Berlin

Well it goes without saying that I had an absolute blast in Berlin. As a city, it always delivers. Who doesn’t love the seemingly cultural imperative to drink beer ALL of the time? However I was there to see art and on this occasion I will deliver my verdict on art, and art only.Everything else was fantastic, obviously.

The Berlin Biennale, curated by Kathrin Rhomberg, centers itself around the thematic of reality, a reality that is becoming more and more distanced from actual lived reality. This can be witnessed in the growing separation of lived experience from the nuts and bolts of living. In short, we have come to base our lived reality on systems and modes of operation which we cannot fully understand. More than that, the people we look to as ‘knowing’ really don’t either.We do not understand our faith in such systems but continue to retain faith in them. Capitalism being the example par excellence of such a system. Mark Fisher talks about this somewhere in Capitalist Realism when he references the Red campaign, the oxymoronic salve initiated by people like Bono whereby we can actually use capitalism (credit cards=hyperbolic,unsustainable consumerism) to eliminate world poverty. This makes sense only in presence of a blinded faith in something which we cannot fully understand, and yet continue to do so. So in this sense, the Berlin Biennale, whilst remaining completely vague, actually holds some resonance in the context of a world clinging onto some vague hope that things will get better. Better still, that this reality will somehow transform itself by virtue of some unknown, emancipatory potential.

Rhomberg talked about the importance of the subjective experience in shaping a new reality. Or perhaps this is too idealistic. Rather, the potential of the subjective experience in gaining greater insight into a world which grows more opaque by the day. She can surely anticipate the problems with this outlook. The exhibition itself was highly loaded with political implications. This, apart from the overabundance of video work, was perhaps the most striking impact of the show. The subjective blurred with the political right across the board. Some of this work successfully posited itself in an ambivalent relation to dominant ideology, others wholly complied. More than that, some reiterated these dominant ideologies. The ambivalent position is surely preferable, regardless of respective ideology, but what use is the splintered articulation of various ambivalent positions with respect to dominant systems of thought? Is this not what has been happening ever since the demise of the historical avant-garde? Perhaps now is the time for consolidation of such subjectivities in shaping new world-views, new realities. Perhaps this is what she was hinting at but there is an air of reticence at odds with such overtly political material.

Thematic aside though there was a lot of good work to be seen in the Biennale. But good lord, so much video work. I actually felt slightly shell-shocked leaving the central venue at Oranienstrasse after 4 hours on Saturday. I really think this was a bad, but obviously deliberate, decision curatorially-speaking. Phil Collins’ work ‘Marxism Today’ (2010) worked well, and explored notions of ideological longevity and sustainability. Using fantastic DDR archival footage cut with interviews with women whose roles became defunct with the Demise of the Iron Curtain, I couldn’t help pondering the amount of roles that would become defunct with the demise of Capitalism. Mohamed Bourouissa’s video at Oranienstrasse was also a highlight. In it grainy mobile-phone video footage illustrated a dialogue between the artist and a friend who has smuggled a phone into prison. There was something quite affecting in the indeterminacy of the footage, it was hard to tell whether it showed footage of inside or out. There was no real progress to be witnessed in the dialogue either, nothing could be achieved, but merely the articulation of two very separate realities. John Smith’s video ‘The Girl Chewing Gum’ (1976) was definitely a favourite also. Located in an autonomous location, a crappy run-down shopfront on Dresdener Strasse, it provided a welcome antidote to much of the po-faced video work shown at other venues. This was lo-fi video making based around a simple idea of a man attempting to influence time and space. It is absolutely hilarious and if you can’t make it to Berlin maybe get it on youtube.Better still….Heres a clip…

One of the videos I definitely found troubling was Renzo Martens ninety-minute extravaganza ‘Episode 3’ (2008). Its subtitle was ‘Enjoy (please) Poverty’, and this cynical positioning occupied most of those ninety minutes. Well, actually I only managed sixty but I really thought that was more than enough. I got what he was trying to do, but surely there are better ways of alleviating poverty than by instructing African children to insert themselves within a process of self-exploitation. Or perhaps that’s just my Western guilt/unflappable idealism speaking. Martens was obviously explicitly performing the role of artist-as-evangelist, but I just found it kind of unnecessary.

There were many other works I really enjoyed. At KW, Petrit Halilaj, some of Shannon Ebner’s work and Mark Boulos’ video piece ‘All that is Solid Melts into Air’ (2008). A bit obvious definitely, but in terms of technical aspects like editing and its deafening climax I found it quite successful. Will return to this later, with photographs…

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