We should dare to begin

by Michaela Filla

To art connoisseurs the 7th Berlin Biennale is lacking in sex appeal. To art critic Hanno Rauterberg, a Biennale of gratification would have been ideal. A Biennale encompassing art with a clear stance, challenging to its observer, which does not only allude to flaws but also strives to sway reality (inasmuch as it takes actions and entices to take action) is, to art critic Hanno Rauterberg, an unpleasant duty. He is not the only who came out of the Biennale with a sense of disillusionment: even visitors less prone to surrender themselves to earthly sensory pleasures come out empty handed. This is, at least, what could be inferred from the predominantly negative reactions in the press. Is this critique justified? Are the gestures on display at the Biennale indeed banal, vulgar, naive, or are they merely provocative? Is a fleeting, superficial overview of the pieces–perhaps on opening night, perchance as intermediate stop during the Gallery Weekend–enough to have a well–versed opinion of the Biennale? Is critique that terminally declares the Biennale as an ultimate failure convincing, having as only criteria for judgment the disconnection between Occupy in the main exhibition hall and the activist euphoria in Zuccotti Park? Admittedly, if one looks for effectiveness in the pieces on display only in the Auguststrasse, he might be disappointed.


The present Berlin Biennale is not an ordinary exhibition. Artur Zmijewski describes his concept as applied social arts. He understands art as a tool through which we can expand and propagate knowledge. According to Żmijewski, art wields the same powerful influence over public discourse–hence over our worldview as well–as science, politics, and religion. He is convinced that artists should realise their power and possibilities to delineate social problems, and start using it in order to put pressure on some aspects of social structures. The ultimate need for autonomy and the fear of a renewed instrumentalization has led to artists distancing themselves from political, religious, or power objectives. This, in turn, has led to their “forgetting how to form relationships with human reality in order to process ways of manipulation and to obtain the tools necessary to turn power and knowledge into reality.”


At this point, it seems to be all about the essence of art: is art once again at a defining moment? Is this comparable to the post–WWII debate over the precedence of abstraction or figuration in painting? Abstractionists came about with the development of art: they set it free from the object, leading it instead to concentrate on the production process towards autonomy unknown until then. As pointed out by Żmijewski, we can clearly see a rupture in contemporary art. On the one hand, the artist is bound to his traditional role as consignee of the state and of financial mechanisms, producing visual environments, visual information systems, interior and industrial design, in the service of society; on the other hand, the artist will want to escape the oversimplification and over–reduction into the category of mere supplier of services through a challenging stance and the confirmation of taboos. According to Żmijewski, the realization of those duties diminishes the strength of the protest. Furthermore, an idiosyncratic aesthetic of insurgence limited by shame has been developed, although its main goal is meant to be a noble one. Art relates to society, but it does not generate any societal consequences. Żmijewski encourages us to disengage ourselves from the stalemate situation between duty and insurgence; he proposes a political execution beyond the gallery and the art market and defends the involvement in actual political debate that takes place in a common milieu–in the media, for example.


One project to which Żmijewski tendered practical social-art credentials is Martin Zet’s  “Deutschland schafft es ab” (Germany gets rid of it), whose provocative call for action caused heated debate. Critics promptly compared the alignment of collecting points and the proposed recycling move with Nazi methods. The move cannot be merely dismissed as pure provocation, however, since it reacted to the uneasy relationship of the Germans to Thilo Sarrazin’s book “Deutschland schafft sich ab.” With sales of up to 1.3 million copies, Sarrazin’s book is the most successful non–fiction book in Germany after 1945. Although its basic line of argumentation has been widely refuted, it is presently in its second edition. It cannot be denied that Sarrazin’s book exerts an odd fascination in many Germans. Martin Zet’s piece had a strong effect, above all, on the (German?) collective imagination. The liberating thought of being able to detach ourselves from the book through Zet’s method of collection was repressed through the association of book burning by the Nazis; in the meantime, the book has become a new symbol for racism in Germany. Critics bluntly attempted to defame Zet’s artistic action as a threat to freedom of opinion and as an attempt to educate the masses. As a consequence of the suspicious and blunt comparison of the campaign to Nazi crimes, several institutions that had made a commitment to set up collection points distanced themselves from the campaign. The heated debate that ensued is arguably a measure of the effectiveness and resounding success of the campaign. This is not, however, the entire story. In retrospective, we are confronted by the commotion around the artistic move, the mechanisms of belief and the interdependence of institutions and public opinion. Independently from the fact that racism was being purportedly defended in the name of entitlement to individual opinion, the controversial debate caused by the campaign is testimony to a complexity not necessarily intrinsic to Zet’s artistic gesture, but to a hitherto unseen obvious contradiction: the memory of oppression evoked by the campaign manifestly collides with the desire to free ourselves from Sarrazin’s book, a symbol for racism in Germany.


