Fifty artists is not so many for a biennial, and we were certainly looking forward to a concentrated and focussed set of exhibitions. Spread across three venues, this Biennale sprawls, conceptually and physically.
Sonja Hornung: We caught the train out to Dahlem, west of Berlin, and got rained on. Once we made it into the exhibition you seemed totally uneasy, Richard – why was that?
Richard Pettifer: I couldn’t work out what was from the Biennale and what were pre-existing from the Ethnologisches Museum (Museum of Ethnology, Dahlem) – they were mixed together. It made for an unusual relationship with the space. In the labyrinth of the museum, visitors were constantly asking security to show them where the next artwork was.
SH: I enjoyed this game that the curators were playing with us. The Biennale exhibition in Dahlem is a kind of parasite. Most works occupied entire rooms, but some worked with the collection itself or its wall labels and vitrine displays (Mariana Castillo Deball's use of archaelogical methods in You have time to show yourself before other eyes, 2014; Wolfgang Tillmans' Eastern Woodlands Room, 2014). Other artists intervened far more subtly in the structure of the institution itself, tweaking, for example, the lighting system (7,8 Hz, Carsten Höller, 2001/14), or intervening in the catalogue (Danh Vo, 2014).
This created some interesting clashes. Remember when we encountered the giant Döner Kebab, part of the museum display, and thought it was art? When we finally found the entrance and were confronted with a strange conflict zone of signage from both the Museum and the Biennale? This confusion was quite funny. What does it mean to situate a major art exhibition within the context of a museum? Especially THIS museum, which has its roots in German colonial past and Prussian pride?
RP: What do you mean about its roots? It was completed fairly recently if I'm not mistaken.
Museen Dahlem, © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Photo: Maximilian Meisse
SH: Yes – construction began in 1914 but was interrupted by the two World Wars consecutively, and only completed in 1964, so this is a modernist project. But the collections of the museum are built on the colonial imperative to reframe the world through Western eyes. When Juan Gaitán, curator of the Biennale, invites a fairly non-European group of artists to intervene in this space it is significant.
RP: I see the room where Natasha Ginwala, a member of Gaitán's Artistic Team, intervenes as crucial. Her text, Double Lives, introduces the notion of the "stereoscopic" from early photography: that is, the pairing of two separate images, which, in her words, “unleashes an ambivalence between the observer and the world”. She presents us with artefacts from three 19th century colonial subjects who colonized their reality, remaining “immersed in the world they were experiencing, while notating and administering all the while”. It’s tucked away in a small pocket in the upper storey of the museum but this approach seems to be a curatorial foundation for much of the work here.
SH: Yes! A more contemporary example of this is Rosa Barter's film Subconscious Society (2014). Shot on analogue film, the camera pans across natural landscapes and ruins, presenting us with sites that are "landscape and history all at once". It’s a collapse of subject into object, figure into ground – a situation where every artefact might tell its own story. All of the world in one museum – manifest even in the institution’s representation of itself.
This is a fantastic model for ciphering contemporary reality; an archaeology of the present. It demands that the viewer be impartial – indifferent – like an archaelogist might be. Everything becomes a skeleton. That's why I also found the situation in Dahlem a little disorienting. We experienced the museum collection as art, but the flip side of this was that the art seemed "fossilized". It doesn't have to be this way, though. Where was the postcolonial critique?
Wolfgang Tillmans, Installation view at the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art 29.5.–3.8.2014, from left to right: computer programmed denim distress, 2013, Textile, Fespa Digital / Fruit Logistica / Airport Security / Silver / TV Static, (TSC), 2014, 2 Glas, Holz, Offsetdruck, Laserstrahldruck, Tintenstrahldruck / 2 glass, inkjet print, laser print, offset print, wood, astro crusto, a, 2012, Inkjet print on paper, clips, Jacket Air to Ground Recognition - Red, 2014, Textile, LeBron X - Dolphins, 2014, Paper, synthetic, textile; Photo: Anders Sune Berg; Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne / Maureen Paley, London / David Zwirner, New York
RP: I think it was in individual works, but I wonder if they were lost in the bigger picture. Wolfgang Tillman's Eastern Woodlands Room (2014) was a puzzle to solve, a room of apparently disparate objects and images loosely picking up on the theme of cultural cross-pollination as it is consumed by the European market and border control. It offered critique – as did Carolina Caycedo’s work about a hydro-electric plant funded by EU-US, which violated the rights of local inhabitants.
SH: Yes, here are two works that render visible a tension between the ideology of globalisation and a reality still structured by neocolonial forms of exploitation. I particularly liked Tillman's humorous photographic citations we discovered pasted in a little corner: with branding messages like “Club Europe: a little extra space reserved for you”. But to be honest, I felt like the only parts of the exhibition reserved for postcolonial critique were Gordon Bennett's cutting sketches of the oppression of Australian Aboriginals (Notepad Drawings, 1992), or Gaganendranath Tagore's depiction of colonial economic misery in British India (1917-30) – both now historic works, and both framed drawings. I asked myself whether this type of criticism, which is very intimate and personal, is being made obsolete, to be replaced with representations of our contemporary world as a space that is vast, intercultural, and incommensurable?
