The seventh edition of the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Forget Fear, is a controversial, contradictory, ambiguous, and, at times, politically incorrect exhibition. And incredibly presumptuous. But it raises important questions and sweeps aside that appeasing art that can so easily become a status symbol: nothing to take home, nothing to consume, just a few names to remember.
The Biennale puts into play political, social and cultural disputes and conflicts; to do so, it plays on the possibility of generating distress, confusion and tension in the visitor.
In fact, it was curated by an artist, Artur Zmijewski, who is decidedly not very conciliatory. Interested neither in art's formal dimension nor its linguistic, stylistic or theoretical games, Zmijewski credits art with anticipating other possible worlds but his work is all "anti;" and the way he does it is by setting in motion processes of rupture. As a creator of platforms for action and activator of reactions, the artist stages paradoxical, provocative, manipulative situations that are, in many cases, painful both for the participants, who together play the roles of victims and accomplices, as well as for spectators; situations that scramble and are sometimes exasperating. His work has often focused on deep-rooted social tensions and far-reaching historical traumas; and he knows how to bring out the trends, prevailing moods and convictions, beliefs and ideologies that inform today's society. One of his techniques is to have the protagonists in his work perform in inharmonious, forced, and sometime extreme situations.
The Biennale that he curated fits the artist perfectly. A confusing, irritating hybrid that includes figures that we would not have imagined seeing side by side: contemporary artists and Occupy movement activists, traditional sculptors and outlawed extremist groups included on terrorist lists and here represented by their lawyers. The opening press conference was meticulously organized to be transformed into a collective meeting with a group of indignado Spaniards who questioned bystanders about the meaning of a "political" biennale but also about how journalists are conditioned in their daily activities. The sensation of the participants was of annoyance or boredom and in any case of being forced and entrapped.
The Occupy group was offered the entire ground floor of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art so that they could camp out there and transform it into a series of small laboratories. Another floor of KW, transformed into a studio with a video showing a crowd waiting along muddy roads in Poland to see a sculpture pass by, is dedicated to Miroslaw Patecki, the Polish sculptor specializing in religious statuary, author of the largest statue of Christ that was never built. Pathos is palpable in gestures and expressions, and inevitably we find ourselves wondering where the difference is, and if, in these rituals, there is no longer desire, authentic collective participation, or confidence in a possible transformation of the world other than what is put into play by indignados, or by artists. Meanwhile Patecki is in the room "sculpting" a new gigantic head of Jesus in polyester.
Among the other works on display, a collection of newspaper clippings assembled by Teresa Margolies, narrates — day by day — a grim and gruesome reality made up of murdered people and dismembered corpses through titles and cover images: a condition that can, evidently, generate addictive and mass voyeurism.
The project by Czech artist Martin Zet proposes to collect and dispose of as many copies of an anti-Muslim racist book that caused a stir in Germany in 2010: Deutschland schafft sich ab [Germany Is Doing Away With Itself] by Thilo Sarrazin. The idea of dumping the volumes in a country that experienced the tragic book burnings and that in the past was capable of such deep thought generated strong reactions of protest. Moreover, it seems that the number of donated books was very few.
Artist Lukas Surowiec planted 300 trees - born in the forests near Auschwitz-Birkenau on the graves of the gassed dead — throughout the streets of Berlin: a city infiltrated by a sort of vital organic monument in perennial growth.
Palestinian Khaled Jarrar created a rubber stamp for the Palestinian state and lets visitors stamp their passports with it. The invented stamp referring to an official situation that does not exist would create real problems in any customs office.
In short, the exhibition raises questions about the active presence of the artist in society, the existing political order and the politics of memory, legality and illegality, the extent to which a society allows us to operate. The winds of indignation and the violence of history, the languages of ideologies, political stand-by are issues that are all present in the show and Zmijewski is not afraid of being perceived as pretentious.
But there is more. In many cases we find ourselves wondering what we're looking at. Of course, this is a show that should be seen as a whole, but the impression is that the authorship of the invited artists has been deliberately muted. So it is no wonder that Zmijewski's relations with the Berlin art scene have been tense. Undoubtedly one of the most important themes emerging from the show regards the role of the artist as curator.
Through 1 July 2012
The 7th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art
Various locations, Berlin