Post-wall Berlin is presently undergoing a massive reconstruction designed to make the German capital the commercial and political center of Eastern Europe. This undertaking has its cultural component of course: it is the stated aim of the powers that be that Berlin should be a cultural capital as well. Right on time, the first Berlin Biennale opened on Sept. 28, 1998 and will run in its present form until Jan. 3, 1999.
Groundwork for the project was laid by Berlin-based curator Klaus Biesenbach, who is also a curator at P.S.1 and was a jury member at the last Venice Biennale. Biesenbach additionally enlisted the help of Guggenheim Museum curator Nancy Spector and Hans Ulrich Obrist, who is affiliated with ARC, Paris.
Central to the Biennale is the exhibition "Berlin/Berlin", which features work by more than 70 artists, architects and performers. Focusing on Berlin itself as a city in transition and "artists who have been engaged with Berlin in one way or another, " the show is also billed as "a stock-taking of the most important trends and movements of the '90s." As such, most of the participating artists will be familiar from other international megashows. Don't expect a showcase of the new young German artists.
In a manner similar to Documenta X, "Berlin/Berlin" is augmented by several less traditional curatorial sections. "Congress 3000" consisted of talks, performances, fashion shows and film screenings in a three-day marathon event at Haus der Kultur der Welt. "Plattform" was intended to embrace groups with "a vigilant and critical attitude" working outside the commercial gallery system. Another project, dubbed "Flanerie, " has so far amounted to seven artists documenting their experiences in the city via inserts in the catalogue.
"Berlin/Berlin" has three unusual venues, all within walking distance of each other in the center of Berlin in the former East German sector. The tottering but impressive Akademie der Künste, a Beaux-Arts exhibition facility next door to the Brandenburg Gate, was built in 1905 but is now in disrepair. The Postfuhramt is a disused post office of even older vintage dating to the 1870s. The most presentable of the three is the four-story Kunst-Werke, currently undergoing a renovation that has included the addition of an asymmetrical, glass-facaded cafe designed by Dan Graham. Kunst-Werke is the Biennale's home base. Founded in 1991 by Biesenbach and several others, Kunst-Werke started life as a modest run-down alternative space but has aims to become Berlin's equivalent to institutions like the ICA in London.
Since the fall of the wall, atmospheric public ruins like the Postfuhramt and Akademie have frequently been sites of temporary exhibitions. Artists and curators have mounted shows in bunkers, cellars, former police barracks and bombed out department stores. The Biennale aligns itself with such initiatives -- perceived as the cradle of Berlin's current artistic vibrancy -- though none of those had anything remotely near the ca. $1.5 million budget of the Biennale, which was raised through a combination of public and private sponsorships.
"Berlin/Berlin" gains a certain unity from architect Walter Musacchi's plywood walkway, which plots a route through the entire Postfuhramt like a rough pine mini-golf course, and also runs up to the entrances of the other two venues. In a city that's full of construction sites surrounded by the same material, and likely to remain so for at least a decade, it is an obvious and somewhat awkward metaphor that is nevertheless effective.
Awkward footing could also describe the work of Markus Schinwald, who at 24 is the youngest participant in the Biennale. His quirky hybrid shoe sculptures, a number of which were on view at Kunst-Werke, were also promoted in a chic fashion ad on a giant digital screen on nearby Alexanderplatz. His products include alligator loafers mated with a pair of sneakers to form Snakers; "kitten" heels attached to flip flops called Belly; and a combination of sneakers and clogs dubbed Airwood. A definite success, Schinwald's shoes are interdisciplinary, communicative and sexy.
Jonathan Meese's chaotic, encyclopedic installation, Ahoi de Angst (1998), fills a room in the Postfuhramt, overwhelming its decayed Victorian decor. Entering the work is like stumbling through an Escher staircase on a controlled substance. The walls are covered with posters and drawings of the artist's favorite celebrity legends in a cacophony of hipster overload: Romi Schneider, Joe Dallesandro, Oscar Wilde, Sean Connery, Nina Hagen, R. W. Fassbinder, Claudia Schiffer... along with portraits of the artist in various guises. It's like a malevolent poster-psycho-world rushing off in a hundred directions at once.
Another anarchic performance/installation John Bock's Liquidäts Aura Aromaport Folio (1998), is constructed like a set for a trashy Sesame Street performance, with debating Dadaesque leg puppets appearing through holes in an elevated floor.
Over at Kunst-Werke is a similarly berserk but less focused pop mess by the group Honey Suckle Company called HSC3D. Low-tech videos of wacky performances shared space with junky sculptures made of cellophane and cardboard. Like many post-performance residue pieces, the work is disappointing -- why not just clean up afterwards?
The kids loved it though, as they did Carsten Höller's Valerio I and Valerio II, a pair of twisting cylindrical stainless steel slides connecting the floors of Kunst-Werke. One of the slides goes out the window down to the first floor, and may be retained as a permanent fixture, serving as the building's fire escape. Höller also has a work at the Postfuhramt called Kinder Demonstration For The Future (1992) -- a black-and-white slide show of children holding placards displaying the word "Zukunft, " or future, as if demonstrating for the unknownable and inevitable.
Another highlight at Kunst-Werke is a laconic video by Daniel Pflumm, dryly titled Questions and Answers (1998). What at first seems to be a still of two CNN commentators turns out to be a loop, with the couple caught mid-frame, blinking endlessly and accompanied by an original techno soundtrack. Pflumm is a local who has made his mark with a couple of alternative clubs, Electro and Panasonic, and with a record label -- all collaborative projects borrowing elements from art, music and club culture.
