"Hurry up, hurry up, it's time!" wrote T. S. Eliot in The Wasteland. But for the second Berlin Biennale, which runs Apr. 20-June 20, 2001, let there be no hurrying about, no hurly burly. This exhibition of mostly film, video and loungey installations by 48 artists from 31 countries is one in which you are invited to saunter, linger and sit often in the dark.
The idea behind the show, curated by Saskia Bos, the celebrated director of De Apple, Center for Contemporary Art in Amsterdam, is to show works of "relational art": "not about the big ideological thoughts of the 1960s and '70s, but about almost one-to-one relationships, about small, feasible Utopias... I think this focusing on relationality, on concern and connectedness... was a way of establishing a contour for the art of today."
The art works should "relate" and not "express," Bos suggests, attempting to detonate the idea of the genius artist who works alone in the studio creating works of great expression, products of some energy that must be expelled from the artist's system. The ego of the artist should vanish. What we are meant to experience is something beyond conceptual art, something beyond the participatory art of the late 90s.
"Relational esthetics" is the new-ism coined by critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who observed a new wave of art embodied in the works of Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick, Christine Hill and Vanessa Beecroft, among others.
Does this Biennale then showcase an expansion of an esthetic largely created by those artists? Yes. But some of the artworks are so ephemeral -- products of "idea merchants" (as my friend Bo calls them) -- that the show leaves me with a pure Sehnsucht (yearning) for Things: big paintings, magnificent sculpture made by artists not paring their fingernails.
"Relationality, concern and connectedness"
In the middle of the upstairs rotunda of the neo-Renaissance former post office, the Postfuhramt, a bare-chested blonde-locked young man wearing a purple velvet robe offered me his "comforting services." He was alone in a dark wooden box, the lighting was faint, and the trellised doors offered the kind of privacy unsettling in a place so public. I felt like I was in the confessional and committing a sin at the same time just speaking to this Greek God. (Now that's what I call "relationality.") The artwork Minibar by Spaniard Alicia Framis limited its comforts, however, to women only.
Over at the Kunst-Werke, a fully-clothed massage could be had by all sexes in the Thai artwork Happy Berlin (Free Massage) by Surasi Kusolwong, who invited us to lie on bright monochrome colored mattresses, with thin silk curtains creating the only partition between our twisted and contorted forms and the curious spectators around us. In one corner of the same installation you could recline and watch Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro on VCR. Upstairs from all this lying around, Liam Gillick created an "idea" attic out of the third floor where various events are scheduled to occur. Heading back downstairs, hungry from all this activity, if you were lucky, cottage-industry promoter Dan Peterman might have cooked you a paper-plate portion of his Bottle Cap Pasta.
Japanese artist Tsuyoshi Ozawa lent his hand to creating a makeshift lounge-bar developed according to the wishes of its participants, evolving with each passing day into a new space. A wooden playhouse for adults made complete by costume masks to complete a trip away from reality whilst sipping bottled beer and flipping through Japanese comic books were the "comforts" on offer on the first day of his Sodan Art Cafe-Manga Cafe installation. My second trip back yeilded a quaint little hand-scribbled sign, "We serve coffee, too!"
A true lounge lizzard would not deny himself (or herself) the trip over to the Allianz tower, a big skyscraper out-of-place in the low-lying neck of the western woods section of Berlin (called Treptow) just south of the river Spree. Colorful plaid Thai cloths were sewn together, making a soft-walled playhouse for viewing videos on three TV screens that documented the multipurpose lives of those very same cloths being used for everything under the sun in the artist Navin Rawanchaikul's homeland.
"Video Killed the Radio Star"
Video installations galore included some works that demonstrated a poetic continuum with the high-tech master Bill Viola. The Belgian David Claerbout, whose video stills play with concept of time, made a good counterpart to the Dutch Aernout Mik, whose video "still-life panoramas" (for lack of a better way of describing them) play with notions of our own bodily space.
In Vietnam, 1967, Reconstruction after Hiromishi Mine, Claerbout videotaped a found photograph of an airplane that broke apart in midair hovering above the gentle rolling hills of a lush green landscape. Seeing the photograph enlarged to room-size and captured by the slight jitter of a video projection brought its terror and beauty to life. In another Claerbout work, Untitled (Carl & Julie), the dark space under the S-bahn arches is illuminated by a video projection of a man sitting in the shadows and a young girl busy coloring in her coloring book. With her back to us, she sits on a sun-drenched patio, turning her head to us as if the man in the shadows had alerted her to our presence. She looses interest in us quickly though, returning nonchalantly to her coloring book. In a short loop, she gains and looses interest in the spectators fascinated and interest sustained by the beauty of this grainy black-and-white visual slice in time.
Aernout Mik's video Glutinosity shows a slow-moving blue-lit crowd of Balkan refugee-looking types being pulled and pushed in a silent screen study of how we perceive our own bodies differently when in a crowd.
