In 2012, Artur Żmijewski, art historian Joanna Warsza, and the Voina art collective drained the seventh Berlin Biennale of artistic validity by building a wall in Berlin. In service of Macedonian artist Nada Prlja’s Peace Wall, the 2012 organisers allowed the erection of a 12m high, 5m wide black barricade dividing the affluent neighbourhood near Checkpoint Charlie from the relatively poor one at Mehringplatz along Friedrichstraße in Kreuzberg. The public was outraged, staged multiple protests, damaged the wall, and threatened the artist’s life; it was taken down ahead of schedule.
After 2012’s categorical failure, it is not surprising that the eighth Berlin Biennale has taken a completely different tack. Some exhibitions disappoint by design.
The Berlin Biennale was begun by art world mega-personalities Klaus Biesenbach, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Nancy Spector in 1998 to great acclaim; so much so that it is now underwritten by the German government. It has become one of the most valuable surveys of contemporary political art. Artists and art professionals from around the world travel the global circuit of biennials and art fairs and expect a spectacle.
But Juan A. Gaitán’s exhibition is an intentional letdown. Extremely restrained, and focused on groups of small drawings and studies, it adopts the most traditional museological presentation and language, and presents works that are prepositions rather than statements. Without a guide, this Biennale can be boring. Yet it is nonetheless politically charged. The three exhibitions that comprise this year’s event are remarkable in their introspective silence, which Gaitán sees as a refusal of the totalitarian ideals enabled by the scale, spectacle and deliberate exoticism of the typical biennale format.
Gaitán also attempts to address the changing landscape of the city of Berlin itself, exploring how gentrification is dispersing artistic activity from the centre – Mitte, where the KW remains the headquarters of the Biennale – to the periphery, where Gaitán has created two more quiet exhibitions: one within the city’s ethnological museum, Dahlem, the other at a private villa at Waldsee. Though near one another, the two auxiliary locations are over 40 minutes by public transit away from the KW, so that international visitors must travel to two distant and likely unfamiliar neighbourhoods. The viewer is forced to be patient, to explore outside the traditional (read: tourist) view of Berlin.
At Dahlem, the contemporary art installations are staged throughout the museum, giving the viewer the opportunity to detour through ethnological history rather than continue with the Biennale. Similarly, the Haus am Waldsee’s stunning grounds, which open onto one of the city’s most beautiful lakes, provide another distraction. This meandering experience, moving from contemporary art to history, from culture to nature, from Prussian to Modernist architecture, from city centre to suburb, puts the viewer in the role of the wandering urban flaneur.
No linear narrative guides viewers through the Biennale. The works at first appear unrelated, other than by their provisional aesthetic qualities. Rather than being didactic, the works are simply allowed to ‘be there.’ Perhaps the most telling project is Gaitán’s Crash Pad, a room lined with oriental carpets on the walls and floor, with various platforms upon which to sit and lounge, based on Greece’s complex history with the Ottoman Empire. It was designed by architect Andreas Angelidakis, and
serves as a site for talks, casual meetings, symposia, and other tangential activities, including just hanging out, which Gaitán says he often has during his two-year residency in Berlin.
The Crash Pad provides an apt symbol for the Eighth Berlin Biennale, where it is not the place itself which is important, but rather the discussion that happens inside it, recasting the exhibition as a framework in which to create meaning, rather than present it. Reorienting the viewer’s expectation in this way, using the anticlimax as a tool, is Gaitán’s greatest strength.