Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Berlin Biennial Bombs Bigtime

A word to the city of Berlin, and in particular the Kultursenat: if you want the world to keep thinking of Berlin as a hip! edgy! place, do yourself a favor and the next time the idiots who keep besmirching the city's name in the guise of the Berlin Biennial come begging, just remember Nancy Reagan and Just Say No.

I missed the last one on early word that it was toxic, but last Sunday, Bowleserised, BiB, Karl-Marx-Strasse and I met at the Kunst Werke on Auguststr. to see as much as we could. I finished the process today with a visit to the one venue we'd missed, the Neuenationalgalerie.

The short verdict: worse than ever. A somewhat lengthier appraisal follows.

KW is the center of this event, although whether it's still partnered with PS 1 in New York I don't know. For PS 1's sake, I hope not. It's not a real good venue for anything, with its steep stairways and small exhibition spaces, getting smaller the higher you ascend. Four floors are open for this show, and yet you can do the whole thing in about 20 minutes, so empty is it of any content or thought-provoking work. For instance, there's the lowest floor, the former cellar. Most of this has been given to Turkish artist Ahmet Ögüt, who has installed a work he calls "Ground Control." In other words, he spent part of last year and part of this year paving it with tar. It's one of those rare artworks which engages the sense of smell, since the tar's still cooling, but it's still tar. On the same floor is a HD-video installation by Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys called "The Frigate," twenty minutes of a bunch of unattractive people staring at each other. I guess you could invoke Bill Viola's name here, but it would be in vain. There's the exciting part: sort of random organ music suddenly swells up, there are a few shots of some industrial product close-up, and then the woman in the group is seen staring at a ship-model which has been painted black.

Apparently one of the stars of this mess is someone called Pushwagner, who has spread out a "graphic novel" called Soft City in vitrines along a serpentine passageway. The subject of this daring work is conformity and capitalism. as it follows a family whose father wakes up and goes to work in a huge corporation just like every other man in the city while the woman takes the baby and goes shopping in a huge store. Like I said, real cutting-edge. Some notes I picked up later at the Schinkel Pavillion (about which more in a minute) says that "it is with a crude attitude and from a dropout perspective that Pushwagner observes the world and its mechanisms." This is art-speak for "not very well drawn."

Looking over the list of other works at the KW, I found I couldn't really remember many of them. There's Patricia Esquivas' two "Folklore" films, where she explains contemporary Spanish art from a chart in hesitant English. There's Michel Auder's four-minute film "My Last Bag of Heroin (For Real)," in which the artist chases the dragon on a piece of foil, reloads, and does it again, and then mumbles about checking himself into a hospital the next day. Fascinating. It was followed by a later work called "Polaroid Cocaine," showing that he'd definitely made progress, if only from one drug to another, but the music involved was so grating I had to leave the little cubicle where it was showing.

On the third floor is the only work worth looking at, although it's hard to do: Kohei Yoshiyuki spent eight years photographing people having sex in a park in Japan, using infrared film, apparently. The series, entitled "Park," has been much shown and much commented upon, as well it should be, since it brings up all kinds of questions about the role of the artist's license to document, invasion of privacy, responsibility in the case of possible criminal behavior (some of these photos seem to document rape -- although perhaps that's just an illusion) and, of course, the morality of exhibiting all of this publicly.

The rest is so forgettable that, well, I've pretty much forgotten it although it's only been a couple of days. But there are four venues in this year's Biennial, so we found ourselves willing to look at more. We headed toward the Skulpturenpark, located on a swath of former Wall no-man's-land on the border of Mitte and Kreuzberg, but realized on the way over that there was something called the Schinkel Pavilion at Oberwallstr. 1. Just try finding it! It turned out to be on the short bit of the street that comes off of Unter den Linden, through a door and up some stairs. What it has to do with Schinkel I can't tell you, but I can tell you that after all that effort we were greeted with a room filled with a few huge canvases by our old pal Pushwagner. We lasted a minute or two and left.

The Skulpturenpark is almost impossible to find with the aid of the map they hand you. (So, for that matter, is the Schinkel Pavilion). Once you get there, you may wish you hadn't. I'm not convinced we saw all of it -- it's very badly laid out -- but what there was was pretty dull. First, we stopped in a little shelter to see Lars Lauman's 27-minute film about the woman who's convinced she's married to the Berlin Wall. This woman is either a sad, mentally unbalanced person (not impossible) or a performance artist of little talent (less likely). If it's the former, as I suspect it is, Lauman's film is a work of mean-spirited exploitation of the mentally ill. If it's the latter, he's as untalented as she is. Anyway, this isn't an installation, it's an actual documentary film, so what's it doing in this show of alleged art?

