelict building (while recalling the theme of architecture also present in Báez’s work). In Noch einmal (Again), 2018, Mario Pfeifer reconstructed a vigilante attack that took place in a German supermarket in May 2016, when a group of white men seized an epileptic refugee and bound him to a tree with cable ties. The victim, Schabas Al-Aziz, later ran into a forest and died of exposure. The case was dismissed within four hours; the defense deemed that the assailants had acted with “civil courage.” Pfeifer restages the attack with the hokey acting of popular German crime shows in front of an assembled jury. His main asset is the time he takes to tell his story. Forty-five minutes of step-by-step accounting gradually magnify the scale of the injustice. The sincere and moving responses by the jury further underscore the import of the crime. One woman, herself a German immigrant, tells the camera, “The faces of these men instill me with fear.”

Dineo Seshee Bopape, Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] (detail), 2016–18, bricks, light, sound, videos, water, framed napkin, works by Jabu Arnell, Lachell Workman, Robert Rhee. Installation view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Photo: Timo Ohler.

Across the five stories of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the presentation was more fragmented. An installation by Dineo Seshee Bopape filled a large central room. Orange light shone on piles of bricks as a concert by Nina Simone played on a small monitor. The work suggests the destruction of our current moment, though the forces carrying out that destruction are weaker than they seem; a cardboard wrecking ball by Jabu Arnell hangs amid the installation. In ILLUSIONS Vol. II, OEDIPUS, 2018, Grada Kilomba wonderfully retold the story of Oedipus as a commentary on colonialism. Other pieces worked better as wall texts than in reality. The performer Okwui Okpok-wasili here staged a performance based on a Nigerian protest dance called “Sitting on a Man’s Head,” where women would gather in the courtyard of a colonial official and sing songs until he was shamed into addressing their concerns. Even with a team of “activators’” dancing in the space, the plain room built for the piece felt empty and ascetic compared to the dance described.

The curators repeatedly said that the show was not meant to be didactic or explanatory. “We are at war,” stated Ngcobo at the opening press conference. Yet bellicosity was not the animating principle; instead, an academic coyness reigned. Little on view met the sense of urgency—and terror—of events transpiring outside the biennial’s door. In the show’s early weeks, the German interior minister began an aggressive, xenophobic assault on migration, initiating stronger border checks and effectively ending Germany’s life-saving policies for Mediterranean refugees. Inside the halls of KW, the air was peaceful and cool.

Madeleine Schwartz writes about European politics and culture for The New York Review of Books and other publications.