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by Kimberly Bradley
A few things connect the 6th edition of the Berlin Biennale, June 11-Aug. 8, 2010, to its predecessors.

There’s its vague, meaningless title, "What is waiting out there" (last time it was "when things cast no shadow"). There’s the same €2.5 million coming from the German Federal Cultural Foundation. And there’s Kunst-werke Institute for Contemporary Art, where the biennale was born under the reigns and reins of Klaus Biesenbach, Nancy Spector and Hans Ulrich Obrist back in 1998 and which has served as the event’s institutional anchor ever since.

But other things are new and different. Like the curator -- this time  Kathrin Rhomberg, curator and director of Secession in Vienna (1990-2001), director of the Cologne Kunstverein (2002-07) and co-curator of Manifesta 3 (2000). The event has moved from early spring into summer, with its opening events slipping into the pre-Art Basel slot on the Venice Biennale’s off years. Its main exhibition venue has moved across town to Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, long a bastion of subculture and, with the largest Turkish community outside Turkey, a multicultural magnet. And then there’s the art: coming from a much smaller list of participants (only 43 artists compared to an overwhelming 160 in the 2008 show), the focus here is tighter, vague title notwithstanding.

So -- what is waiting out there? Lots and lots (and lots) of video, a section featuring small drawings and paintings by 19th-century German realist Adolph Menzel, and among the artists on display a smattering of young Eastern Europeans from places like Kosovo who’ve seldom been shown on an international level.

A step deeper, though, and questions arise about the notion of "what’s out there" -- what’s "real" -- and the ways that art can engage with that idea. Rhomberg’s curatorial focus is on a contemporary "reality" in all its forms, and how this reality has shifted -- and shifted art production -- since 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008. "The gap between the world we talk about and the world as it really is has widened in the past years," states the catalogue.  

It’s absolutely nothing new that artists like to explore such fissures. But in this exhibition -- whose six venues range from a private apartment to a century-old museum -- both artists and viewers are given an extraordinary amount of mental and physical space to mind the gap, so to speak. "It was a pointed decision to work with the principles of reduction and concentration. Not only in the number of artists, but in how the exhibition is presented," said Rhomberg at the press conference, which took place in Kreuzberg’s Anatolian Aleviten Cultural Center (in itself a pretty surreal event, with biennale director Gabriele Horn and culture minister Bernd Neumann speaking in front of a huge likeness of imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, pictured with a scimitar and ferocious lion).

In the exhibition’s hub -- a sprawling century-old corner building on Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz that has stood empty for the past decade -- Rhomberg allows her artists to spread out, both figuratively and literally. The ground floor is dominated by an oversize cloakroom, which is in fact a work titled Zone by Bratislava-based Roman Ondák (who made waves at the last Venice Biennale when he moved the surrounding foliage into the Czech and Slovak pavilion). Upstairs, German artist Adrian Lohmüller’s Das Haus bleibt still (The House Stays Still) snakes through the space as a network of copper pipes, plastic buckets and other paraphernalia, all collecting water and directing it to the second floor, where it runs through a block of salt onto a mattress on the floor. And Austrian artist Hans Schabus installed fragments of two huge polyester figures -- a stegosaurus and a mammoth, left over from East Berlin’s most famous but long-abandoned amusement park -- in the courtyard. All artistic meditations on networks, space, even the passage of time in a gentrifying city.

But otherwise the venue is heavy on darkened rooms inhabited by documentary-style videos. The Middle East conflict is represented by Israeli artist Avi Mograbi’s Details 2 + 3, which shows footage of Israeli soldiers captured by a simple running camera, installed next to Beyond Guilt #1 by Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir, also from Israel, asking clubbers in Tel Aviv to have bathroom sex and observing as the conversations invariably turn to politics. Dutch artist Renzo Martens reports on poverty and partying in Africa in Episode 3. And France’s Marie Voignier exposes the foibles of contemporary media in Hearing the Shape of a Drum, which documents the desperation of TV journalists attempting to report on Austrian incest perpetrator Josef Fritzl’s trial but who resort to filming each other, since Fritzl’s face is always covered.

Dissidence, resistance, exploitation, even money (a performance series called "The Living Currency" takes place this week) are topics that recur, even in the series of small drawings and paintings by Adolph Menzel, organized by American art historian Michael Fried in a show within a show called "Extreme Realism," installed in the Old National Gallery on Berlin’s famous Museum Island. The 19th-century artist’s exquisite small renderings of fallen soldiers, an unmade bed that looks as if its sheets are still warm, and studies of his own ravaged hands and feet are evocative of a time in German history when things were highly uncertain, somewhat like the climate today. The drawings are, by the way, much stronger than his large-scale paintings in the museum’s adjacent rooms.

On the main floor of Kunst-werke (where only six artists are on view), the biennale’s youngest participant, 24-year-old Kosovan artist Petrit Halilaj, shows the actual timbers used to construct a new house -- one just like his parent’s old war-ravaged property, but 20 percent larger. Raw and massive, the wooden frame juts above KW’s roof, and the work spills out into the institution’s backyard, which Halilaj fills with live chickens. A set of drawings, sculptures and a room in startling white with a single window overlooking the house complete the spatial installation, which is more like a solo show. The house is called, perhaps ironically, The places I’m looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I don’t know how to make them real.

More real is Vietnamese artist Danh Vo’s tiny studio apartment in Kreuzberg, which he’s opened up as a biennial venue. Or is it? There’s a carefully arranged desk, including presumed sketches by Ronald Reagan, art objects in the kitchen and a bathroom with tiles displaying delicate botanical drawings derived from a colonialist’s work in Tibet. Vo’s work plumbs his own personal history and reality as the son of a Vietnamese refugee, a generation later.

All in all, this biennale fulfills Rhomberg’s mission, in the sense that it bites off a lot of chewable issues in a tight edit with little hype -- even the catalogue is bound with staples. It also, thank God, sidesteps the art world’s usual self-referential tendencies: the curator seems to stay behind her artists and more importantly, their works, rather than take up the curator-über-alles paradigm that’s seemed so prevalent in recent years. And the show dares to look a lot of scary or unsettling things straight in the eye.

At the same time the exhibition’s detached stance often keeps the heart, soul, and lifeblood out of what it’s trying to say. The automatic distance created by documentary-style work might make us think, but it prevents us from being able to feel these artists’ realities. It forces the question. . . is realism (extreme or not) the ideal way for the art world to consider the reality that’s waiting out there?

Hard to say. One work that runs hot is American artist Marc BoulosAll That Is Solid Melts into Air, a two-channel video installation that sets a full-wall screen of traders screaming into headsets at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange across from a screen showing natives of the Niger Delta, whose existence is endangered by oil drilling. As the traders’ voices reach fever pitch, the Nigerian activists invoke spirits to gather strength against "everything that’s white." The work is straightforward, journalistic, dark and cinematic. For better or worse, there’s no way its meaning can be missed. Its shrill, oil-driven cries resonate loud and clear, especially right now.

KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a translator and writer working in New York and Berlin.