Berlin is the city of production. With a vibrant cultural life and rents much lower than in any other major metropolis, it draws in scores of artists from around the globe. The art market, however, loves to hate Berlin. After several strong years, Art Forum Berlin, the city's own contemporary art fair, was hurt in 2003 when several Berlin galleries deserted it in favor of the Frieze Art Fair in London. And that's not all. Earlier this month, Flash Art grandee Giancarlo Politi chastised the organizers of the "3rd Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art," Feb. 14-Apr. 18, 2004, for opening at the exact same time as the ARCO art fair in Madrid.
Obviously the Berlin Biennial had a public relations problem, one that had already become manifest two weeks earlier, when biennial curator Ute Meta Bauer publicly admitted that "maybe" the city didn't need a biennial. Curious timing, this, since the Berlin Biennial, which has so far taken place only every three years because of financial difficulties (it began in 1998 and had its second installment in 2001), received confirmation by Hauptstadtkulturfonds, a federal government agency, to secure funding in the years to come.
But enough about politics. Visitors to the new Berlin Biennial were thrilled. The opening on Feb. 13 was so crowded that for 45 minutes visitors could neither enter nor exit the palatial Martin-Gropius-Bau, where the main section of the exhibition takes place. Its very representative 19th-century architecture gives a peculiar frame to the mostly arid art works that are assembled around five thematic "hubs," as they are called. For the international glitz of a grand opening night, the art palace, however, seemed the right setting.
The hubs, sub-commissioned to different groups of "cultural workers," are concerned with issues of migration, urban conditions, sonic landscapes, fashions and scenes, and other cinemas. They are supposed to work like relay stations between the artists' contributions. Conceptually a very intriguing idea, it did not quite become clear to the unsuspecting visitor, however. An installation is an installation, after all.
The effort to embrace life in all its facets quite often resulted in metaphorical kitsch. A revolving door on a sort of outdoors-catwalk by Wally Salner and Johannes Schweiger from Fabrics Interseason, a Viennese collaborative, did not "trap" anyone, for example. The hub "urban conditions" by Jesko Fezer and Axel John Wieder showing, among other things, Berlin issues of glossy magazines like Nylon, was situated inside a tent inside a palace.
The 50 artists in the show, from different generations and cultural backgrounds, half of them living in Berlin, are supposed to represent the heterogeneity of the German capital, a thriving city with a huge influx of immigrant artists. As a "therapeutic institution," to adopt a phrase coined by the Las Vegas art critic and curator Dave Hickey, the biennial ends up educating Berlin about its multiculturalism by creating an almost uniform surface.
For the most part, the biennial seems flat. It takes hardly any individual positions that would disrupt the curatorial system. The vaunted heterogeneity is not in fact expressed visually, with a few exceptions. Isaac Julien's video Baltimore has all the ingredients of a generic Hollywood-style action movie and transcends the self-made charm of most of the other installations. Oddly, the biennial's curator, despite her interest in social change, apparently deems the power of images to be dispensable.
Thankfully, some works went beyond the level of commentary and created a presence in their own right. Ergin Cavusoglu's video of helicopters at night opens the viewer's imagination. Whatever allusions it contains and whatever explanation might be given to justify the existence of this projection, it quietly sinks in, to become one of the show's lasting visual impressions. Piotr Nathan's room-installation of intricate drawings with mostly gay sexual content, on the other hand, leaves the viewer with a sense of slight irritation. They are not exactly repulsive, but cold with a sensibility of nervousness. The German word "unlust" comes to mind, describing an ambiguity of a subconscious order. To achieve this is an art.
THOMAS W. ELLER is an art critic based in Berlin. He is soon to launch a German language version of Artnet Magazine.