RP: It's hard to say anything directly in the post-colonial space now though, isn't it? Nowadays even overt anti-establishment political statements are subsumed into the system. But I wanted to ask you – I read the two western sites, the museum and Haus am Waldsee, as linked, with the third site – Kunst-Werke in Mitte – as doing something totally different–
SH: At KW we were immediately confronted by two tunnels: David Zink Yi's split-screen video projection of a silver mine in Peru and its surrounds (The Strangers, 2014). The crispness and immediacy of the images were astounding. Suddenly we were thrown into the "now". I felt generally in KW that the work was less padded, less mediated, more urgent, than the work in Dahlem.
RP: We also approached the space differently – perhaps that changes your perception? We only had half an hour to see everything before staff evicted us.
Tonel, Commerce, 2014, 10 custom-made frames manufactured from Cuban wood, ca. 48 framed drawings, display table showing objects, prints, 3 artist’s books (mixed media and digital prints on paper) each incl. soundtrack, wall text made in Cuba out of steel reinforcing bars, digital print wall drawing on paper; Dimensions variable Installation view at the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art 29.5.–3.8.2014; Photo: Anders Sune Berg; Courtesy Tonel
SH: Highlights for me included a lyrical set of engaging drawings from Tonel about Cuba's alleged mission to land on the moon (In the History of Velcro, 2009), and one demonstration of how borders work, a man with startling blue eyes obstructing the space with a raw piece of sawed wood (Shilpa Gupta, Untitled, 2013-4). But I went downstairs and you went upstairs – what did you find?
RP: Well. I believe it's to be the subject of another, more in-depth article on Artslant, but I walked in to a giant video of a rat being dissected and various slogans about capitalism appearing on subtitles such as "the UK is switching to the Rat," and "the Rat just fell in value against the Russian Ruble." Stealing one's own corpse (2014) from Julieta Aranda was apparently based on astronauts undertaking zero-gravity training, but there was more going on there – an acidly political vertigo, the highs and lows of capital. I implicitly understood the connections.
Haus am Waldsee was fairly disappointing wasn't it... why do you think it was included?
SH: No idea. I had absolutely no problem with the works that were shown in and of themselves, particularly Christodoulous Panayiotou's elegant shoes made of women's wallets (Untitled, 2013). But the presentation fell flat on its face for me here. It felt like the curatorial focus in Dahlem had simply been copy-pasted into the Waldsee villa. Everything got a bit tautological. The sculptural set of speakers from Slavs and Tatars in the back garden saved it – the story of the soundtrack is intriguing and worth looking into when you visit. But generally speaking, in the villa, I think I must have caught Sleeping Sickness from the mosquitoes on display...
RP: Maybe the inclusion was because of the spectacular building? Anyway – what we have, maybe, is a Biennale with a strong post-colonial slant in West Berlin, and more directly political works in the East. But what was it about? Maybe the Biennale locked its works into post-colonial discourse, when they were in fact responding to a more complex contemporary sphere? Gaitán's curatorial statement, for example, talks about how the process of the post-Cold War development of Berlin “reflects a larger tendency around the world to mobilize history in order to reflect certain dominant narratives”. I wonder whether this point would have been better posed on the former site – an abandoned supermarket in Lichtenberg, initially planned for the exhibition. That seemed to be a voice, or narrative, that was only half-followed through – like an argument with a couple of key points missing.
SH: You know, I think following the last Berlin Biennale, where Zmijewksi controversially created a platform where art could be co-opted by (or co-opt) protest, the choice of Gaitán as curator opens the parameters from the local to the global. I think the sort of debate that the 7th Berlin Biennale provoked is very important, but perhaps it rattled the cage a little more than was comfortable. Gaitán's open curatorial format, and its focus on recent colonial history and post-colonial discourse, rather than contemporary neocolonialism, paired with a general approach of probing or testing, intelligently, various realities – all this means that the 8th Berlin Biennale is a biennale to ruminate over, to spend time with, rather than a biennale that makes or breaks trail-blazing ways of understanding contemporary reality. It tests, very carefully, a number of modes of representation through mostly newly commisssioned works and a selection of artists with gender parity from all parts of the world. I respect this – but I do think there is an important side-effect to this careful approach: one must, after all, also keep the sponsors BMW, Allianz and Deutsche Bahn feeling confident about their investment.
RP: ...all of whom may be currently building their new headquarters on the site of the old supermarket in Lichtenberg. Stay tuned, Berlin...
—Sonja Hornung and Richard Pettifer
(Image on top: David Zink Yi, The Strangers, 2014, HD-Video, 2-Kanal-Installation, Farbe, Ton / HD video, 2-channel installation, color, sound, 81’, Installation view at the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art 29.5.–3.8.2014; Photo: Anders Sune Berg; Courtesy David Zink Yi; Hauser & Wirth, London/ New York/Zurich / Johann König, Berlin / Livia Benavides 80M2, Lima)