BERLIN — On paper, the 7th Berlin Biennale looks great. It’s young. It challenges exhibition conventions. It’s organic in its growth. It’s even free! Speaking to the press on Wednesday, curator Joanna Warsza stressed, “The starting question was 'What can art do for you?'” She and Artur Zmijewski, a formidable and talented artist in his own right, wanted art that would not only engage with the viewer, but actually, actively, help them in real, material ways. Differentiating this incarnation from past biennales, Warsza continued, “While [Maurizio] Cattelan [who co-curated the 2005 Biennale] conducted over 800 studio visits in Berlin, our studio visits were happening by following the news.”
It’s a noble approach. However, walking the line between antagonistic, subversive, and intellectualized spectacle, leads one often tipping irrevocably towards the latter. And, with the Biennale's KW Institute for Contemporary Art headquarters opening it’s cavernous main floor to Occupiers of international origins, it all too quickly did. Fully equipped with an online radio station, a “99% Sleeping Room,” poster-making stations, and a pop-up university, it’s an occupier’s dream. Yet the dreadlocked, flannel-clad participants in front of their stands look more like what one might construct as a time-capsule of our particular moment 30 years from now than a current, organically produced happening.
Admittedly, the occupiers are only one portion of the biennale, and their projects are set to grow immensely over then next months — they have a calendar where anyone can plan some action. But the theme continues across many of the projects on KW’s other floors. At the “New World Summit,” Jonas Staal, Younes Bouadi, Robert Kluijver, Paul Kuipers, Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, and Sjoerd Oudman plan to create a international summit for members of various organizations placed on international terror lists, from Al-Shebab to the World Tamil Movement. Bouadi said, “We were in touch with the Dutch secret service before starting the project,” which involved infiltrating terror cells to get in contact with leaders and persecuted members. It’s undeniably an interesting project, but in the context of the biennale, again, it just feels strange. Even more so because he said, “We could only do it because it’s in an artistic context.” Statements like this make the exhibition seem ever less about art that changes the world, and ever more about political action or discourse functioning under a thin veil of aesthetics.
Several projects — coincidentally those that do engage in a more dialectical understanding of the relationship between art’s necessary autonomy and its political implications — are moving, and affectively motivate one to act. A darkened room on the exhibition’s third floor shows scenes from political protests and struggles around the world. While the clip of topless female protestors fighting off security personnel was distracting, the screens displayed more jarring imagery as well, the indelible video of water canons blasting a single man crossing the street at the top of that list. “Berlin/Birkenau,” a venture by ?ukasz Surowiec that involves him transporting saplings from the forests outside Auschwitz to Berlin, takes over KW’s attic, where the seedlings are being grown under florescent lights. The olfactory presence is overwhelming, as is the blackened space's somber environment, lending itself to real, meaningful reflection.
But, perhaps one should hold off maligning the exhibition to the extent that the popular press has in the day or so since it got its first glimpse of the show. What if we assume Zmijewski is not so naïve as to believe that putting occupiers, terrorist flags, and topless protest videos into a state-funded institution could be taken as anything less than spectacle. That seems all too genuine for a master of exploitative realism. Maybe this show is just an example of truly making the viewer part of the art: Our reactions become part of the event in order to show that the spectacle of subversion is, well, bullshit. By both exploiting the state to allow the beginnings and continuations of subversive behavior within KW and by tricking us all into his carnivalesque political theater, Zmijewski is may indeed just be pushing us to see the ridiculousness of talking about politics rather than being political actors. Or, maybe not.