Political art has claimed Germany’s attention this year, and it doesn’t seem to be letting go. In the past year, the world has watched new democracies take shape in the Middle East, the simultaneous Occupations of financial districts around the globe, and the seemingly instant international fame of artists arrested by restrictive governments in Russia and China. The 7th Berlin Biennale, co-curated by Voina, the not-so-distant ancestor of the Russian political art group Pussy Riot (one of those instant fame stories), called for art that reaches beyond the self-involved politics of aesthetics and actually “makes its mark on reality, and opens a space where politics can be performed.” dOCUMENTA(13) curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev had no reservations about endorsing Occupy and, indeed, curated the world’s largest contemporary art exhibition guided by a vision critical of continuous economic growth and socio-economic inequality.
So too is this year’s Berlin Art Week rich with social resistance and political unrest. In the city with undoubtedly the most alternative art spaces and politically vocal artists out of the world’s major art capitals, soaking up the critical discourse here just feels right.
The artist gaining most attention at this year’s Berlin Art Week is Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, whose work will be featured in three exhibitions simultaneously through The Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (New Society for Visual Arts). A two-time dOCUMENTA (1987, 2002) and Venice Biennale (1986, 2007) participant, Jaar uses photography, film, and public interventions to address geopolitical issues of war, famine, and corruption in a globalizing world. Titled "The Way it Is: An Aesthetic of Resistance,” referencing Jaar’s previous work in Germany – “The Aesthetics of Resistance” presented at the Pergamon Museum in 1992/93 and “The Way it Is,” another intervention created in Berlin in 1991 – Jaar’s retrospective exhibition draws work spanning his almost forty-year-long career including his intervention for dOCUMENTA(8) (1987), 1+1+1, which first earned him international fame. In it he presents three large, back-lit photographs of impoverished children in Africa and Latin America and Asia (the 1 plus 1 plus 1). Turned upside down with the upper half of the bodies cut out of the frame, the children’s legs seem to float without solid ground to stand on. Without any point of reference to place his subjects in a particular time or place, Jaar illuminates transnational interdependencies while illustrating the seemingly unbridgeable gaps between the third and first worlds in postcolonial politics. The exhibit is being displayed for the first time in twenty-five years at the Alte National Galerie.
Probably the most important installation to see from Jaar in Berlin is his exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie focusing on the work he’s made in and about Berlin, including the premiere of his photographic series A New World, taken at the Brandenburg Gate shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Turning the focus away from the sheer mass of rumble along the death strip, Jaar’s series centers on a single stroller lost amid a sea of concrete. In doing so, his work calls on the sense of uncertainty and disconcerting calm following the reunification and the (re) birth of an already industrialized nation.
Hans Peter Feldmann, DieToten, © Hans-Peter Feldmann, Courtesy Hamburger Bahnhof.
Providing a larger context for Jaar’s work, Hans-Peter Feldmann’s exhibition “Die Toten” (The Dead) on display at the Hamburger Bahnhof, illustrates the years of political and social instability leading up to and following reunification, marked by a considerable uptick in violence and terrorism. Meticulously curated from the articles he collected, almost obsessively, between 1967 and 1993, Feldmann pays tribute to the mass of deaths and destabilizing politics that followed the June 2, 1967 protest of the Shah of Iran’s state visit to West Berlin, which culminated in the murder of student Benno Ohnesberg by an undercover Stasi agent. This seemingly isolated yet tragic event sent ripples through an already unstable political environment, the remnants of which are still being reckoned with in the public consciousness today. On his black-and-white images of mug shots, crime scenes, and corpses in the street, Feldmann lists only the subject’s name and date of death, reflecting the grim and confusing time in German politics and activism and highlighting the suspicious or unknown circumstances under which many of these deaths occurred. Teetering between commemoration and voyeurism, the completeness of his collection – police officers next to Baader-Meinhof group members, corrupt politicians next to innocent bystanders – seeks less to pinpoint the cause of the terror and more to reflect on the ramifications of a politically, socially, and culturally divided state.
For an even wider glimpse into the years of politics and activism leading up to this era, The Neue Nationalgalerie offers a survey of German art between 1945 and 1968, during which Germany sat in the middle of East-West politics that divided the country in two. “Divided Heaven: The Collection. 1945 – 1968” covers art from Germany’s "economic miracle" to the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Vietnam War.
Marjetica Potrč Caracas, Growing Houses, 2012, Installationsansicht: Architektonika 2 im Hamburger Bahnhof, Foto: Thomas Bruns © Courtesy Marjetica Potrč.
Yet Berlin Art Week is not without hope. In an incredible installation bringing together more than twenty-five artists, “Architektonika 2,” on display at the Hamburger Bahnhof, shows the work of artists analyzing the intersections of architecture and urban life. A significant portion of this exhibition is devoted to artists looking to create a better world through architecture and urban planning. With designs from Gerhard Siegmann, Dieter Bahlo, Georg Heinrichs, Wolfgang Döring, Walther Jonas and Archigram, curator Gabriele Knapstein assembles a set of idealistic group of thinkers, some practical and some not-so-practical, that defy the impossibility of utopia.
(All images: Alfredo Jaar, 1 + 1 + 1, 1987, © Courtesy: The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Lannan Foundation.)