9th Berlin Biennale: The Present in Drag

Another screeching handbrake turn – Martin Herbert on the DIS-curated edition of the biennale

By Martin Herbert

TELFAR, TELFAR: RETROSPECTIVE, 2016 (installation view, Akademie der Künste, Berlin).  Photo: Timo Ohler. Courtesy the artist Will Benedict, Comparison Leads to Violence, 2013, poster, offset print. Courtesy the artist; Balice Hertling, Paris; Overduin & Co., Los Angeles

4 June 2016 – 18 September 2016, various venues, Berlin

The Berlin Biennale is a highly reactive affair. The 8th, which Juan A. Gaitán steered two years ago, was sober, history-minded and a 180-degree pivot away from the 7th, Artur Zmijewski’s brave but scrappy political sit-in. The 9th is another screeching handbrake turn. With Berlin positioning itself as start-up central, inviting bleeding-edge New York art/fashion/media collective DIS as curators makes some sense. What they’ve offered up via The Present in Drag, though, feels like a four-venue wake (plus a boat ride up the River Spree) for brinkmanship-style artistic approaches that track neoliberal culture’s impact so closely, with the aim of making it hypervisible, that they are sometimes indistinguishable from the real thing. Except, perhaps, that the real thing – unlike some of the artists here – isn’t asserting autonomy while branding itself relentlessly in the face of the very precarity it analyses and emphasises.

‘The 9th Berlin Biennale for contemporary art may or may not contain Contemporary Art,’ wrote DIS during their teaser campaign. And, indeed, if you start the tour at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste before crossing the city – taking in the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Feuerle Collection and the ESMT European School of Management and Technology along the way – then virtually the first thing you see is a showroom, by Liberian-American designer TELFAR, of purchasable biennale-branded goods: a uniform, basically. Shortly after comes Debora Delmar Corp.’s green juice bar, because Berlin needed another of those. Start from the KW Institute, and you’re confronted with Los Angeles fashion label 69’s denim beach chairs in the courtyard. It’s not that you can’t necessarily lounge, shop, sip or, thanks to Juan Sebastián Peláez’s giant courtyard-based cutout, look at a horrible neo-Surrealist digital collage of Rihanna consciously. But one is reminded that several of the bona fide artists at this show’s core – shock troops of our present’s discontents such as Josh Kline, Katja Novitskova and Timur Si-Qin – have, in interviews, repeatedly had to broach whether admitting there’s no ‘outside’ position to inhabit can be distinguished from complicity, and the answers have not been satisfying. (As has been suggested, such art may come more naturally to a generation whose social media doesn’t include a ‘dislike’ button.) Kline, an expert condenser of ambient anxieties, provides one of the show’s affective highlights: Crying Games (2015), set in an artificial desert in the KW Institute’s basement, is a video experiment in real-time face-swap technology that finds aged avatars of Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush and Tony Blair tearfully apologising for the last Gulf War. But Kline still feels part of a gang that’s run and exhibited together extensively in recent years, whose moves are familiar; he’s one of the best artists here, yet not someone whose name I particularly wanted to see.

Kline is one of the best artists here, yet not someone whose name I particularly wanted to see

At the Feuerle Collection, a windowless and spotlighted concrete bunker whose lack of mobile reception feels like an artwork itself (the inverse of Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum’s installation of a Tor network at Akademie der Künste), a colour-coded spread of literally dozens of Yngve Holen’s Evil Eyes (2016) runs down one wall. OK, so these Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ windows augmented with coloured blown glass, resembling totems sold globally to ward off the mythic ‘evil eye’, add up to a schematic aeroplane that conflates global mobility and bad vibes, old tech and new. But this is an aptly sited pick-your-favourite-colour parade of product, too, from an artist also selling ‘Hater Blocker’ contact lenses through the biennale’s website, evidently fine with milking the experience economy. On the facing wall, Josephine Pryde’s suite of photographs, featuring hands (that by-now post-Internet iconographic chestnut) touching things, similarly makes its point at about the third iteration. Her antic train on a track, chugging past and manned by viewers or invigilators, is a solid distraction; but you leave this space – past Guan Xiao’s adept, burnished, haptic-hectic updates on the assemblage tradition – feeling like you’ve been in a walkthrough advertisement for someone’s soon-opening collection space. And you have.

