Having read about the historical themes and ideas that curator Juan A. Gaitán chewed over while planning the 8th Berlin Biennale, I wondered if I was supposed to feel like some colonial explorer as I journeyed southwest towards Dahlem and into a Berlin kiez less travelled (by a peripheral fellow traveller of the Berlin art crowd, at least). Someone like Alexander von Humbolt, who undertook the first scientific exploration of South America and whose name is to appear on the controversial Humbolt Forum that is also key bee in the bonnet of Gaitán's concept.
Getting out of the train at Mexikoplatz and walking up Argentinische Allee, a leafy avenue lined with villas behind gardens, behind gates—there is clearly a certain kind of money here, many of these large houses have bars on their ground floor windows—I arrive at Haus am Waldsee.
Tucked away in the stiflingly tranquil and well mannered venue is Patrick Alan Banfield's vyLö:t (2012), a two channel video installation in which large screens face each other. One screen depicts imagery of rampantly overgrown woodland that looks at times like tropical rainforest, the other, modern suburban housing that seems to be becoming slowly overwhelmed by nature (as well as by the imagery of the opposite screen, as if slowly mirroring it and succumbing to its madness). The close up and macro positioning and slow pans and zooms of the lingering camera play with and exaggerate scale and there is a sense of being dwarfed by the subjects of the camera's gaze.
The buttressed roots of trees are mirrored in the repeated buttress motifs on the balconies on a modern block of flats that sits nestled in vines like a rediscovered Mayan temple. Brutalist concrete is smothered by painterly streaks of mildew and lichen; mortar oozes from between brickwork like primordial mud.
The inhabitants of this world are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they have been driven mad by the awe and sublimity of this romantic vision of nature and have long since run off, screaming naked into the woods. Maybe they have been omitted for the viewers’ sake, for our own romanticized vision of unbridled nature?
The tense soundtrack of layered pseudo-tribal beats and pining synthesizer keys alludes to the movie soundtrack of thrillers and horror movies. It whips up expectations of conflict, creating narrative beats that diffuse without climax. Within the context of the exhibition it feels like this is parodying notions of intrepid colonial exploration and preconceptions of an exotic world—discovering in the process a more ordinary, parochial heart of darkness.
Tacita Dean, 10 to the 21, 2014, Installation view at the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art29.5.–3.8.2014; Photo: Guy Parker; Work courtesy Tacita Dean / Frith Street Gallery, London / Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris
Tacita Dean's installation 10 to the 21 (2014) situated in the Museen Dahlem, also deals with journeying into the unknown in the name of scientific endeavor—in this case the environment is the nano-technological realm of particle physics. The artefact that she returns with is a film capturing a process wherein fuel beads or gold discs are blasted with a laser hotter than the surface of the sun for trillionths of a second. The targets dutifully spew out a nuclear event which can observed and analyzed.
The work includes four elements, one being film of the facility where the experiments have taken place. Shot on pasty grey monochrome 16mm, the cold, inhuman, technological plant is shown through static camera angles reminiscent of surveillance footage or—when combined with the soundtrack of warning sirens and whirr of servos and unseen mechanisms—more specifically, surveillance used to monitor a hazardous place fraught with a sense of inherent danger. The film occasionally streaks and overexposes as if the environment were reaching and affecting the film stock in a way that circumvents the lens.
This brought to mind the “tropical” plate cameras developed in the late 19th century. They were skilfully and tastefully assembled from teak, brass, and leather to limit the intrusion of the environment when shooting in the humidity of the tropics. By further employing science, explorers, anthropologists, and the like could further control the capturing of images in isolation from external influences. Armed with one of these state of the art devices—not only could a chap really look the part—one could journey into the most hostile of environments and come away with the desired objective, no more, no less: an image.
For anyone lacking a degree in physics the resulting imagery of the nuclear “event” itself captured on super high-contrast 16mm film is highly enigmatic and hard to comprehend. Against velvety black, bright particles gleam, a firmament of nanoscopic stars and shapes that at times resemble Rayographs. The motif of a floating sun-disc, a recurrent image in Dean's work—see JG (2013), Film (2011), and The Green Ray (2001)—is present and at times resembles the space station from Kubrick's 2001 or a compound solar eclipse... in a world crowded by the proliferation of imagery these are truly alien images, an indecipherable product of physical chemistry and moving image technology.
Julieta Aranda, Stealing one’s own corpse (An alternative set of footholds for an ascent into the dark), 2014, 3-D printing, wire, flight suit foam, wood, potato, rope, silicone, carpet, clay, netting, Dimensions variable, Installation view at the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art29.5.–3.8.2014; In memory of Gandalf Gavan; Photo: Anders Sune Berg; Courtesy Julieta Aranda
Back in town at the Biennale's central location, the KW, Julieta Aranda has created an installation that posits humankind's dream of escape from the confines of earth as false hope. Stealing one's own corpse (an alternative set of footholds for an ascent into the dark) (2014) is primarily a video piece—part infomercial, part video poem and journal. It's laced with associational images and musings on the colonization of space, human nature, commodity, and currency. The use of slick/primitive computer generated graphics echoes video art of the ‘80s and the Reagan era space-race. A halo of space junk charts man’s colonial achievements in the great beyond; a 3D CGI spider tends its web as we are told that the logic required to escape a trap is identical to that used when building one; the rat is proposed as a unit of currency as we watch one skinned alive.
Aranda's experience of simulated zero gravity during a parabolic flight provided a wonderful image of the artist floating weightlessly in a swarm of sci-fi paperbacks. A bubble floats in space as an onscreen text reads ... think of the limit point of our imagination as being marked by feedback loops... Is the artist suggesting that the colonization of space is doomed by our own lack of imagination? That when seeking a democratic conquering of space overcoming the restraints of gravity might prove the very least of our problems?
(Image on top: Patrick Alan Banfield, vyLö:t, 2012, HD-Video, 2-Kanal-Installation, Farbe, Ton HD video, 2-channel installation, color, sound, 16’09’’; Photo: Guy Parker; Courtesy Patrick Alan Banfield; Thanks to Sascha Blank, Nicolas Geissler, Katharina Schwöbel)