Berlin Biennale 2016

Set in four locations in Berlin, this year’s Biennale is rich, big and sometimes overwhelming. The title “the present in drag” and themes are ambitious: the complexity of global relations, extreme late capitalist modernism, the permanent overlapping of virtual and real, the primacy of economics.

The curatorial team, the DISS collective, is four artists who work and live in New York, who had no intention of interpreting or making sense of Berlin. Neither did they want to present easy options. Instead, says Lauren Boyd: “art is not a release valve, something to make you feel better, absolved. We wanted to make anonymous powers visible, and when we talked to artists we realised we are living in the most contradictory time ever. You can predict the future, with algorithms, but you can’t control it. We wanted to create an exhibition that was equally incomprehensible. The present feels more future than ever”.

In the spectacular Akademie der Kunste (a beautiful glass fronted building, overlooking the Potsdammer Platz) are the more disturbing works. On a video screen directly overlooking the platz, Turkish artist Halil Altindere has a work that nods to MTV videos, with a Syrian rapper talking about the Turkish refugees. The powerful piece, contrasting footage of yoga (“only observe” says the narration), is edited against hundreds of well-dressed, obviously middle class refugees arriving at the (now disused) Berlin old airport.

In the impressive ESMT (a former East German government building, now a school for business), Simon Denny’s installation looks like three trade stands, critiquing bitcoin and blockchain- the digital authenticator of most financial global transactions and banking. The work makes excellent use of the grand, brutal communist architecture, and was chosen for these reasons.  “My work is showing these three, real life companies that work in a virtual way. I’m saying if you don’t need a company, real fixed entities, then maybe you don’t need nation-states too. I’m neither critical, nor a fan, my work involves a lot of discussion with financial experts, academics, the companies, to make it work.”

Some of the works are much calmer, and less demanding, but equally conceptual. For example, Karolinski and Niermann’s video installation, presents a fictional Army of Lovers that move around offering nurturing hugs and tenderness. Their work includes the opportunity for unclothed women to lie in a bed with a disabled man, naked, and simply feel human touch and intimacy.

There is very little painting, watercolour, or clay in the Biennale, and not much reference to the “real world”: climate change, aging, or protesting.
Ute Thon, German art critic, is critical, feeling form has been prioritised over style: “The artists, so called Digital Natives, are caught up in their technical/virtual worlds, fluent in managing algorithms and motion capturing technology but not very inventive when it comes to using these tools to create real change, real emotions, real disruptions. But they are only one small fraction of a totally fractured art world. There are other young artists in Berlin who work totally differently, including organizing video workshops with refugees, opening up their studios for Salon style gatherings and discussions”

Curator Lauren Boyd, however, is committed to the idea that the themes in the Biennale represent global concerns, not just the luxury problems of a small clique of NY hipsters. She cites the works New Eelam – which looks very much like an advert for utopia. In seductive dream sequences every home is an Airbnb, every car an uber, and we all move around becoming “local” at the click of the laptop or swipe of the iPhone, whilst maintaining ultimate mobility. She retorts,“we are living in hyper-individual times where we are encouraged to brand everything- our homes, our cars, ourselves. Everything is being sold to you as an individual. Contrast that with the crushing power of big data. And the individual is flattened, turned into an algorithm. The world is anxious, confused, without boundaries.”

Thembi Mutch

1. Speculative Ambience, (2016). Video Still, produced by Iconoclast. Courtesy Berlin Biennale für zeitgenössische Kunst / for Contemporary Art.