Another piece of work, Nada Prlja’s “Peace Wall,” shows in equally eloquent manner how applied social art can unfold beyond the control of the artist and can even turn against him or her. Through the erection of a simple wall, the artist wanted to denounce societal differences in an area where exclusive boutiques and a socially–challenged housing district are not far from one another: Berlin's Friedrichstrasse, a stone’s throw from Checkpoint Charlie. “Peace Wall” sets itself apart from other pieces of public art: it not only evokes real walls with which affluent people–in Mexico City, for example–distance and protect themselves from the ‘poor’ population, but also presents us with a real intervention, since it blocked traffic on Friedrichstrasse for several weeks. . Following the completion of the wall, adjacent businesses complained about reported losses in profit, and were presently protesting against the art move. It has not been easy for the artist to deal with the resistance to her piece. The Nevertheless, she has been–and still is–willing to face the increasing criticism, either in constant discussions with local residents or in neighbourhood councils, in which the residents demand the removal of the wall. Death threats and damage to the wall forced the artist to agree to take the wall down untimely. And again we are confronted with questions: What is behind this disproportional anger? What do the leaders do, when art fails? The “Peace Wall” could not be defended at all costs. But what price do we pay, when we allow moving the art, which took the discourse of social ills from the museum to the streets, out of the way?


To Artur Żmijewski, art is a disruption experienced by the social body, since it attacks the consciousness of the individual. Art has the power to reach into spiritual space. By “spiritual space,” Żmijewski means the collection of thought and emotion as well as their exchange in the realm of communication–a continuum, which is not to be regarded as a fixed order, but as an organization in a constant state of fluctuation. Żmijewski’s idea of a constantly–evolving organization reminds us of Michel Foucault’s Episteme, the historically-formed awareness logic of a specific epoch. In his “The Order of Things” Foucault unveils these systems of thought, by scrutinizing the different scientific discourses of a period in view of shared structures. In as much as Foucault denounces the relativity of thought through discourse, he strives to show humans that they are freer than they think; that they can accept things brought about at a specific time in history as true and evident, and that we can destroy this purported evidence in the heads of people. The analysis of discourse led Foucault to understand affirmations as occurrences. Art paradigms such as those seen at the Biennale are characterized by the occurring. As such, these art works intervene in existing discourses. As occurrences, they create new, real, and imagined spaces of experience, thus creating conditions of possibility for a new order of things.


Yael Bartana’s project JRMiP (“Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland”) and the action “Key of Return“ react to present discourses and strive to rupture the status quo through artistic intervention. In the exhibition, the utopian call to 3.3 million Jews to return to Europe is linked spatially to the symbolic message from Palestinian refugees, who have in turn expressed their hope to return home in the form of an enormous key. What would happen if all descendants of the persecuted and murdered Jews would return to the land of their ancestors? Could the displaced Palestinian return home as well, then? Would there be peace? These ideas are utopian; they are radical. But it is perhaps necessary to set artistic fantasy in motion in order to find ways out of a crisis and end war. The inescapable presence of the key, which found its place next to the birch trees from Birkenau in the courtyard of KW Institute for Contemporary Art, confronts us with the complex ensnarement of contemporary politics and history, with the consequences of the German crimes of war, who were heavily involved with the decisions that led to the founding of the State of Israel, thus leading to the displacement of Palestinians. In view of the escalating conflicts in the Middle East, an artistic move (which can be interpreted as a gesture for the recognition of experienced unfairness) strives to confront public contention with the consequences of the past.


Many critics are apprehensive about the alleged one–sidedness of approach to the Middle–East conflict at the 7th Berlin Biennale. Nevertheless, whoever attended the Israeli artist’s Yael Bartana’s congress–nested within the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland–could witness a democratic space in which the main emphasis was the inclusive discussion of varied and frequently diverging points of view. In a period of three days, ideas for a future Europe were collected and summed up, and the agenda for the movement was drafted. The “New World Summit”, a two–day congress organized by the artist Jonas Staal, managed a space in which not only new forms of democratic interaction were tested, but also one in which democracy was the central discussion topic. Political and administrative representatives of organizations presently on international “terror lists” made appearances in an architecture specially designed for the congress. The architecture is a circle of flags form different political groups. The representatives of these groups joined to form an alternative parliament, thus creating a new political space, as complement to existing political order. Three lawyers and four activists discussed, above all, the limitations of democratic systems, which per definition exclude certain positions through categorising certain elements as “terrorism.” Who defines what terrorism is? What for some segments represents a terrorist threat to others may be political self–expression.


The right to self-government is often maimed in the name of democracy; political prejudice, economic and military interests often stand behind the brand identity of political organizations. Jonas Staal’s project, which aimed at the awareness of the limitations of democracy, was a visual event as well. During the “performance” of the second day, the flags defining the main space were re–positioned. The surrounding corridor turned into a series of gates through which the main space could be reached from all sides.


