The name of the 6th Berlin Biennale is “What is Waiting Out There”. It is a meditation on reality.
Reality, the press release says.
I’ve lived in Berlin for four years. Now—as in those first months when I would spend myafternoons in Görlitzer Park after German class exhilarated, drinking 40-cent Sternberg beers flung out next to my GDR-era bike—there are, and were, people who have been here much longer than me.
Some of those old-timers were even here through ’89 and the Wende (“the Change”).Some saw the real Berlin – before it grew into “one of the [world’s] most attractive cities for art”.
Real Berlin is something just a little out of reach for us foreign artists that newly inhabit the city. Or so the story goes. Real Berlin is what things used to be like before “I” (insert first-person subjective of Auslander here) arrived. But it’s relative, of course. If YOU just arrived last week or are just passing through, well, then perhaps “I” am the old-timer, and you are the one invading MY city.
As the 2010 Berlin Biennale came to the wild west Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg, and its accompanying gaggle of art tourists closed in on a gigantic new exhibition space two blocks from my flat, I personally started to get on the defensive.
Heck, I’m a real Berliner, I thought, I really live in Kreuzberg. Even if I am an unwitting proto-gentrifier, even if I made lounging in Görlitzer Park seem cool to my visiting friends from Brooklyn and helped to give the Berliner bum-artist-life some sort of caché, I’m not Yuppie Scum with a canvas Berlin Biennale shopping bag. I’m not paying inflated rent for an arty hoveland pricing out everyone else. I’m not a tourist. I’m not fake.
Urban history around here is pretty fiercely word-of-mouth. Things in Berlin are where other things used to be; authenticity as to Berliner-dom is tested by how well you can name things as what or where they aren’t anymore. And Kreuzberg has a tough, secret history.There’s a sticker stuck around town, “Ich komm’ aus Kreuzberg, du Muschi” (I come from Kreuzberg, you pussy). Another sticker showed up, too:“Ich komm’ aus Muschi, du Kreuzberg”(I come from the pussy, you Kreuzberg).
Kreuzberg has not changed as dramatically as the Mitte neighborhood, the former no-man’s-land between East and West and current nerve-center of Berlin’s mainstream art scene. Mitte is where, over the past 20 years, the galleries clawed and renovated their way up from squats and rubble into the whitewashed institutions they are today. It was there, in 1998, thatthe Kunst-Werke Berlin Institute for Contemporary Art (KW) founded the Berlin Biennale.
By now having built over the ruins and effectively scrubbed clean the traces of the post –Wende days, the Mitte crowd and KW have struck out west in search of reality, like hungry aliens looking to colonize a neighboring planet. What is reality for the contemporary art institution, you might ask? Abandoned buildings, peeling paint, graffiti, good-looking youngsters who dress like they're homeless (or are); an immigrant population, junkies, hidden house-bars?i.e….Kreuzberg?
Renovating a heretofore forgotten building on the corner of Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz with 2.5 million Euros from the German Federal Cultural Foundation –while leaving it a bit ragged around the edges for authenticity’s sake – the Biennale has taken “What’s Out There”and claimed it for its own. Filled with art reflecting on the real, the Berlin Biennale –in mymind—is an infuriating set of mostly “ready-mades” that cynically take reality in the handand transform it into something that can be determined –and sold—by the art institution. The majority of video work appearing in Biennale (with the significant exception of the great George Kuchar,) is about as intriguing as what you might happen upon on YouTube. This is not to say it is worthless, but rather, that it is out of place. Lack of craft gets away asbeing “contemporary art” via hypnotizingly good PR: these videos are cinema verité, they area commentary on subjectivity, “directing their gazes outward, at reality, while also attacking the aloof pleasure taken in the outward gaze,” blah blah blah.
It seems the 2010 curator Kathrin Rhomberg thinks she should get some sortof “diversity” credit for having these commentaries on reality come out of maligned areas – “real”(read: non-European) places like Israel, Mexico, the Congo, Turkish Kreuzberg. But this species of art Affirmative Action came off as a little insulting, I think.
