We have chosen the arbitrary route of Biennale artists who live and work in Berlin to explore a cultural area that is geographically hard to pinpoint and where the converging artists' stories have a greater impact on their work than the context in which they have found themselves living for various reasons.
Andro Wekua arrived in the German capital after living as a refugee for quite a while in Switzerland. Thirty-four years old, from Georgia and the son of a dissident poet assassinated in the civil war, Wekua and his mother were forced to abandon his home city of Sukhumi, today the capital of the republic of Abkhazia and a major port on the Black Sea.
His work spans paintings, collages, ceramics, installations and videos, and explore the effects that may be unleashed by the mix of memory, true history and imagination.
At the Biennale, he is presenting Pink Wave Hunter, a series of 15 architectural models of Sukhumi as he remembers it from his childhood. Tidily laid out as the shreds of a lost memory reconstructed by the artist from the stories and photographs of those who have returned, from the Web and from old pictures in his mind, the architectural models stand distanced one from the other on their colourless display surface – a large, white parallelepiped in the centre of a room at the Arsenale. The artist's biography told via narrative episodes, the plot of which has been lost, becomes "an opening providing access to aesthetic prospects, to artistic license and even to political and cultural narration."
Like Wekua, 36-year-old Israeli artist Dani Gal also lives and works in the German capital. His audio- and video-installations reconstruct and reconfigure historical facts in settings that subtly shift their meaning. His video-installations recreate sounds and images in a politicised narration that becomes propaganda and it is, indeed, this one-sided vision that he is exhibiting under the pretext of documenting forgotten or little-known historical facts. In Seasonal Unrest, the soundman added his own sounds to pictures filmed by a television crew that entered the Gaza Strip in the 1970s to show how a political documentary is edited and question our understanding of the language used by the media in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Similarly, in Nacht und Nebel, presented at the Biennale, the artist asked the actors to identify with the Palestinian policemen who, at night and in secret, scattered the ashes of Adolf Eichmann in the Mediterranean, the only Nazi criminal executed, on 31 May 1962 after being found guilty of crimes against humanity. This reconstruction of the episode, based on an interview with a Holocaust survivor, is subtly manipulated by the actors themselves, who play their parts without speaking a word.
Mariana Castillo Deball, a 35-year-old Mexican, also lives and works in Berlin. For the Biennale, she made an animated video and a 12-metre-long Leporello-sheet that resembles something from a medieval bestiary.
Wekua's work reconstructs memory and Gal's history but that of Castillo Debal is like that of an archaeologist, reassembling traces of peoples whose art is greatly heuristic for the very reason that it does not bow to set patterns. After gathering information and material with scientific dedication, in the work displayed at the Arsenale the artist illustrates the cosmogony of Mexican codes from pre-Colombian times, which are full of hieroglyphics and portrayals in which non-human mythological beings and objects existed side by side. This makes the artistic pretence functional and crucial to the search for hidden truths.
By contrast, it is the ways of exhibiting art and their impact on the work's mediation process that interest 36-year-old Shahryar Nashat. Iranian by origin but now a Berliner, he has also lived in Geneva and trained in Holland. In Venice, Nashat is presenting his video in a space where he has arranged a number of sculptures – benches like those found in museums and which are used by the visitors, who cross the boundary of the work and are inside it as they watch the film.
Nashat produced his installation when Bice Curiger decided to exhibit three Tintoretto works in a room in the pavilion and these become the backdrop against which an athlete handles a green parallelepiped, the colour of which is like that of the blue box used in animation programmes to import moving objects into a film; here, however, it might just take all that light from the famous Venetian painter's works somewhere else. Pierfrancesco Cravel