August 2010, Berlin Biennale

George Kuchar, Centennial, 2007
DVD, Farbe, Ton / DVD, color, sound, 13'14''
Courtesy the artist; Video Data Base, Chicago


Berlin Biennale
6th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art
June 11 through August 8, 2010

Everyone you meet in the art world has a thesis on Berlin, a fact that has marred nearly all previous editions of the nascent Berlin Biennale, as curators have perennially used the exhibition as their chance to put forward their own grand statement on the city. This year’s curator, Kathrin Rhomberg, was wise to evade the pitfall of her predecessors. In doing so, she has chosen “reality,” a theme that is so open-ended, it is all but impossible to judge whether the exhibition is a success or a failure. As such, it forces us to turn our attention to the work itself—which, naturally, is where it should have been all along.

This overarching concept is the first, and arguably most important, of the many interesting decisions Rhomberg has made. The second was to move the exhibition away from the traditional gallery districts of Mitte into Kreuzberg, a punkier district where artists and musicians live alongside Turkish, Arab, and African immigrants. Of the Biennale’s six main exhibition spaces, four of them were in Kreuzberg, and were situated in dusty, abandoned buildings—one of Rhomberg’s few moves that is “Very Berlin,” to quote the title of a sarcastic mantra by local punk band Herpes that may well become the local anthem of 2010.

Some other interesting moves: Rhomberg invited Michael Fried to curate a selection of paintings and sketches by Adolph Menzel in the Alte Nationalgalerie as part of the main exhibition, thereby adding an art historical component rarely-to-never seen in biennials. The Biennale included a weekend of performance works by contemporary artists at the Hebbel am Ufer theater, curated by Pierre Bal-Blanc and featuring the likes of Ceal Floyer, Jiri Kovanda, Franz West, Roman Ondak, and Santiago Sierra. And, what turned out to be the inarguable highlight of the Biennale, a retrospective of George Kuchar’s video work, curated by Marc Siegel.

Though there are 44 artists listed as participating in this year’s exhibition—making it a modest-sized Biennale, to be sure—there are certain artists who Rhomberg clearly favors, as their work either recurred throughout the exhibition or was given more space. Interestingly, all of them happen to be male: Petrit Halilaj, John Smith, Kuchar, Menzel, Danh Vo, Renzo Martens, and Sven-Åke Johansson.

Renzo Martens, Episode 3, 2008
DVD, color, sound, 90’; two metal trunks
Photographs made in collaboration with the “Association des Photographes de Kanyabayonga,” master tape, neon signs, certificate;
Courtesy the artist; Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam; Wilkinson Gallery, London; Copyright the artist

Otherwise, and somewhat predictably, there was a preponderance of what I alternately call “institutional” or “wall text” art, with a pricey reader on sale in lieu of the wall texts. While there is a lot of truth in the argument that art in need of a text is not worthwhile, many of the works seriously suffered from a lack of explanatory information, most notably Halilaj’s contribution, which included live hens, a massive house-like wooden structure, and several drawings of obscure constructions, leaving you at frustrated pains to connect the dots.

While I heard at least one local critic grumble about the excessive quantity of video included in this year’s Biennale, it was the video work I found most compelling, overall. Besides the Kuchar, the resurrection of Smith is noteworthy—his Frozen War (Hotel Diaries #1) forms a smooth counterpoint to Kuchar’s own Weather Diaries—and his legendary 1976 film The Girl Chewing Gum fully deserved the separate venue it was given on Dresdener Strasse in Kreuzberg. Renzo Martens’s 90-minute African travelogue Episode III asks the question, who owns poverty? —and wound up being one of the most provocative works in the exhibition. Shorter works by Sebastian Stumpf, Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir, and Avi Mograbi were all way above average.

Verdict: With a biennale this young, you can’t help but make comparative judgments when making a qualitative assessment. While the exhibition may not be excellent or even great, given the very German propensity for institutional fetishization (even when it’s done through the guise of “institutional critique”), the exhibition concept gets high marks for its interrogative flexibility and there are enough stand-out works here to make a wander through the other bullshit worthwhile. I’ve seen four out of the six Berlin Biennales so far, and would have to rank this one as the best.

Danh Vo, Ohne Titel / Untitled, 2009
Farewell letter from the French missionary J. Théophane Vénard to his father. Each edition is a hand-written copy of the letter, written by the father of Danh Vo.
The edition number will be defined after the death of the artist’s father.


Margaret Salmon, Peggy, 2003
Super-8- und 16-mm- Film übertragen auf DVD, Farbe und s/w, Ton /
Super 8 and 16 mm film transferred to DVD, color and b/w, sound; 13' 30''
Courtesy the artist; Office Baroque Gallery, Antwerpen / Antwerp; Copyright the artist

Travis Jeppesen

Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio. 

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