Juan A. Gaitán in the catalogue of the 8th Berlin Biennale


Throughout the process of constructing the 8th Berlin Biennale for  Contemporary Art, I have wanted to keep the curatorial approach  to Berlin on a tentative level, watching and listening to what goes on  in the city before proceeding to confirm (or disconfirm) my suspicions.  Over previous visits and during my time being based here as curator  of the Berlin Biennale, I’ve been able to observe the city develop in  a rather interesting way—interesting both in terms of what the city  has become, and how this process reflects a larger tendency around  the world to mobilize history in order to reinforce the hegemony  of certain dominant narratives.


Not to stray too far from “home”—where at the moment home  is Berlin-Mitte, in the complex of buildings that houses KW Institute  for Contemporary Art—take for instance the current construction of  the Humboldt-Forum on nearby Museum Island, which will feature  replicas of three of the original façades and the dome of the former  Stadtschloss.1 According to an official statement, the project was  suggested by an “international commission of experts on ‘the Historic  Heart of Berlin,’” who thought that with the restitution of these  façades “all the surrounding historic buildings will be regaining their  points of reference, in terms of both scale and appearance.”2 The  Humboldt-Forum is being erected at the eastern end of Unter den  Linden, a grand, tree-lined boulevard that is the product of Prussian city planning in the neoclassical period, and so underlying this reconstructive  impulse is a clear desire to memorialize not only the architecture,  but also the city itself, as an artifact. Opposed to this is the  contemporary architecture that emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall  and is concentrated in areas like Potsdamer Platz, whose main purpose  seems to have been to thrust the city into the twenty-first century  posthaste, and to just as quickly bury the traumas of the twentieth.


But Berlin is only a starting point, one example of a larger tendency  to move history onto center stage and to disavow the last century.  This renunciation might be primarily aesthetic, grounded in the  demolition of twentieth-century architecture and the erection of  either contemporary crypto-corporate buildings or the reconstruction  of historical or historical-looking ones. Yet, this aesthetic disavowal  echoes the present crisis of the nation-state on a global scale, which  in its neoliberal guise has turned its back on some of the most significant,  if incomplete, projects of the twentieth century: the attempted  reformulation of citizenship as an inclusive construct; the creation of  a socially responsible urbanism; and, to paraphrase the quintessential  propositional architect Yona Friedman, an architecture for the people,  by the people, and of the people.


Of course, a biennial can only respond partially to these concerns,  yet I think they must be registered here as part of a process  of engagement with the city; they have also been essential to the  formulation of the cartography of the 8th Berlin Biennale. It is  a proposition embedded in the choice of exhibition venues, two  of which—Museen Dahlem in Dahlem and Haus am Waldsee in the  contiguous neighborhood of Zehlendorf—are located in the West.  The third venue is, naturally, KW. Traditionally the main Berlin Biennale  venue, for this edition it must compete for its position of centrality.  The exhibition proper has been overlaid onto this cartography in  the hope that each venue elicits a distinct relationship between contemporary  art and its surrounding environment. In Haus am Waldsee,  the exhibited works are meant to highlight the building’s original  function as a private villa. They ask the visitor to engage with the  relationship the space continues to establish with its surroundings  as an allegory of the untimeliness of the Romantic landscape.  In Dahlem, the installation’s fragmentary distribution alongside the  existing collections of the Ethnologisches Museum and Museum  für Asiatische Kunst constantly asks the visitor to choose whether  to remain within the contemporary art presentation or to undertake  short excursions into the museums’ historical holdings. At KW, on the  other hand, the decision was to construct a more inward, absorptive  experience, underlining the tendency of contemporary art spaces  to separate art from the immediate environment.


