The title of the 5th Berlin Biennale, Apr. 5-June 15, 2008, is "When Things Cast No Shadow," which means that "the visitor should look at the work itself, not the shadow, the hype, surrounding it," according to biennale co-curator Elena Filipovic. So the biennale’s moniker -- not a quote but thought up by the clever curators -- isn’t about bold-face names and fabulous parties, but what we’re supposedly all here for in the first place.
Before bb5 -- as the show is called in brief -- opened to the public, much speculation was heard about the roster of artist, the curators’ track records and just what might be shown in the "day" (installations) and "night" (performances) portions of a show that would certainly be a radical departure from the 2006 edition organized by Mauricio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick.
Funded to the tune of €2.5 million by the German Federal Cultural Foundation and curated by the Polish-born curator Adam Szymczyk, the 38-year-old director of Kunsthalle Basel (who later brought Filipovic on board as his co-curator), "When Things Cast No Shadow" includes works by 160-odd artists and thinkers in all. Eighty percent of the works were commissioned for the event, the other 20 percent heavily adjusted to be as site-specific as possible. The bb5 takes place in four far-flung venues on both sides of city’s historical divide -- or five, if you believe Filipovic’s claim that the tome of a catalogue should be considered a kind of venue. Or 25 and counting, if you add all the sites for the next two months’ worth of performances and other artistic "interventions."
Much of the work is so subtle that several viewings (or one long one with an accompanying text) are necessary to get the point. Thus, the show can seem as pedagogical as Documenta typically is, not to mention being difficult to navigate (visitors to the show should buy the two small exhibition guidebooks, and you definitely need the bb5 map). "These are complex works that are not loud and shiny, but draw you in," explains Filipovic. Yes, but is this a good or a bad thing in our hyper-accelerated world? That depends on how much time you have, or whether you’re a process-oriented or results-oriented type.
Fans of "slow art" have a few rewards awaiting them. Highlights at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the biennale’s birthplace and anchor, include Norwegian artist Pushwagner’s Soft City, a 150-page pictorial novel produced from 1969 to 1975. Its dystopian urban images fit well with Turkish-born Ahmet Ögüt’s Ground Control, a still-smelly asphalt surface covering the entire 4,000 square feet of the building’s lowest exhibition space just downstairs. It suggests a literal homogenization, cultural difference flattened into. . . asphalt. One uniform surface under which a lot of treasures might or might not be buried.
More explicitly poetic are Summer Days in Keijo, Written in 1937, Sung Hwan Kim’s nonlinear video tracing locations in a rebuilt Seoul, and 25-year-old Polish artist Ania Molska’s two-channel film contrasting stark images of work and power. David Maljkovic’s video and collages meld striking past and present images of architecture from the World’s Fair in the ‘70s in his native Zagreb, and Kohei Yoshiyuki’s infrared photos from 1971 of voyeurs watching lovers in a Japanese park make bb5 viewers into meta-voyeurs.
The building’s entire attic space is devoted to an installation by Tris Vonna-Michell, whose Studio A takes up the idea of dystopia with recordings of Detroit’s soundscape and slides of urban decay.
The glass-box ground floor of the Neue Nationalgalerie is far more accessible and less delicate, but still requires good map-reading skills. Viewers are immediately hit with Warsaw-based Piotr Uklanski’s sculpture of a monumental clenched fist, made of white painted steel tubing, at the entrance, a bit of Communist Kitsch that is ironic (dare we say "punchy"?). A more lighthearted tone is set by the Romanian artist Daniel Knorr’s colorful flags fluttering around the top perimeter of the Mies van der Rohe-designed building. One asks whether the flags are a take on the idea of "national," but no, their rainbow colors are those of 58 Berlin-based student fraternities.
Mies’ box has always been a challenging place to install art, and playing with the architecture works better in some places than in others. Confrontations and initial confusions rule. Paola Pivi’s If You Like It, Thank You. If You Don’t Like It, Sorry. Enjoy Anyway runs parallel to the front façade, blocking the entrance with a huge latticework sculpture, whose daggered points and encrusted jewels are both threatening and decorative. Four blocky yellow sculptures in the middle of the space by Mexico’s Gabriel Kuri are strewn with coats and bags, which seem part of the installation until it becomes clear that this is now coat check as interactive art.
Other works are suspended vertically or set on the floor, like Berlin-based Iranian artist Nairy Baghramian’s La Colonne Cassée (1871) -- two vertical black surfaces punctuated with what look like bullet holes, placed facing each other inside and outside the pavilion. Susan Hiller’s film, The Last Silent Movie (2007), sonically dominates the space throughout, which is irritating until you realize the speakers are reciting random words, phrases or sentences in dying or extinct languages, like Comanche. Nothing is visible on the suspended film screen except the subtitles.
