9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art: “The Present in Drag”
Akademie der Künste, ESMT European School of Management and Technology, The Feuerle Collection, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Blue-Star sightseeing boat, Jun 4–Sep 18, 2016
The first impression of the 9th Berlin Biennale is that of a Millennial’s existential crisis. But rather than sulkily quoting Camus while blowing cigarette smoke in your face, the contemporary existentialist muses on adages—“You look at your phone, have full bars but no connection” or “You like post-industrial spaces even though you’ve never seen industry first hand.” The artist is in a crisis, then, her exhibitions are like TED talks, the present is left with the uncertainties of the future; she has only hashtags to frame her life. This is the situation that #BB9 sets out not to just address, but also to create and moderate: a horizontal exploration of a hyperlinked landscape.
Combining the magazine/online platform of the moment, DIS, with the city of the moment, Berlin, creates a delirious biennale that is at once too conscious of its own timeliness and unable to see beyond it. DIS conceived of their biennale as a “real-life” instantiation of their website, and indeed, the exhibition is filled with long-time contributors and collaborators. The fashion label Telfar has a booth at the entrance of the Academy of Arts (Akademie der Künste) with T-shirts retailing for EUR 90. Directly abutting it, “LIT”, with lightboxes from artists ranging from Cao Fei to Martine Syms and Dora Budor, attempt to compose the “hyperlinked landscape of our incomprehensible present,” as the catalogue notes. If there is a close link to the imagery of advertising, this is no accident: the logo of the biennale was chosen to resemble that of Deutsche Bank, and the large-scale posters (by Babak Radboy, the “visual director”) promoting the event are near indistinguishable from contemporary consumer cosmetics and electronics marketing campaigns.
The biennale itself is full of things to buy, from beer to the aforementioned T-shirts to juice at Deborah Delmar’s mint juice bar installed at the Academy. Wandering around the locations, the smooth, overly-rendered images familiar from DISmagazine.com intersect—the biennale artist’s brands with that of the biennale itself, the sponsors Drive Now and luxury appliances manufacturer Dornbracht. This is the biennale as commercial concern, with all logos competing for attention: programmatically speaking, there is no difference between state and market, art and commodity, and in the end, everything exists to be sold back to ourselves in the form of EdgeRanked recommendations.
No wonder the precarious perma-lancer is stressed out and in need of cosseting, which happily is also provided in the Academy of the Arts venue. Here, the visitor is really rendered as a participant: the familiar contemporary trope of the video-as-environment has you lolling on a bed (M/L Artspace), eying the exercise equipment (Nik Kosmas), gingerly navigating shifting sand (Josh Kline), exploring a martial arts dojo (Wu Tsang) or perching on a bar (Fitch/Trecartin). By the end of it all, one has the feeling of having navigated a series of increasingly surreal stage sets, the video works taking a backseat to their environment. One almost wishes for the return of the generic black box. Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic take this to particular heights in their installation on a tourist river boat. Upstairs there, scorched earth, fake grass and assemblages of rat tails, apocalyptic dummies and flowers allude to the video piece (“There is a word I’m trying to remember, for a feeling I’m about to have (a distracted path towards extinction)”(2016)) installed downstairs; multiple narratives intersect, looking at the collapse of human civilization and larger processes—a future in which humans have been replaced by giant rats. A mutilated doll forms part of the assemblage: this is a permanent viewer seated on the skin of a giant rat. The effect is repulsive yet compelling, and I found myself unable to turn away.
Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin’s dorm room bunk-beds and (sadly dry) bar constitute an “environment” from which to view their Untitled (work in progress). Theatrical tropes familiar both from “Priority Innfield”, shown at the Venice Biennale in 2013, and “Site Visit” (KW, 2014)—ambivalently gendered characters, exaggerated make-up, hyper-speed voices, stream-of-conscious-narration, a plot that dives and rounds on itself—are evident. While I enjoyed the hyper-speed narration of “Priority Innfield”, the approach is by now wearing thin: Fitch/Trecartin have engaged a familiar cast of characters before, and by now, the most entertaining aspect of the work is trying to spot which character is where.
While the present may be in (electronic) drag, there are a few outstanding works that embody and communicate these themes eloquently. Simon Fujiwara’s “The Happy Museum”, a collaboration with his brother, Daniel, an econometrist who analyzes and quantifies well-being (“happiness economics”—an embodiment of the Biennale’s leitmotif of “paradessence”) is notable here. The objects in the museum-within-the biennale make literal economic data which has been gathered on the well-being of German population. These include Kinder chocolate bars, a giant gingerbread house made by a Turkish bakery in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, children’s car seats conference lunch tables and Angela Merkel’s high-definition powder makeup. It is a status-free collection, at once idiosyncratic and comfortably standardized.
In contrast, the sculptor Anna Uddenberg savagely mocks the consumer aspiration through the twisted, shop-mannequin torsos and tortured facial expressions of her—female—protagonists. Her real target, though, is contemporary image culture: a much-instagrammed BB9 image is one of her sculptures photographing her behind with a selfie-stick. Elsewhere, popular Instagram poses are viciously satirized, and suitcases, backpacks and athleisure wear mock #mobilelifestyles.
Perhaps the most effective instantiation of the Biennale’s theme is Alexandra Pirici’s “Signals”: five performers dressed in motion capture suits enact formations of viral internet content, from Black Lives Matter protest songs to Kim Kardashian memes and politician’s speeches. The visitor selects which action to perform based on a list, which is then transmitted into the black box performance room. Pirici’s aim was to uncover and manipulate the algorithms governing Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm in order to unmask their subjectivity.
In short, walking through #BB9 feels like navigating a particularly aesthetically pleasing version of the present: one that is found in promotional films for real estate, shampoo commercials and smartphone adverts—the present is indeed in drag. It is an aesthetics rather than a politics of the present, a comment on the interlacing of all structures, organs and individuals. While there are a few stand-out works and artists, the somewhat superficial claims of the curators are likely to remain an artifact of the second decade of the 21st century.