Has Biennial Culture Gentrified the Art World?

(all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Entrance to the Museen Dahlem (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

BERLIN — The eighth Berlin Biennale opened last week and runs until August 3. Reactions so far have been mixed, but one thing is certain: We Berliners have never before hosted such a “global” biennial. A quick scan of the artist list show that Colombian-Canadian curator Juan A. Gaitán and his curatorial team went from Global North to Global South and even Down Under: On view in the event’s three venues are works by artists from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, Colombia, China, Egypt, “Eurasia,”  France, French Guiana, Greece, Guadaloupe, India, Iran, Lebanon, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, and the US — alongside a few Europeans, among them just less than a handful of Germans.

Bani Abidi, "Karachi Series II" (2014),  film still
Bani Abidi, “Karachi Series II” (2014), film still

Gaitán planned to at last pull this Berlin Biennale out of its longstanding east-west narrative; another part of BB8’s original mission was to examine parts of German history — the country’s colonial past — often glossed over in favor of the Third Reich, postwar occupation, or of course post-Wall Berlin (the first Berlin Biennale in 1998 was, after all, titled Berlin/Berlin). To this end, Gaitán secured geographically unusual venues: the Museen Dahlem, a trio of ethnographic museums in the city’s posh western district of Dahlem, as well as the Haus am Waldsee, an intimate villa not far away, to augment the biennial’s traditional anchor in Berlin-Mitte, the Kunst-Werke Center for Contemporary Art. The concept is certainly interesting, and in the run-up to the biennale, we locals were intrigued. Now that BB8 is up and running, however, it feels in many ways like yet another “global” exhibition whose messages (admittedly important, yet here, difficult to decipher) feel, dare I say it, “biennalized.”

Rosa Barba, "Subconscious Society" (2014), 35mm film, 81 mins.
Rosa Barba, “Subconscious Society” (2014), 35mm film, 81 mins.

Thinkers like Hans Belting have pegged the beginning of the rise of “global art” to 1989, when the twentieth century’s dominant political power axes started breaking down. A quote from a recent issue of Texte zur Kunst referred to a show curated by Belting (with Andrea Buddensieg) as “expanding the notion of a globalized contemporary art to the curatorial proposition that, due to the rapid increase in the number of biennales and art fairs since 1989, is to be grasped as an ahistorical, boundless, and economically exploitable circulation mass.” Gaitán’s biennial may have intended to connect works to under-considered parts of German history and the controversial construction of Berlin’s forthcoming Humboldt-Forum — a rebuild of the city castle in central Berlin that will ultimately house collections now in Dahlem. But the effect is more one of an agglomeration of art-world players whose ideas and visual languages, in the end, fit all too well into the usual aesthetics and discourses.

This “art world Esperanto” (a wonderful term coined by ArtReview’s J.J. Charlesworth) — in which artistic production operates on a visual lingua franca that no longer reflects cultural specificity or locality — is nothing new. But it’s not that old, either. Okwui Enwezor’s seminal Documenta 11 exhibition in 2002 was a heady injection of different global visual languages into a knowledge-producing, paradigm-shifting exhibition that was an early example of what he later called “a shift in curatorial language from one whose reference systems belonged to an early twentieth century modernity to one more attuned to the tendencies of the twenty-first century.” Twelve years later, we have to ask just what those tendencies are, or are developing into — could it be, as in the real world, a homogenization of formerly incongruous (and interesting) cultural expressions as late capitalism reaches its tentacles into every last corner of the planet and the global elite gains new kinds of power?

Otobong Nkanga, “In Pursuit of Bling, 2014), videos/Inkjet prints, lightbox, metal modulated structure, minerals, objects, texts, videos with sound, woven textile pieces, Dimensions variable, Installation view
Otobong Nkanga, “In Pursuit of Bling, 2014), videos/Inkjet prints, lightbox, metal modulated structure, minerals, objects, texts, videos with sound, woven textile pieces, Dimensions variable, Installation view

Back to BB8: There are some lovely individual works to see. At Kunst-Werke, Andreas Angelidakis’s comfy, carpeted installation “Crash Pad” (2014) has been exactly that since January; there’s Otobong Nkanga’s video-carpet-object installation “In Pursuit of Bling” (2014), and crowds consistently gathered before Julieta Aranda’s “Stealing One’s Own Corpse,” a film pondering space colonization as escapism. Dahlem highlights include a film by Rosa Barba, a remix of Anri Sala’s Venice Biennale contribution last year, and a video installation called “Vanishing Point” by Jimmy Robert. Here, Gaitán kept the contemporary and ethnographic works separate and “out of dialogue” (unlike other shows that have deliberately put these things together, like Centre Pompidou’s controversial 1989 exhibition Magiciens de la Terre; or Clementine Deliss’s recent shows in Frankfurt’s Museum of World Cultures) — one exception is a room of photographs, inkjet pieces, and wearable readymades by Wolfgang Tillmans, who manages to work with one existing exhibit and uses the room’s original “woodland” theme in his title. But the alternating galleries are often disconcerting, and some of ethnographic displays exude a stronger “aura” than the contemporary pieces. Works by heavy hitters like Tacita Dean and Glenn Ligon feel under-highlighted.

Wolfgang Tillmans, detail "(I think this one is untitled (BB Vitrine Installation Dahlem)" (2014)
Wolfgang Tillmans, detail “(I think this one is untitled (BB Vitrine Installation Dahlem)” (2014)

Overall, “global” issues like migration, borders, post-colonialism, center versus periphery, urban decay versus nature, currency, and political discord echo throughout and are sometimes quite poetically represented, but too many works appear as multipart pieces (many of them on paper) conservatively displayed in rows — a  presentation method used a lot in big exhibitions lately. There’s even a section on long-dead, under-recognized historical figures (like Emma Willard, a feminist educator) who mixed artistic and scientific practices; and, in the Haus am Waldsee, a mysterious display called “private collection,” apparently a mini-display of Gaitán’s favorite stuff.

Li Xiaofei, from the project "Assembly Line" (2010 - continuing), six-channel video
Li Xiaofei, from the project “Assembly Line” (2010 – continuing), six-channel video

So much of the work in BB8 — interestingly, 80 percent of it commissioned — feels tame and too laden with meaning and necessary explanation to pack enough punch and hit eyes, guts, and hearts on a purely aesthetic level. And strangely, this most global (and theme-less, save for the brackets of the event’s “8” logo) edition of the Berlin Biennale makes me think of the gentrification I see on Berlin’s streets. In the past six or seven years, a time in which Berlin has become a global brand, everyone and everything has started to look alike, and increasingly similar to how things look elsewhere. Has biennial culture gentrified the art world? Is neoliberalism smoothing out the last sharp edges of artistic plurality? Perhaps the “global” mega-exhibition, once consistently exciting, is fast becoming a tired art world trope. In an essay called “In Defense of Biennials,” Massimiliano Gioni wrote that “ … it is important to consider not only where art comes from, but also where it can take you.” Gaitán succeeded in lifting Berlin’s homegrown biennial out of its navel-gazing past; but where it means to take us remains a big question mark.
The 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, curated by Juan A. Gaitán, will be on view from May 29 until August 3, 2014, at three venues: the KW Institute for Contemporary Art (Auguststraße 69, Berlin-Mitte); Haus am Waldsee (Argentinische Allee 30, Berlin-Zehlendorf); and Ethnologisches Museum Dahlem (Lansstraße 8, Berlin-Dahlem).

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