There are also a few parallel statements that we have called  “surplus venues”: the Crash Pad, which is the designated discursive  space; the book Excursus, which contains visual propositions by  the artists in the 8th Berlin Biennale, and 9 Plus 1, a poster series.  The Crash Pad is an installation in itself and can be found in the  front house of KW. The latter two represent different kinds of outputs  of the printing press (that nearly obsolete machine). While Excursus,  a book of images, is intended to be engaged with privately, intimately,  the other format—the poster—is designed to appear publicly,  calling for a congregation. Together with the exhibition locations  mentioned above, the surplus venues are another mode of establishing  a dialogue about the privileging of visual representation  over other forms of sensory experience.


One of the most exciting challenges faced by the 8th Berlin Biennale  and its team relates to the decision to invite such a broad and international  group of artists to take part in the exhibition and to develop  newly commissioned works. This approach has certainly exerted  considerable pressure on the Berlin Biennale’s structure, yet it has  been essential for our process. As responses, the works have also  contributed to the development and formulation of the exhibition  and its themes. Several of the works, for instance, were conceived  in direct connection to the museums in Dahlem and to the colonial and  imperial logic that it embodies in the collecting and display of artifacts  belonging to other cultures. Other works in the exhibition have to do  with the contemplative regime that is established in the display of the  contemporary museum, which emphasizes the semblance of things  and privileges a Western form of aesthetic appreciation. Following this  discourse, other works engage directly with the mechanisms of the  image, its production, and myriad functions. In terms of media, there  is also a conspicuous presence of drawing and drawing-based practices  in the exhibition, which I think affirms the artwork’s propositional  quality and, in this sense, asks the viewer to engage with the works  as conditional statements—conditioned by the fact that contemporary  art performs two simultaneous, if aporetic, tasks in exploring reality  and critiquing the mechanisms of its representation. A strong emphasis  on sound and composition also runs through the exhibition. Beyond  the way that individual works on view make use of sound, perhaps this  can also be read as a gesture that takes something away from the  privileging of the image so dominant in contemporary culture today.


This guidebook has two main sections. The first includes contributions  by the members of the Artistic Team—Tarek Atoui, Natasha  Ginwala, Catalina Lozano, Mariana Munguía, Olaf Nicolai, and Danh Vo.  There has been no requirement that the statements respond to a  general theme, or that they represent a methodological or conceptual  unity. Instead, the interventions provide a sense of the personal interests  of each author, indicating the places from which we have been  articulating our interests within this shared project. Still, the reader  will see that architecture and the image (the “architecture of the image”  and “image-architecture” on the one hand, and on the other, the  image in its function and as an epiphenomenon of globalization) have  been significant subjects of discussion. The second section of the  guidebook is divided by venue; here the reader-visitor is provided with  brief information on each venue and taken through the some fifty  projects (many of them new commissions) on view. An entry on each  exhibiting artist contains a short text about their practice and work  for the 8th Berlin Biennale, as well as visual material.


Artistic Team member and artist Olaf Nicolai’s text, “Szondi/Eden,”  offers a direct response to how our interest in the city and the image has  translated into the layout of the 8th Berlin Biennale. Written as a fictional  narrative, Nicolai’s short story is set in a building that was once  considered as a possible exhibition venue: an empty shopping mall that  stands alone in the eastern district of Lichtenberg, waiting, in a pristine  state, for its demolition. In that earlier cartography of the 8th Berlin  Biennale, the idea was to divide the city into three distinct sectors, two  of which—East and West—were stuck in time, and to contrast these  to Mitte, seen as the epicenter of a program to link the nineteenth and  twenty-first centuries (architect Philipp Oswalt noted this back in 1998)  and disavow the twentieth. Nicolai’s story focuses on the ornamental  aspects of the mall and on the ghosts that it recalls ( primarily Marxist  philosopher and literary theorist Georg Lukács), as if lined up on the  now vague frontier between communism and capitalism. In the end,  perhaps it was not necessary to bring visitors to Lichtenberg to remind  them of an idea of East Berlin that has now largely disappeared from  view but which persists in the imagination.


