Review: „We don’t need another hero” – The 10th Berlin Biennale

  • 09.07.2018

In 1985, Tina Turner sang „We don’t need another hero”, the soundtrack of the movie Mad Max. The time was right before the end of the cold war, when Mikhail Gorbachev launched the Perestroika and Glasnost policies that would eventually precipitate the end of the USSR. There was a lot of expectation. Not the least about the end of the nuclear arms race threat. The system of institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa, the Apartheid, and the Berlin wall were about to fall.

As the title of the 10th Berlin Biennale (BBX), what does Tina Turner tell us about the world? It seems to point at a pragmatic perspective on today, exempt of messiahs and / or doomsday views. Gabi Ngcobo and her curatorial team chose for the BBX to gear towards some element of resistance, without the guarantees. The title, like the pick of an old song at a karaoke party, flirts with the past making guests titter with playful nostalgia, yet points at social illusions dismantled throughout history.

Yet BBX doesn’t blame, elevate, or victimize. It just makes no promises. Its ways of resistance can be explained. They are not consistently strong, or up to par with the caliber you would expect from a contemporary biennial. Yet they break patterns, and address under-addressed social behaviours. The curators seem to prepare a farewell to the curator-lead industry, while welcoming a less academic and more sensitive relation with artists.

The exhibition is small, only forty-six artists, mostly from Africa, African descent and the Caribbean. It lets non-western voices unfold, within an impeccable and classical white cube framework, but let them speak for themselves (for best or worse).

Two main sites (out of four), the Akademie der Künste (AdK) and KW Institute for Contemporary Art (KW) hold the greatest number of works. The most homogeneous chunk is at AdK. And within that, the most arresting are a series of prints. The large figurative black and white religious compositions by late Cuban artist Belkis Ayón. They are icon-like, classic, triangular. But they are set in a jungle. And the protagonists are these humanoid, bald, mouthless characters that seem both in charge and in trance. Some heads have halos. They are engaged in processions and rituals. The images are simply dramatic and bewitching. Ayón’s subject is the Abakuá mythology. An Afro-Cuban male secret-society that has its origins in Nigeria and was brought to Cuba through the slave trade. Things like forest spirits and morphing into leopards is apparently common in Abakuá. But also foundational to its pantheon is princess Sikán, to which Ayón apparently identified. Ayón however defined herself as atheist. In 1999 at age 32 she took her own life, which only makes her oeuvre more dramatic and mysterious. Working with this particular subject for more than sixteen years she must have found it a powerful way to engage with her own creative output. The tension between the characters points at relationships of power between men, and between men and women. But also to the artist as creator, and interpreter of truth.

Completely different in language and message is Sondra Perry’s intriguing film “IT’S IN THE GAME ‘17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection”, 2017. Here the artist exposes perceptions and bias associated with using other people images. It is about black bodies having the right of say on the use of their own image. She extends her exploration from personal family photographs, to the museum, to video games. The film features the artist’s twin brother, Sandy Perry, who is a professional basketball player. She interviews him about avatar players in a video game from 2009. All are based on real players whose physical characteristics and game statistics were sold by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to the video game developers. The players were neither asked for permission, nor compensated. Perry’s brother was one of them. Perry then goes on pointing at the rights associated to representations in works of art. The film stretches images and juxtaposes narratives throughout. The artist films her brother on her phone as they visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum. The siblings interact. They look at other artefacts and representations of black bodies from ancient civilisations. The video’s soundtrack is “You Are Everything”, a 1971 song by the Stylistics. With such lyric as

“Today I saw somebody Who looked just like you”

This leitmotiv underlines the theme of likeliness. Cryptic at first, for its collaged language and non-chronological distribution of clues, the film is at once intelligent and candid. The inclusion of the siblings’ relationship makes the viewer feel that they can relate to the narration, with a similar form of intimacy to sharing conversations on social media.