To many, the symbolic language used by the artists and activists at the Biennale is too blunt, too naïve. The dominance of the symbols at the Biennale is the direct result of an understanding (by now scientific) that the formation of symbols not only belongs to the process of recognition but it is also an integral part of human relations. There is a reflective dimension to the almost propagandistic dealings of the JRMiP. This is a reflection not only of the danger of a hijacking of art for political interests, but also that of the power of symbols, as well as our need for meaningful symbols. Even as art withdrew from the world after the bitter experience of abuses of self-complacency, images did not fall into disuse as means of communication. On the contrary: the image is experiencing an incomparable triumphant in the age of information. The image allows us to communicate more impressively and lastingly, thanks to its emotional immediacy, thanks to its quality of being understood in an instant.


Next to Khaled Jarrar’s gesture of stamping passports with a self-designed “State of Palestine” stamp (thus giving visitors the opportunity to make a highly symbolic statement), the power of symbols makes an appearance in another form, one that is not as esteemed by the art public at large as other (more popular) forms. An enormous head of Christ-the-King in the exhibition makes oblique references to the 36-meter statue in Świebodzin, which helped a Polish priest to turn a place of no religious relevance into a destination point for pilgrims. The success of the giant Christ not only testifies as to the power of church and religion in Poland, but also delineates the possibilities of an art that is not fully aware of the power it exerts on its observers.


Remembrance politics is an area frequently and well served by art. Memorials designed by artists are part of the culture of remembrance and influence the collective memory. Art that explores the culture of remembrance does not only reflect upon its own sensitivity, but also points towards established structures. As the exclusion of the video piece ‘Berek’ from the exhibition "Tür an Tür" ("Door to Door") at the Martin-Gropius-Bau a couple months ago clearly demonstrates, the subject of the Holocaust cannot be treated indiscriminately. The video piece caused controversy because it represents an intervention in the politics of remembrance; it goes against the grain of the present culture of remembrance, which tightly holds on to a definite aesthetic and narrative in monuments, exhibitions, and memorials. Łukasz Surowiec’s project „Berlin-Birkenau” is an attempt at a new artistic approach to the remembrance of the crimes against humanity by the Nazi regime by pitting a living, experienced artistic “move” against a petrified practice of remembrance.


If we were to regard history not as a steadfast object, but as a mental construct in which our societal relationships to the past are expressed, then it is only possible to strive to consistently find a new way of remembering. Indicative of the work of artists of the generation to which Yael Bartana and Artur Żmijewski belong is the fact that its function reaches far beyond the sheer remembrance of genocide. Their broaching the issue of the past admonishes contemporary changes and understanding, and puts these up for discussion. Besides these art pieces, the Biennale shows more possibilities to deal with history. In the Deutschlandhaus, the exhibition by the Foundation ‘Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation’ bluntly shows the generation of new, discussion/ripe narrative. A documentation of the reconstruction of the Battle of Berlin 1945 conveys the need–increasingly stronger–for immediate bodily experience of historical events through its iteration.


While very different (but equally corporeal) from the above mentioned, Joanna Rajkowska’s “Born in Berlin“ is another method of analysing the past. It tells the story of a beginning. Joanna Rajkowska, whose family was brutally torn apart by the hands of the Nazi reign of horror, sets a landmark by bestowing new life upon the city out of which destruction formerly originated. The birthplace of her daughter Rosa, the city turns into a place loaded with new, contemporary meaning. Should we understand this gesture as one of reconciliation? In the case of “Born in Berlin“, it would be the story not only of a natural start, but also a metaphor for a new political beginning. The artist turns the private recounting of the birth of her daughter into a public event. What outrages the critics is the implied imposition resulting from the association of art and political activism. As an example for the transition from private into public realm, “Born in Berlin“ entices us to think about the origins of political exchange, which began when humans organized themselves publicly.


There have always been recurring beginnings. Humans have always interrupted the development of things, by rebelling against oppression and abuse. For Hanna Arendt, hence, there is in every beginning the experience of freedom. According to Arendt, freedom comes to fruition wherever and whenever there is political exchange. What does this understanding of politics and freedom mean for the art? Is it possible for the politically involved art not to loose its freedom but, on the contrary, to take the chance and to set free? The motto for the Biennale this year is “Forget Fear.” We should dare to begin.

“Peace Wall” by Nada Prlja

A wall is standing on Friedrichstrasse. Finally, we are on a way to establish peace. [...]More >


“State of Palestine” by Khaled Jarrar

Khaled Jarrar, a Palestinian artist, decided to declare the existence of a non-existent state. He created a passport stamp for the State of Palestine, challenging the Israeli border regime. [...]More >


AND EUROPE WILL BE STUNNED – a congress by JRMiP and Yael Bartana

The Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP) calls for the return of 3,300,000 Jews to Poland in order to re-establish the annihilated Jewish community. [...]More >


“Berlin-Birkenau” by Łukasz Surowiec

The project Berlin-Birkenau brings a few hundred young birches from the area around the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp to Berlin, where they have found new places to root all over the city. These trees, taken from soil that contains the traces of countless deaths, become a ”living archive” that shifts something growing and breathing to Berlin. [...]More >

10th Berlin Biennale