The texts contributed by sociologist Mariana Munguía and curator  Catalina Lozano, by contrast, stand on opposite sides of the foun dation  of the museum as an instrument of national construction. In “A Burial,”  her essay on the Aztec stone carving Coatlicue and its multiple burials  and exhumations, Munguía tells the story of how only a newlyestablished  Mexican national museum could provide the necessary  framework for channeling this sculpture’s power to draw together  masses of the Mexican indigenous population (against the credo of the  Catholic Church)—a power that had theretofore only been possible  to neutralize by burying it. The post-revolutionary museum, the “bourgeois”  museum, is thus more than a repository of things liberated  from the hands of the Church and the King. The museum is not an  effect of the modern nation-state. It is central to the nation-state  insofar as it is the place where nation and culture can be conceived  as one singular entity. Speaking from a contemporary point of view,  in a world saturated with museums of all stripes and ideological  designs, in “A Burial” Lozano speaks of the near impossibility of  creating an image that might have the power to generate an oppositional  coming together. Looking at another kind of ruin—a cemetery  found on the outskirts of Mexico City—she nevertheless  suggests that to aim for this horizon is the ideal function of art today.


In “The Dahlem Sessions,” artist Tarek Atoui tells of his discovery  of a treasure trove of historical instruments in the storage area of the  Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem. His project for the Berlin Biennale  involves inviting highly accomplished musicians to perform solos on  these instruments, which they know little or nothing about, with the aim  of creating a kind of sound archive out of the recordings. Making a link  between this archive-in-becoming and his own work as a musician and  composer, Atoui recalls the modern electronic instruments that  he has developed, which the player must always learn anew each  time she or he plays them. In a sense, both his works and the instruments  from the museum’s collection are designed to foreclose  the possibility of developing a sense of mastery. Thus through the  project, an archive of sounds emerges precisely from the encounter  between the musicians and these “alien” objects, which are, in a way,  documents of a missed encounter.


Curator and writer Natasha Ginwala’s contribution “Double Lives”  takes the form of an essay whose “epilogue” is a parallel presentation  of material gathered in her research, which can be seen in the exhibition.  Unfolding from an early motif that intrigued us—namely different  figures of the Enlightenment, such as Berlin’s own Alexander von  Humboldt—who took it upon themselves to travel the world and collect  information about the diversity of its natural landscape, flora and  fauna, and languages and cultures, and who brought their knowledge  back to Europe, Ginwala’s research considers a certain continuity  between the dialectical forms of the traveler and the author. Analyzing  a number of images from the period, she offers a “stereoscopic”  reading of the traces of such journeys, real or imagined.


And finally, artist Danh Vo has contributed an untitled visual essay  comprised of snapshots of children wearing T-shirts printed with the  image of a 1839 painting by an unknown Vietnamese artist depicting  the torture of Jean-Charles Cornay (1809–1837), a French missionary  who was martyred in Tonkin, Vietnam. It is a visual statement  mise-en-abyme.


The museum and the image—not just the museum and art—belong  together to the history of the twentieth century, in their mutual development  as ideological tools and at least in the late capitalist century,  as signifiers of wealth, whether private or that of the state. The aura  of the museum as the place where a society’s cultural and symbolic  capital is or will be preserved is summoned in virtually any image;  by contrast, the museum tends to enclose everything it contains  in a space of contemplation. The works in this exhibition are brought  together in an effort to transcend the limits of art as a field of selfreflection.  In the space of such engagement, artworks resist their  incorporation and narration in terms of a history of art; they are  primarily propositions set against the current social and political  functions of the image as the dominant form of representation. The  emphasis that the 8th Berlin Biennale places on artistic processes is  meant to foreground the vital need in contemporary artistic practices  to perform a simultaneous, and perhaps aporetic, exploration of  reality and the mechanisms of its representation. Political expediency  is not art’s purpose; art aims to generate a counter-image that is able  to distinguish truth from power.

10th Berlin Biennale