Talking of ads, the dalliance with alt-commerce reaches a nadir in Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s New Eelam (2016), a mockup hipster apartment space (chairs that say Kraftwerk on them, for example) centred on a video infomercial for the aforementioned project. This, after first upraising Amazon as a political project that has collapsed the distinction between communism and capitalism (by automating labour, mostly), pitches what is essentially a property-bond scheme in cool cities. It doesn’t appear to be a joke, and it seems necessary, for counterpoint, that photography by Calla Henkel/Max Pitegoff, whose work has been critical of Berlin’s gentrification, is placed nearby.

The layout of the works, to be positive, is mostly strong; the core themes twist cleanly in and out of each other. The specific, if unspoken, theme of ‘Fucking Hell, Everything’s Utterly Fucked [pause] Digital Technology’ is thoroughly essayed by Jon Rafman’s View of Pariser Platz (2016), where one dons a virtual-reality headset on the balcony overlooking the eponymous site, adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate. Figures rain from the sky, marble sculptures of creatures ingesting others pulse grotesquely on the balcony, you fall fathoms down into the ocean. But it’s closely proximate to the site of Ei Arakawa’s performance How to DISappear in America (2016, memorialised on video), a highly collaborative spinoff/staging of Seth Price’s eponymous book and one whose uppermost level is the open-ended virtues of sociability and collaboration, qualities that might yet pull us out of the mire. And then I AM A PROBLEM (2016), Will Benedict’s music video for a Wolf Eyes song, a hacked version of the Charlie Rose talkshow that features a horrific alien incarnation of the spirit of capitalism, (seemingly) returns us swiftly to Utterly Fucked territory.

I felt confusion, despondence balanced by energy and light, the need to think something through, aesthetic nous in play

The ESMT European School of Management and Technology, a distractingly spectacular socialist-realist edifice housing a business school, houses cut-out flame works by Novitskova at her most will-this-do, dumped in a lobby; Simon Denny’s series of commissioned pitches for blockchain businesses; and an overblown installation by GCC, featuring a sculpture in another artificial desert and pondering a Middle Eastern state-imposed imperative to be happy. The KW Institute section is excellent by contrast. It feels like a show, and it has some of the best works, including Camille Henrot’s Office of Unreplied Emails (2016), a faux atelier featuring washy, ice-cream-coloured paintings of animals on easels and, scattered on the floor, oversize emails from ecological action groups and calligraphic replies by Henrot, which turn personal very quickly and, as the title asserts, received no reply, situating the vulnerable human agent at one end of the Internet’s impersonal welter of appeals to feeling. I lingered here because, ironically, I didn’t feel in the presence of someone acting above the fray while right down in it, someone making the artistic equivalent of a shruggie. I felt confusion, despondence balanced by energy and light, the need to think something through, aesthetic nous in play.

The oldest artist in the biennale, the outlier in a very generational project, is Adrian Piper, seemingly mobilised by the curators for gravitas as well as for being an American lengthily based in Berlin. For what it’s worth, she seems to have sized up the curators and decided to give them something not even new, yet oddly fitting. Her works here mostly wait at the end of stairwells and doorways, and primarily constitute signs on closed doors that say ‘Howdy!’ It’s friendly-ish but there’s a power play; and somehow, in a context of art that has much to do with the smiling face of control, this feels right. Hi, and bye. And as you say goodbye, amid governing futility and a few streaks of light, a net positive slides into view. Given the Berlin Biennale’s history, the next one won’t be anything like this. 

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of ArtReview.