In the case of Minerva Cuevas’ video, for example, an amalgam of visuals of protest movements in Mexico: why does the country have to be represented in the international contemporary art scene by this “failed journalism”? The curator, I believe, is guilty of exoticizing content and fetishizing the “reality” of a “real” place that is beyond her understanding. Wouldn’t ithave been more respectful, and perhaps instructive, to present a more challenging, non-Mexico-themed work by an artist that just happens to be Mexican?
My mind was churning. Is the simple act of documentation, or anything in its undisturbed state, when claimed to be art, art? This is sticky territory and is a conceptual conundrum that needs to be visited, for sure. I just wished it could be contemplated in Mitte galleries among the Berlin chattering latté classes, and out of my Kreuzberg, du Muschi.
Because the fact of having all it in Kreuzberg takes the grittiness of the un-edited, the daring improvisation of the everyday, the random detritus of who we are and what we leave behind in the neighborhood and claims it all for art. Not art in the beautiful sense, as in, how we make everyday a creation, but rather art in the observed-from-the-outside, cool, detached, Facebook-dot-com digital photo that can be “shared” kind of way.
And it’s not the same as having it in Mitte. Mitte was, and is, a blank canvas.
There was something bittersweet, for example, about peering out to the courtyard of the Oranienplatz Biennale site and catching a glimpse of two giant, fallen dinosaurs. I had once seen that very same chipped plaster stegosaurus in the far wilds of Berlin’s Trep tower Park in an abandoned amusement park. Back in the day, finding a way through the holes in the fence to see the weird wonder of the merry-go-rounds and old dinosaurs there was something of a Berlin underground rite of passage.
Now it’s “art”.
The final blow, though, was another “work” a few blocks from Oranienplatz, entitled Danh Vo’s Apartment. The piece was just that, Danh Vo’s apartment with messy desk, rotting bananas, crusty bathroom and all, open to the public. No work involved, it seems.
On the second day of the Biennale, with my little map provided by the KW, I scouted Apartment out. It was in a stained high-rise complex near Kottbusser Tor and the U1 elevated subway line. The path up to the obscured entrance was papered with pixilated mugshots of the curators and giant letters spelling “gentrifier” with complex texts in German about resistance.
In the fourth floor apartment, a purple-shirted Biennale assistant with a laminated pass unaffectedly sat in the living room, across from a monitor with a screensaver somersaulting over itself and note-scattered desk. He presumably was protecting the “work of art”. Art-goers pokedaround; the guard didn’t check my ticket.
On the one hand, I thought, what a coup. Vo was showing up the art institution by doing nothing and calling it art. Ha ha, you want art about reality? Here’s reality. I’m sure he was paid handsomely for it, too, if not at least housed in an alternate pad funded by the Federal Cultural Foundation.
But then I started to see the joke, actually, was on me. Dahn Vo’s Apartment was the signal of the art institution’s final, cynical co-optation of the real Berlin.
When it comes down to it, the international art event of the Berlin Biennale in Kreuzberg was not the renovated building on Oranienplatz, the “curated” works within or the installations at the KW in Mitte. It was rather Kreuzberg itself “out there”, its inhabitants. It was my neighbors. It was me –and tickets to the, erm, “reality show” cost 14 Euros a pop.
Yet, I or my neighbors don’t seem to be getting any of the funding or the proceeds.
In fact, “real life” in Kreuzberg gets more and more expensive by the day.
~Mara Goldwyn, a writer living in Berlin.
(Images: Renzo Martens, Enjoy poverty, video work; Near the entrance of the Kreuzberg biennale site; Kreuzberg biennale site; Dinosaurs in the courtyard; Danh Vo Apartment; Gentrifiers- path to Vo's apartment; Guard at Danh Vo's apartment; KW installation; Courtesy of Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art)