“Forget Fear” reads the title of the 7th Berlin Biennale— curated by Polish artist Artur Zmijewski and his co-curatorial team, consisting of Polish art historian and curator Joanna Warsza and, from a distance, Russian activist-artist group Voina— but the more prosaic question behind this motto was what “art can do for real politics.” In a special issue of the magazine Camera Austria International published shortly before the opening of the Biennale, Zmijewski and Warsza described their curatorial approach in greater detail: “Our curatorial work has not been based on selecting ‘the most interesting portfolio’ but on reflecting on the potential of artists to trigger social and political processes. There is no final deadline where research ends and production begins. The Berlin Biennale will be an exhibition where the content grows with time, an exhibition reacting to reality and trying to evoke actual changes.” Zmijewski and Warsza had been looking for “art in civil disobedience, in politics, or in activities seen as art of mediocre quality.” They promised to “present art that actually works, makes its mark on reality, and opens a space where politics can be performed. These works create political events— regardless of whether they deal with urgent problems in society or the long-term politics of memory.
Zmijewski and his team thus defined their key areas of interest: “the political effectiveness of art, the activity of the engaged intelligentsia and the creative class (artists in particular), their reactions to important social issues, as well as the way art is employed to construct historical narratives.” Four years into the current economic crisis in Europe, such supposedly clear statements— aiming less for the aesthetic and more for the social and the political, as well as activist approaches to contemporary art production— gave the exhibition its appeal amidst the metropolitan art circuit in the months and weeks before opening. In general, a somewhat critical approach seemed necessary in order to distinguish the Biennale from similar events worldwide, or even in the city itself. For example, the failure of last year’s purely aesthetic showcase “Based in Berlin”— overseen by Berlin Biennale co-founder Klaus Biesenbach— is still a vivid memory.
But of course: theory is one thing, practice another. How does such a meeting of art and politics look at eye level? And most importantly, is it possible to stage this in the biennial format? And so the real event would appear as a trial of strength: To what extent is the power of an artist-curator manifest? “The model of curatorial action I have adopted,” writes Zmijewski, “is not based on administering art objects, fishing them out of an artist’s oeuvre, transporting, insuring, and hanging them on walls. It is one based on moderating and negotiating between conflicting political positions attired in the guise of artistic action. The only thing that can truly demolish this model of work is angst, the petrifying fear of bringing about real effects and taking responsibility for them. It makes it impossible to even imagine any pragmatic formula of action.” Yet how appealing is such programming for the audience? Another, no less important, question would be how to produce a biennial about the beauty of activism when said biennial is sponsored by the German Federal Cultural Foundation to the tune of EUR 2.5 million? Is there any chance of achieving this without the growing entanglement in crippling contradictions?
Meanwhile, the list of participating artists was remarkably short. The bigger names could even be counted on one hand: Olafur Eliasson, Yael Bartana, Pawel Althammer, and Zmijewski himself. Clearly, the ruling star system of elsewhere had been consciously barred here— as had the discovery of new talent. For example, in the most prominent space of the main venue, the 500-square-meter exhibition hall on the ground floor of the Kunst-Werke (KW) on Auguststrasse, Zmijewski and Warsza refrained from showing art altogether. Instead, the curators invited activists from the international Occupy movement to live and work there for the duration of the exhibition. This Occupy Berlin Biennale in turn offered the public an “Open space for everyone interested in acting politically, thinking critically, improving his or her own skills or— literally— changing the world.” Yet this kind of DIY space might not appeal to every visitor.
Even artists capable of large-scale projects here opted for modesty for the sake of serving the cause, pandering to the activist core. Olafur Eliasson invited local politician Guido Brendgens to study one semester with his Institute for Spatial Experiments, aiming for “direct interaction between political and artistic practice through critical exchange in common life.” For his Draftsman’s Congress, the artist Pawel Althammer invited the audience to a collective cheerful white-wall-scribble on the premises of St. Elizabeth, a deconsecrated church in Berlin-Mitte, a ten-minute walk from KW. And in mid-May, the Israeli-Dutch artist Yael Bartana continued her ongoing JRMiP project— for “Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland”— with a weekend-long congress in the Hebbel-theatre in Berlin-Kreuzberg. With the help of the Biennale, the congress gathered to discuss the populist and provocative proposal of returning 3.3 million Jews to Poland: “Jews today are not the same people who were expelled from Europe, and Europeans today are not the same people responsible for that ethnic cleansing. This is a good time to unite again— to change Europe and Israel for the better (maybe we can change the whole Middle East).” Some of the more visible works of the Biennale dealt with this matter, and the conflicts of the Middle East appeared as one focus of the exhibition; the Palestinian refugee camp Aida sent a super-sized “Key of Return” from the West Bank to the Biennale, which is now exhibited in the courtyard of the KW and teaches the visitors about the now 62-year-old camp. In the shop of the KW, a series of postal stamps from the Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar was made available, among which the stamp with a glossy blue-feathered Palestinian sunbird on a yellow background looks official, but is issued only by Germanys’ Deutsche Bundespost in limited edition. During the Biennale, Jarrar, who sees his project inspired by his “dream of living a normal life in a normal country, like a normal human being” also stamped passports of visitors with the still nonexistent Palestinian state, as he has already done in Ramallah and elsewhere in the world.
According to KW director Gabriele Horn, there “has never before been a Berlin Biennale that has already achieved such an international presence and controversial resonance in the run-up to the opening— not only in the media but also amongst artists and colleagues.” It is the nature of things that such resonance before the actual happening also bears the possibility of disappointment. This is certainly the case with the display of the project by Czech artist Martin Zet, “Deutschland schafft es ab” (“Germany gets rid of it”). Zet previously announced the collection and recycling of 60,000 copies of the Social Darwinist bestseller Deutschland schafft sich ab (“Germany does away with itself”) by Thilo Sarrazin, a former member of the Bundesbank Board. At the KW, though, the sight of only four collected copies pressed against a wall is less than impressive.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of this 7th Berlin Biennale is its very provocation of critical controversy. Thanks to “Forget Fear,” a more fundamental questioning of the ritual demand for the political in art has started to set in. As the Berlin-based political consultant Aram Lintzel put it his monthly newspaper column, the outsourcing of tasks of political discourse to the realm of art can be seen as a problem too, precisely because one very crucial normative basis remains unanswered: “Why, exactly, is art supposed to be political? How fitting is this label for art, which considers itself critical? And would it be not more urgent today to politicize the policy itself?” In a quite unexpected fashion, this is an observation that answers the curators’ basic question of what “art can do for real politics.” Kito Nedo