The Postfuhramt has one grandiose space, a large circular lobby on the second floor topped by a stuccoed and water-damaged cupola. Installed in this space are works by Olafur Eliasson and Tobias Rehberger, who are both represented by Berlin's Gallery Neugerriemschneider. Eliasson's runaway electric fan, Ventilator (1998), is like a pendulum suspended by a wire from the dome's apex, flying about aimlessly and dangerously, exploring the limits of its own terrain.
Beneath the circling fan, only just out of harm's way, are Rehberger's Blumenvase (1995) -- portraits of dealers and artists as exotic vase-and-flower combinations. Those portrayed -- including Antjie Majewski, Sharon Lockhart, Jorge Pardo, and Elizabeth Peyton -- collaboratively chose the types of flowers for their bouquet, sight unseen.
Rehberger's second work for the Biennale also involves people and pretty things. Bauchkette (1998) is a gold personalized waist chain, sponsored by a very game German jeweler and worn by everyone working as part of the Biennale organization -- an erotic chain gang. Come next January, the pieces must be returned but will forevermore bear the wearer's name as recompense. In its "intimate" aspect, the work is a more expensive remake of Rehberger's Venice Biennale piece, for which pavilion attendants wore flesh-colored underwear that the artist provided.
Most of the works at the Postfuhramt each had their own small dilapidated ex-office, and many suffer from the isolation, or from appearing too slight in their setting. This situation worked best for more introverted pieces, such as Ugo Rondinone's installation, So Much Water, So Close to Home (1998). A yellow filter covers the room's window, converting Berlin's gray days into sunlight. Speakers play a melancholic soundtrack of velvet guitar, a reassuring voice sings "everyday's sunshine" and a video shows people turning their backs and closing doors.
Andreas Slominski's work also functions well at the Postfuhramt, playing off its former status as a "depot." Enough Paint to Paint the Funkturm (an Eiffel Tower-like radio tower on Berlin's west side) consists of pallets piled high with 30Kg buckets of paint, a reminder of the building's current temporary use.
Grouped together in the more epic-scaled halls of the Akademie der Künste are works by Manfred Pernice, Douglas Gordon, Sarah Sze, Thomas Demand, Wolfgang Tillmans and Rirkrit Tiravinija. Several of them refer to historical events that occurred at the site. Albert Speer apparently exhibited the models for the proposed Nazi reconstruction of Berlin as his new city, Germania, at the art academy. Manfred Pernice responded directly with a mammoth five-meter-high chipboard model of an apartment and office building (origins unspecified) titled Hauptdose, which translates as "main outlet" -- a comment relating to building big throughout history.
Douglas Gordon's peeling text piece, which emphatically states that "I am aware of what you are & what you do, " hangs ominously on the wall opposite. Sprawling in one corner is Sarah Sze's Second Means of Egress I (1998), one of the artist's trademark meandering sculptures. The piece is a system of checks and balances, made largely of matchsticks and incorporating spirit levels, lights, fans, mirrors and lots of painstaking gluing. It reaches up the wall to an open skylight, where a small houseplant captures a bit of sun -- sometimes escape fantasies are the best solution.
Also on the walls are Thomas Demand's slickly produced photoworks, harnessing the art of models and the photographic lie, and Wolfgang Tillmans' banner-sized bubble-jet prints, one documenting a rat disappearing down a sewer. In the opposite room is Rirkrit Tiravanija's Untitled 1997 (Cinema de Ville, Berlin/Bangkok), two large green tents housing home-movie projections of street scenes. The tents offered an uncertain refuge in the theatrically dilapidated Academy halls.
The success of the Akademie der Künste presentation as a cohesive part of "Berlin/Berlin" can be posited against the inadequacy of the "Plattform" project. Positioned at the rear of the Postfuhramt, "Plattform" is intended to present work by more marginal groups and artists, many Berlin-based, who have a more critical and activist social agenda.
Unfortunately, the first impression upon entering is that someone has broken in and made off with half the stuff -- indeed, some works are to be found at various other locations in the city. The model for the show was perhaps the Hybrid Workspace, a kind of information depot at Documenta X. In Plattform, viewers are presented with some photocopies, a couple of televisions and a group of uninviting shelves housing a few tapes. Perhaps more interesting things can be found via the internet, at www.art-bag.net/convextv, or www.berlinbiennale/plattform/introgroup (expired link).
This ignominious scenario was avoided by Neid, an artists group that publishes a magazine of the same name. Its members are showing video works in a separate lounge fitted out with a king-sized bed -- its generous white bedding adorned with a menage á trois of cherubs and lit by ultraviolet fluoros.
Although the curators hoped to place Berlin itself at the center of their "global" stocktaking of '90s art, in the end the show is oddly detached and esthetized. In particular, "city in flux" issues such as multiculturalism, gender politics and poverty are overlooked. Genres such as painting and new media are also intentionally skipped over -- strange in a project billed as an overview. And too frequently it seemed that works created especially for the Biennale didn't make the same big splash as the older works that helped to establish their makers' reputations.
Leaving the Biennale at the Postfuhramt, the visitor walks across a small "sidewalk sculpture" by the Danish duo of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Wish-Pond is a shallow, square, blue-lit pool covered by a thick plate of glass set flush with the sidewalk. A few coins trapped inside indicate that some anonymous wishes have been made, if not granted. In the air above, bubbles blowing from Kristina Solomoukha's loud speaker titled Lautsprecher (1998) circulate, float skywards and burst.
DAVID ALLEN is an artist and writer from Glasgow.
DOMINIC EICHLER is an artist and writer from Melbourne. Both are based in Berlin.