Another notable video work at AdK is by Mario Pfeifer: “Again / Noch einmal”, 2018. In April 2016, in a supermarket in Arnsdorf, a mentally unstable Iraqi man who was threatening an employee was taken out violently by local vigilantes and chained to a tree. Some qualified the men as courageous, and they were later found not guilty of any considerable offense in court. The testimony of the Iraqi man, whose body was found frozen to death in the woods before trial was therefore never heard. What remained was a divided public opinion on the incident, with some louder voices defending the vigilantes, and a viral video of the scene inside the supermarket. That is the subject of Pfeifer’s film. The artist gathered a jury of German citizens to review these events and decide on a verdict. The scene is reenacted, then each member of that jury shares her/his views. It makes for a poignant if not slightly emotionally manipulative documentary-like fiction. Unsurprisingly, it has a bias in favour of compassion towards the Iraqi (mentally ill) man. So although expected and very linear in its interpretation, the film has the merit to raise issues related to Germany’s refugee crisis and racism, and the wrong of this world.

Paintings abound throughout the exhibition, first with a few strong portraits by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye in AdK, characteristic to her choice of portraying only black people in undefined contexts. Just by being there, her paintings add numbers to the representation of black people throughout the exhibition. It leaves questions about black bodies aesthetics, representation and white gaze unanswered. For now. Yet bring them stronger to the surface. But also of a more inward quality, this time at KW, a great triptych by Portia Zvavahera, Hapana Chitsva (All is Ancient, 2018). Her oils are colourful and full of drama. They have some figurative in them—female form—the rest is lace and other patterns, horns, hands. Energetic markings make for a vibrant composition. A mix of power and longing comes to mind. Deeply emotional, the Zimbabwean artist’s painting, though strong seem to also speak of rendition. It fits the biennale overall, where rather classic composition carry underlying notions of battling with psychological or societal and political issues.

Also painting (although no strictly) is represented throughout the venues by the geometric pastel lines and markings of Chilean artist Johanna Unzueta. Labor-intensive and craft-indulgent, her long symmetric abstract compositions appear in watercolour, pastel, and needle holes in AdK. They form patterns of dots and waving stripes. The works are framed in plexiglass, standing like portals. Quiet. The soft colours balance the industrial drawing and architectural rigidity. There is something of sacred geometry in the works. And they are the kind to slowly grow on you. A louder rendition of her geometric abstraction is on the side wall of the ZK/U. There, titled “Herringbone: Listen To The Whispers of The City”, 2018, Unzueta used colored ropes, screws, and metal rods to complement the pastels over the rough surface.

That wall comes as a relief to an otherwise disappointing site for the biennale. ZK/U lacks ambition or quality overall. Worth noting, “Operation Sunken Sea (The Anti-Control Room)”, 2018, by Heba Y. Amin, on creating a new supercontinent with the artist posing as its leader, and presented with speeches—in a multiple channel video installation—along other dictators, seems interesting but fails to deliver something of consistence yet. A significant exception to ZK/U’s lackluster proposal is in the basement. The installation of several video works by Tony Cokes on monitors and screens. From Black Celebration, 1988, featuring images of 1965’s riots in Watts, Boston, Detroit, and Newark to DT.sketch.01.7 (Evil.66.1), 2016. The various screens run Cokes’s slides simultaneously, mixing night club atmosphere with the social critique of his punch phrases and images.

At the Volksbühne the Puerto Rican sisters Las Nietas de Nonó have taken over. It is hard to know what they perform about. Although it soon becomes clear that it denounces act of violence, especially against women. There is a little comedy too it, a lot of drama and some exaggeration. Being forced to stay inside the small space is eventually rewarding in coaxing our general lack of attention span. “Ilustraciones de la Mecánica” reenacts clinical testings conducted in Puerto Rico throughout the twentieth century. The US government, under the pretence of population control, executed targeted sterilizations on black population. By 1968, the program had sterilized roughly one third of Puerto Rican women. Many of the female family members of las nietas, were left without reproductive organs. The performance turns raw but focused, and leaves you drained as well as alive.

