7th Berlin Biennial, Forget Fear
KW Berlin and venues throughout Berlin
Curated by Arthur Zmijewski and associate curators Viona and Joanna Warsza.
Review by Michael Birchall
The relatively young Berlin biennial has always been controversial and this year proved to be no exception. In 2011 the group show ‘based in berlin’ attempted to generate links between artists who produce work in Berlin and maintain a connection to the city, despite the failings of this show it provoked an interest into Berlin's cultural identity -in the art scene- and the connection this has with locality. The 2010 Berlin Biennial ‘What is waiting out there’ discussed issues surrounding Berlin after the fall of the wall and the large group of Turkish-German inhabitants who live in the capital. The 7th Berlin Biennial Forget Fear is curated by Arthur Zmijewski with associate curators Viona and Joanna Warsza and continues to open up the debates about Berlin and crucially about German identity.
Joanna Rajkowska's video ‘Born In Berlin’ (2012) presents a personal narrative about why the artist elected to giver birth to her child in Berlin, she describes Berlin as “...being unable to deal with itself. Like a middle-aged man, good-looking, well-dressed, but at the same time worn out after years of suffering from a chronic disease that climaxed years back. Exhausted not only by what it has been through, but also with the attempts to verbalize it, the lack of language, the following complications, and the amount of painkillers it needs to take daily”.Rajkowska's ‘Born in Berlin’ as well as Nada Prlja's ‘Peace Wall’ are part of several works in the biennial that talk about Berlin's past and attempt to question – or try to heal- the wounds of city. Prlja's ‘Peace Wall’ is a recreation of the Berlin Wall that now divides Friedrichstrasse, commenting on the gentrification of Berlin and the new problem neighbourhoods of the city.
The desire to reinterpret German history can often be over-looked, as it is often branded as guilt and avoided by mainstream politics. Deutschlandhaus serves as a venue to the biennial and includes newly constructed narratives of the fate of German people displaced by the Second World War, it will become the centre for Foundation Flight, Expulsion and Reconciliation (scheduled to open 2016). The narratives presented here are in curator, Arthur Zmijewski's opinion tasked with psychologically preparing society to accept the status of a European hegemony – which is only prevented by a historical burden of guilt.
Attempts are made to deal with Germany and Poland's complex relationship, in the project, ‘Berlin-Birkenau’ by Polish-artist Lukasz Surowiec brings a few hundreds birch tree saplings from the area around the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp to Berlin. The trees are a “living archive” to those who perished in the holocaust and connects the sites of deportation in Germany and the final resting places in Poland. As a promissory action visitors can take home seedlings and plant their own tree as a “self-initiated memorial”. Shown in a closed room opposite to the saplings at the KW is Arthur Zmijewski's video ‘Berek’ (Game of Tag) (1999) which features a group of naked people playing a game of “tag” in a gas chamber at a former extermination camp. Zmijewski has dealt with this sensitive topic in previous works, including the video ‘80064’ (2004) were a Polish concentration camp survivor has his concentration-camp number re-tattooed. Zmijewski's desire is not to provoke, he is interested in the notion of reclaiming its ability to offer knowledge, and this is unavoidably political. However, Zmijewski's curatorial decision to include ‘Berek’ in relation to ‘Berlin-Birkenau’ creates an awkwardness for the viewer - as the video is shown in a closed room behind a black curtain – this draws our attention explicitly to the reality of the concentration camp. Zmijewski's decision to include his own work in the biennial was in protest against the removal of ‘Berek’ from the exhibition ‘Side by Side. Poland – Germany. A 1000 Years of Art and History’ under the request of the director as it failed to represent the victims dignity.
Zmijewski is not a curator and nor does he attempt to become one, his curatorial practice thus becomes an extension of his practice in ‘Forget Fear’. His use of “ applied social arts”, is an attempt to reveal political truths: 'art creates its own political approach while artists' work speaks of society'. This inclusion of the occupy group 15m in the hall of the KW is problematic, while they are given liberties to organises whatever protests or meetings they wish to it is beyond the control of the curatorial team. This is in itself an institutionalisation of their actions and critically brings their movement into an organised, established system. As Marc Léger asserts 'transversal activists who have been inspired by the “post-political politics” of Italian workerism and the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have called for an “exodus” from the established institutions of cultural production'. Yet, in the context of ‘Forget Fear’ the occupiers have accepted the representation and comfort offered by the biennial.
This is not an aesthetically pleasing biennial by any means, the works on view are in production, require interaction, discussion and an affinity to understand the conditions under which they were produced. It is not possible to get a true sense of this biennial by attending the opening or visiting the various locations. The real content of the biennial exists in the program of events that are running throughout the entire duration, especially at ‘Draftsmen's Congress’ initiated by Pawel Althamer at the St. Elisabeth Church in Berlin-Mitte. The congress is a meeting of people who communicate using images, the public is invited to draw or use whichever medium they wish to to react to current politics, symbols of power and other issues. The context Althamer's initiated permits the public to draw and let out their frustrations, in a church, a sacred space were iconography is usually controlled by the establishment.
Perhaps with future hindsight this biennial will be looked upon as being one that questioned the role of art and politics and the importance of this within our society. At this time the frustrations felt in Europe by the austerity measures being imposed by governments are starting to manifest as protests and in many northern countries sees voters voting towards the right. Here we have a biennial that endeavours to represent the social, economic and political conditions that exist within Europe in the present, and simultaneously look back at our past to aid us in reinterpreting what it means to be European.
Michael Birchall is a curator and writer currently working on his PhD.