Klaus Biesenbach, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Nancy Spector in the catalogue of the 1st Berlin Biennale

Conceptually, the berlin biennale raises many expectations. Historically, the international biennial exhibition has functioned as both an arena for competitive, nationalistic presentations and a public relations tool for its host city. The economies of tourism, high-level visibility, and cultural legitimacy are all driving forces behind the establishment of such exhibitions, a trend that appears to be proliferating with the founding of biennales in Sydney, Taipei, Kwanju, Johannesburg, and Lyon, as well as the nomadic, biannual Manifesta exhibition of young European art. Because Berlin – the post 1989, reunited, soon to be capital of Germany Berlin – has been the focus of much speculation, the recent institution of an international biennale contemporary art here has only accentuated the hype. The city has been designated by many interested parties – collectors, gallerists, artists, politicians, and journalists – as the next “cultural capital”. Whether this will be the case remains to be seen, but the desire for such civic transformation is behind much of the support for this project.


For us as curators, the task of inventing a biennale for Berlin has not been uncomplicated. From the start we have acknowledged the fact that such exhibitions are, in general, commercial ventures and venues for barely disguised nationalistic gestures. Beyond this, however, the city poses its own very unique challenges. The Berlin we have encountered since we began working in together in 1996 is a city in transition; it is a projection and not a reality. As the future capital, it promises to garner economic, social and cultural development. But at what cost? How much of the past needs to be erased, how many streets and places have to be re-named, how many people need to be dislocated to achieve the dreams of a powerful few? Contradictions abound in this dystopia. While the rhetoric is entirely future-oriented and Potsdamer Platz is teeming with cranes, the prevalent style of urban renewal reveals a deeply embedded nostalgia for the city’s Prussian past.


Our initial response to this paradoxical situation was to propose a biennale that would take place in time, an exhibition that would occur over a two-year period rather than happen every two years. This was to reflect the emphatically temporal nature of a city that looks forward by elimination its past and looks backward to decorate its future. Our impulse to create a non-static exhibition also represents a certain resistance to the traditional, neatly packaged biennale (that usually takes place during peak tourist season) as well as an attempt to mirror the ephemeral nature of much of the contemporary art being produced today. The berlin biennale has thus already been inaugurated. It “opened” at documenta X in Kassel in 1997 with the Hybrid WorkSpace. The present exhibition Berlin/Berlin is about Berlin today. It is anti-futuritstic and anti-nostalgic; it represents the heterotopic environment of the city as we have experienced it during these past two years. The remaining chapters of the berlin biennale will unfold in time between the end of 1998 and 2000, as new curators tackle the issues of this ever mutating city and its shifting representations.


1th Berlin Biennale. Catalogue

10th Berlin Biennale