In a similar vein, the series “Expanded” by German artist Julia Phillips back at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art (KW) tackles experiments made on women’s bodies. Phillips’s works on paper feature broken stockings in ink (made by using hosiery as print material pinned to the paper). The tense way in which the resulting drawings are staged, stretched with breakages, suggest not only violence, but also the force of resistance of a seemingly fragile body. In the room, for additional discomfort, a stainless steel hospital trolley “Operator (with Blinder, Muter, Penetrator, Aborter)”, 2017, suggests a relationship with the pain endured by the stockings. The work’s sophistication resides in its sobriety and aesthetics.

As the other main site of the biennale, and the institution that founded it in 1998, KW has most of the show’s works. In the basement an orange immersive experience by Dineo Sheshee Bopape, “Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings]”, 2016–18 awaits visitors. Rumbles, buckets of water, videos, and kinetic sculptures, surfaces in par with a post-apocalyptic vision (as in the Mad Max movies). The statement references a novel by South African author Bessie Head "A Question of Power" (1973), about a mentally unstable woman living in harsh surroundings. It also references Nina Simone’s disturbing and powerful performance of Feelings at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976 (shown on one of the monitors). In any case the different piles of rubles, as islands of chaos in the space, evoke something in transit and complex. Something that has been destroyed and irrecuperable that we will have to deal with best we can going forward.

On the same level a bar space by Fabiana Faleiros offers a contrasting retreat. Here in “Mastur Bar” (2015–18), a traveling bar that offers workshops and happening on the theme of female masturbation, music is blasting out (Donna Summer’s I feel Love) red lights and neons shine. In a corner, two large three-armed cushions in patchwork fabric look like vulvas, and invite viewers’ hands to pet them as cuddly soft toys. It makes for an entertaining alcove. Further in the floor I already mentioned works by Zvavahera and Phillips. But there are more images, some from her Frowst series by Joanna Piotrowska, several staged family shots, where tension comes from the forced poses of the characters and the homey context. It reminds us how uncomfortable intimacy and familiarity can be. Also a slides film where a young woman illustrates several unnatural body poses. The photographs are black and white while the slides are in color against a black background. Both offer us some exquisitely awkward theatrics about what we could consider banal.

There is performance, too. Organized by Okwui Okpokwasili, her partner Peter Born, and several Berlin-based artists, “Sitting on a Man’s Head”, 2018 takes its title from a form of protest traditionally practiced by women in eastern Nigeria. During the Woman’s War insurrection in British Nigeria in 1929, women would publicly embarrass an official. They would, let’s say, dance, sing, and perform their grievances in front of his house until he agrees to address them. Being visible and being heard. The room takes over two floors, and invites visitors to the performance. You might catch a song, or a shout-out. And they all felt genuine. What I am taking away from seeing people and performer walk and move together in that space, besides the Nigeria and feminist reference, is that it acknowledges the power of non-verbal communication. In fact aren’t, body language, tone color, and other subtle electric connections more prevalent between humans than words?

It takes a lot of energy to change course when a vehicle is already launched, because once there is momentum it is harder to stop anything. That is how BBX felt to me: a vehicle trying to engage into a different direction caught when manoeuvring to do so. In the context of the wider scope of the art world that means presenting works that may not fit what we are used to judge.

I am from a multicultural background. In fact I am a product of the cold war, one parent from the Dominican Republic and one from Russia. Well, the USSR at the time. They met as students there, both subjects of the educational chapter of the cold war battle in a very cosmopolitan Saint Petersburg abounding with sophisticated art and culture, as well as free soviet propaganda. They moved to the DR. Later we moved to Paris. I found myself engaging with threads of meanings in this biennale that I relate to my non-Western upbringing. It reminded me a friend in Sao Paulo pointing to me to at a work representing a black body, and telling me how rare in his native Brazil he could relate to a work of art with his own body.

To me, that is what the BBX brings forth. Through its discreet curation, the show is willing to let different artists speak. And I am willing to follow their pointers, and investigate further. It seems timely to make more room for different aesthetics, concerns, and point of views. If not always artistically accomplished, they are here to remind us of different way of seeing and that, if not in the arts, where can we go about opening our minds? Diversity, here at least, gets a welcoming breath of fresh air.

X Berlin Biennale

Find the programm, here.