Elsewhere, Killian Rüthemann has dug some holes, a piece he calls "Stripping," and Katerina Seda has erected an enclosure which can only be entered via a few stepladders or by climbing up its sides. Don't fall: the interior has huge pieces of broken plate-glass. There's a message here, and I think it's "stay away from Czech artists." From a heap of rubble in the center of the largest part of the "park," a sound installation by Susan Hiller erupts every now and again. Must be fun for the folks in the pricey apartments nearby, although it's just simple tones and overtones.

At this point we were seriously the worse for wear, so while 3/4 of our company headed over to the Nikolaiviertel in search of nourishment I jumped into a U-Bahn station and went home.

But I'd paid €12 for my ticket, and the Neuenationalgalerie portion remained unpunched. I wasn't going to condemn the entire Biennial without seeing the whole thing. After all, one really brilliant piece (by Joao Penalva) had rescued the first one for me, and it's not impossible that it would happen with another artist this time.

But no. The entire ground floor of the museum is littered with mediocrity. There's something called "Pygmalion Workshop" by Nashashabi/Skaer, which would have been brilliant if it had stopped with the reconstruction of a partially-ruined Greek sculpture in shiny Plexiglass on the floor, but blew it with a bunch of side-show exhibitions including painted cloth, reproductions from books, and a very stupid film. Goshka Macuga's "Deutsches Volk -- Deutsches Arbeit" is a glass-and-steel sculpture that at least is well-made, giving an illusion of solidity from dozens of thin sheets of glass. But one piece stood out: Gabriel Kuri has erected four yellow shapes of no particular distinction, and on them he's put coat-check numbers. Patrons checking into the museum may hit one of the lucky numbers, in which case their coats are draped by the appropriate number under the watchful eye of guards. I'm not sure why this appealed to me so much, but it did, maybe because, unlike the rest of the solipsistic, content-free work on display here, it admitted that there was an audience and sought to involve them personally. (This more than the curators deigned to do at the Neue Nationalgalerie, incidentally: there are no signs with titles or artists on or near the works, which I found incredibly arrogant and confusing.)

That's the big problem with the 5th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art: it was curated by a bunch of theory-addled insiders whose only interest, it would seem, is in padding their CVs. That there is nothing of interest of relevance to the outside world doesn't matter to them. The public be damned, although we're spending some of their money, throwing it at our friends. And then, as a final cynical middle-finger, the event is subtitled "when things cast no shadow," which only thrusts the emperor's-new-clothes aspect into the open. Almost none of this art will be remembered, let alone cast a shadow on contemporary practice. Visitors to Berlin while it's open would be much better advised to crawl the gallery districts of Auguststr., Mauerstr., Brunnenstr. and elsewhere, where galleries, knowing they've got the upper hand with artists who care about what they're doing, have put up some of the best stuff they can get their hands on.

Stop funding this joke. Maybe it will go away.


Bowleserised said...

That room full of tarmac.

If I wrote a novel that featured one idea, leadenly interpreted, I don't think I'd find a publisher.

And was Soft City art or a graphic novel? And aren't really good graphic novels art? Or?

Ed Ward said...

But translating that artwork into fiction, all you'd have to do is write "Jim Foster was fat, and lived in Portsmouth." Then, you'd have to defend it with a long essay about outmoded narrative structures, the incredible leap of imagination it took you to invent a person inhabiting a real place, the audacity of re-inventing this place with your imaginary Jim in it, and the friction between reality and invention this implies.

Soft City was, indeed, presented in the program as a "graphic novel." Given some of the amazing things the Hernandez Brothers and Jean-Claude Denis (to name just two of my favorites) have done with the medium, it's sort of like cold mashed potatoes, but clearly they're beyond the conceptual grasp of the idiots who curated this.

Anonymous said...

This park in Japan...they didn't happen to say where it is or anything?

Bowleserised said...

I think it's in China. Any trips planned?

And Ed – yup, that just about sums it up. Imagine a Bienniel with Love and Rockets...

Ed Ward said...

Penguin, according to what I can find out, these parks are in Tokyo, and were shot during the 1970s. The first series was shot in Chuo Park in Shunjuku using infrared flashbulbs.

Anonymous said...

In defense of the germans, is it really much better elsewhere? A petition circulated by the Stuckists for the dismissal of Sir Nicholas Serota reminds us that he exhibited and called art "a radio and coat hangers, a cow cut in half in formaldehyde, a tin of excrement, a light going on and off in an empty room, fun fair slides and a crack in the floor", all of this at the Tate Modern, no less.

Bowleserised said...

Oliver, that was moons ago. British art has been limping along since. But there are some decent artists, Hirsts not withstanding.