Viewers get a welcome map break over in the Schinkel Pavilion, where the protocol calls for a series of five shows, in which one bb5 participant selects a single older artist and installs his or her work in the airy space. Going up on Apr. 11, 2008, is Lars Laumann’s presentation of fellow Norwegian Pushwagner, also on view at KW.
But things get trickier again at the Skulpturenpark Berlin _ Zentrum -- a strip of desolate lots on what was once the Berlin Wall’s no-man’s land between the American and Russian sectors. When do things cast no shadow? Well, when there’s no sun. Opening weekend saw huddles of people picking their way through the dirt, weeds and dog poo under overcast skies or even rain, looking for the sprawling site’s artworks and not always finding them.
"It’s like hunting for Easter eggs," said artnet.de critic Anne Haun, frustrated that she couldn’t hear Hiller’s sound installation. The work was supposed to come from within a pile of rubble but had been turned down because the neighbors had complained. A few works were easily identifiable and interesting, including Laumann’s two-part video of a woman who’s fallen in love with the Berlin Wall (on view in a makeshift hut placed on the site); Katerina Sedá’s Over and Over, a circular sculpture that refers to the different fences in her home village in the Czech Republic; and Swiss artist Kilian Rüthemann’s Stripping -- 300 hand-dug cavities perforating the ground.
The Berlin biennale’s mission has always been to provide an open lab for edgy young art, but do any real themes emerge? Filipovic and Szymczyk claim the exhibition grew "organically" during the curatorial process, but the few connecting threads seem to be time and its passing, general decay, utopias, dystopias and of course site-specificity. Given the curators’ backgrounds -- Filipovic is half-Serbian -- the show also has an unmistakable Eastern European slant (on opening day, I heard a German artist quip "It’s the Warsaw Biennale!")
Artnet.de’s Gerrit Gölke claims that bb5 is so broad and lab-like that it could be called the "alpha and omega" and be likened to an architectural or artistic model, i.e. something that isn’t quite complete. Perhaps, but maybe the true underlying thread connecting it all -- the venues, the performances and even the catalogue -- is that it’s all about process.
Visitors should just take Paola Pivi’s advice and enjoy anyway. In many ways the lack of pretense and slow pace are utterly refreshing. And we’ll see what unfolds over the next 60-odd nights in the Biennale’s night section. The films, lectures and performances of Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (My Nights are Better Than Your Days) will occur in places like Alexanderplatz’s new terra-cotta-toned Alexa shopping center or the legendary Volksbühne theater. Stay tuned.
The bright side of hype
For all the proclaimed understatement, bb5 was the occasion for plenty of ancillary activity, including parties at legendary Berlin clubs like the WMF and Cookie’s. On Apr. 3, Berlin’s newish riverside art space Radialsystem V kicked off a month-long series of video and film works called "After the Light, Moving Pictures Displayed at Night" featuring Reynold Reynolds, Bjørn Melhus, Harun Farocki, Michel de Broin and others.
The Brunnenstrasse scene threw another rollicking collective opening and even hosted a Saturday-morning brunch that offered hair-of-the-dog relief from the official opening fete’s excesses. Collector Christian Boros inaugurated his exhibition space in a monumental converted war bunker not far from Kunst-Werke with a superexclusive party. Jörg Koch, publisher and editor of the art-fashion-architecture-politics magazine 032c launched a concept-driven "museum store," created by Munich-based star industrial designer Konstantin Grcic.
And just under the radar (so to speak) was the Midget Biennale, taking place across town in a building on the Künstlerhaus Bethanien grounds. Polish performance artist Katarzyna Kozyra and her troupe of five midgets (also from Poland) have appeared in prior art events, billed as the Midget Gallery. At the 2006 Berlin Biennale, the group stormed along Auguststrasse, and that fall they squatted at the Frieze Art Fair until they were kicked out. In 2007, Greek collector Dakis Ioannou retained the group as his agent and sent them into Art Basel to buy a work for his collection, which proved to be more difficult than expected, since it’s not easy to get a dealer to take seriously a miniature quintet with blue-chip taste. The little people ultimately commissioned a work by California artist Richard Jackson.
Touted as "underground" and titled "From the Caves to Art Basel to e-flux: The Third Way for Communism," the Midget Biennale held to its word. Kozyra’s basement walls sported figurative murals of major art-world figures and events decorated with texts like "We are dwarves, but we are standing on the shoulders of giants." When I passed through, the jovial guys were in the middle of a professional photo shoot, vamping in coveralls as they "painted" in their cellar grotto.
The Midget Gallery got its start with Kozyra’s Snow-White-like film Wintertale (2005). A Summertale is in the works and stars the midgets’ wives, all of whom are also little people. "I tried using German midgets but they didn’t like the attention. But the Polish ones just love it," says Kozyra. The short-lived show closed on Apr. 6, 2008, after which the midgets returned to their homes in the east. But they’ll certainly be back.
KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a translator and writer working in New York and Berlin.