For Renée Green's Vienna Periphery Walk, a handheld camera follows a group of skate-boarding teenagers along the nondescript outskirts of Vienna. (It could have been Cleveland.) Teenagers and their "identitylessness" also featured -- as they always do -- in the works of the artist team Muntean/Rosenblum. Other questions of identity were explored by the Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman, whose Never My Soul video documentary of a Turkish transvestite filled four small dark rooms with her tragic charm and idiosyncracies. Darren Almond's Traction explored his own identity in the form of interviewing his father, who relays the stories behind the scars he received while on the job as a digger on construction sites. His mother listens attentively and silently, her face the true battleground of emotional scars her husband's storytelling evokes.
Scruptuous voyerism played a role in Ann-Sofi Sidén's video installation documenting the surveillance of a firestation and all of its hunky Swedish inhabitants. And local star Christian Jankowski (who was short-listed for last year's $50,000 Neue National Galerie Prize for Young Art) continued to shine. His latest video, called Rosa, brings to the fore larger questions of "art" in general with a good dose of his signature humor. Daniel Roth used video in combination with drawings and photography to illustrate an invented underworld as seen through the eyes of an owl. (A notion way too complicated for a soundbite sentence this article demands!)
Ironically, one of the two photographers in the show, Rosângela Rennó, is an artist who claims that "there are too many photographs in the world and, consequently, only re-photographs the images of photographs." Lined up on two opposing walls of the main space of the Kunst-Werke were large portraits of the backs of prisoners' close-shaved heads. The skin of the crown was colored pink, accentuating the uniqueness of hair growth, as varied as a fingerprint. Displayed in Berlin, these "headshots" take on the flavor of a study that wouldn't look out of place on Herr Goebbel's desk.
The other photographer, Iranian Parastou Forouhar -- whose works usually deal with Oriental issues -- had a series of 8 by 11 inch photographs that resembled ink blots on a Rorschach test, only these ink blots were made by the changing folds of a balding man in a velvety cape in various kneeling postions.
The only painter in the show whose works were pretty straightforward (i.e., just paint on canvas), if cartoonish, were those of Inka Essenhigh. Three of Fred Tomaselli's psychedelic resin beauties were also on view. The oldest artist in the show was a Chinese painter -- Qui Shi-hua (b.1940) -- who doesn't so much paint as put a nearly untreated canvas before our eyes. Only after a few minutes did you begin to see the landscape of near nothingness somewhere in the far distance. His landscapes come to life only after a period of requisite stillness unnatural to my MTV generation. I liked his extremely minimalist work. It was like experiencing a Bridget Riley, which at first just looks like a bunch of colored lines before it takes off into shakes.
Keith Tyson's An Open Lecture about Everything That Was Necessary to Bring You and This Work Together at This Particular Time was not just a painting, but a work whose process was portrayed by a sound recording of the artist making the painting we stare at. A work more about time than about beauty. The tape ran 74 minutes and the painting is about as pretty as a 74-minute painting done with colored markers can get. The result had a Twombly/Basquiat/Richie feel to it, only a lot less worked over (obviously).
And as for my Sehnsucht for Things...
Polish artist Katarzyna Józefowicz's Carpet (1997-2000) was quite a feat of obsessional collecting; densely packed cut-outs from magazines for none to tread on. Australian Patricia Piccinini made lovely porcelain Giblets-pedastalled ununsables, white and green, and what I overheard tour guide Wolfgang Prinz describing succinctly as "delicate organs taken out of a machine." It was Piccinini's piece Truck Babies that made pictorial headlines in all the German newspapers. Her fiberglass mini-Big Macs (what's the slang for these trucks again?) pink and blue were surrounded by videos of Japanese teenagers advising them things like, "Be the truck that you admire" and "See with your heart, drive with your mind," in between giggles and cuts to a sideways view of a busy freeway. Artist team Swetlana Heger (Czech Republic) & Plamen Dejanov (Bulgaria) had their BMW flourescent razzmatazz on view: miniature glass cars under 70s looking light fixtures lighting just the tiny space above the floor, positively merry-go-round commercialismus.
There was only one work in the show that truly spoke to the wrought soul of Berlin: The Pelegrine (Freedom of Choice Theme Song) (2000), a video installation by the Berlin-living Swede Henrik Håkansson, whose works concern his observations on the effects of technology on nature (i.e. he played techno music for a group of frogs in a marsh and noticed that their croaks eventually fell into another rhythm). Here, under the S-bahn arches, a dove flies solo against the backdrop of a very undramatic stratus-filled sky to a soundtrack both real and recorded of a trains roaring in and out of the station. The effect is that of seeing not a bird of peace in flight, but instead one sees shades of a lone fighter pilot, gone astray from the pack, his presense embodying a fear of the bombs he might drop on our heads. What is unfathomably beautiful about this video is that the camera itself has a bird's eye view on a bird, and when the bird lands on a copper cupola up high, the camera is at cupola level. How did he do it?
The witty Jonathan Monk who filmed the catalogued works of Sol LeWitt and Gerhard Richter in quick succession, tells us, "Forget the Biennale and look to the streets!" He's fond of the window display of a hair salon called Haarmode, calling it "a cross between Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Douglas Huebler and Joseph Kosuth." True. The best part about the Berlin Biennale is becoming a Berlin flaneur. Art is everywhere. And the art of enjoying the Berlin Biennale is the art of being open-eyed idle.
APRIL ELIZABETH LAMM is an American writer who lives in Berlin.