Art Seen: International

Against the Biennale

WE DON’T NEED ANOTHER HERO // BERLIN BIENNALE 10

By Gabrielle Welsh

In late July, I stumbled my way into the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, in search of the press entry into the tenth edition of the Berlin Biennale without a press badge or any official credentials, but with a student ID (useless) and a vague professional email I had forgotten to respond to from a press representative of the exhibition (useful). I had never intended to attend an international contemporary art biennial—much less write on, or be granted free entry, into one. I was working three jobs in New York City (two arts institutions, one service), and happened to be dating the cousin of an international flight attendant. The stars aligned, offering myself and my partner a round trip to Europe for $100, and a chance to attend an organized event that I—a seemingly aware “arts” patron—was entirely unaware existed. Thus, I had accidentally found myself assigned to write a review on the beautifully titled We Don’t Need Another Hero: The 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. 

As it is known, the structure of a biennale presents a challenge to any curator attempting to humanize a viewing experience: these unnatural (find a ‘natural’ viewing experience of contemporary art) products of globalized art and capital necessitate wealthy donors and patrons, with the “common viewer,” either nowhere to be found or snuck into a tokenized group. With extreme hesitation, I approached this piece and every aspect of it—attending a biennale, giving up a couple of my much-needed vacation days to view art, enjoying something in my mind that was so corrupted—and was surprised. Incredibly surprised.

Grada Kilomba, ILLUSIONS, Vol. II, OEDIPUS, 2018, courtesy Grada Kilomba, photo: Kathleen Kunath

First, let us start with this title. The phrase “We don’t need another hero” comes from the Tina Turner song of the same name, released in 1985 as a single from the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. In an annotated page within the Biennale catalogue, curator Gabi Ngcobo has written over the lyrics to this song, which eerily echo a contemporary crisis: “Can’t make the same mistakes this time / We are children, the last generation / We are the ones they left behind / And I wonder when we are ever gonna change?” Of course, We Don’t Need Another Hero was released to echo the plotline of the film—as does its accompanying music video—but this correlation does not take away from the fact that Turner was writing and singing this ballad in a similar era of uncertainty. Though I was, admittedly, not alive (nor even a concept) in 1985, the uncertainty of Raegan-era policy changes and globalization marked a turning point in existence for everyone who was poised to compose my generation. Echoing this later in the catalogue, Ngcobo states, “For me, a hero is a question of power… A hero is also a question of history, of time and space. In recent years we have seen how certain ‘heroes’ are betrayed by the passage of time and others do not cross borders neatly. This is why we are still protesting against street names, institutions, and monuments celebrating historical figures whose legacies are controversial…”[1]

The title of this tenth exhibition frames the structure of the Biennale as a whole: contemporary saviors will not save the masses from the wreckage of the past and the currents that flow through the present. A complete rejection of the hero and an attitude towards reframing the future—but mostly the now—structure all the curatorial decisions made by Nccobo and her team of four. The venues weave together this assertion—the Biennale does not give the ‘typical’ German contemporary art audience what they want. Moreover, it is reminiscent of German artist Hito Steyerl’s 2010 essay “A Thing Like You and Me,” published by e-flux, in which Steyerl reflects on the dead hero, or rather, the end of heroism that occurs within the mass-production and globalization of things and objects. The text points to the similar circling arts circle within which biennials, curators, and the like exist. In a certain press release, the Biennale is described as “…a collective dialogue and a space that holds a historical process already in motion, in Berlin as in many parts of the world. The work of undoing and reconfiguring centuries of repressed vocabularies and their complexities is an undertaking that has thrown us into states of disarray.”[2]

Grada Kilomba, ILLUSIONS Vol. II, OEDIPUS, 2018, 2-channel video, color, sound, 32′, Installation view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, courtesy Grada Kilomba; Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg/Cape Town, Photo: Timo Ohler.

The sheer scale of the Biennale is impressive; spread across four venues (Akademie der Künste, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Volksbühne Pavilion, and ZK/U – Center for Art and Urbanistics), the exhibition includes fifty contemporary artists whose work was both commissioned and selected for exhibition. So, in an attempt to draw away from its undeniable subject as an international art venue, the radical approach of this exhibition to curation was refreshing. Yet, the question remained: what was the merit to working with these institutions, as opposed to against them?

The pieces that I found myself returning to followed a certain Freirean pedagogical criticality that focuses on a de-hierarchization of knowledge and the importance of community education. This brings into conversation the idea that the artist should not have the responsibility to “teach” the masses—the entire notion that it is the ‘job’ of the colonized to educate the colonizers is a tactic of oppression, and is often utilized within institutions of contemporary art. As the curators made explicitly clear, We Don’t Need Another Hero is against the institutionalization of the tokenized educator. Within a published conversation, curatorial team member Yvette Mutumba explains, “…If you always serve this need by explaining why the other person is wrong and what they have to do to become a proper decolonized white person, that is the easiest way for that person. But true change cannot happen when you just tell someone what to do. They have to figure it out themselves. That’s why I think it’s not interesting to always serve this demand.”[3]

Mario Pfeifer, Again / Noch einmal, 2018, 4K video transferred to HD, 2-channel installation, color, 5.1 Surround, 23′, video still, courtesy Mario Pfeifer; KOW, Berlin, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Walking into the KW Institute for Contemporary Art and into the first floor, immediately one is hit with a massive installation: Dineo Seshee Bopape’s Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] (2016–18). Bopape’s piece takes over the bottom floor of the KW and contains multiple pieces within itself— Jabu Arnell’s Discoball X (2018), Lachell Workman’s Justice for _____ (2014), and Robert Rhee’s EEEERRRRGGHHHH and ZOUNDS (2015). The installation includes bricks, light, sounds, videos, and more, changing the exhibition space into a collapsed pile of rubble—the room is a deep orange, piles of material lay strewn across the floor next to high definition video screens, and water drips from the ceiling into buckets. Examining the relationship between mental illness (insanity) and the colonized body, Bopape has created a space of uncertainty and confusion. In the back corner, a small screen plays Nina Simone’s 1972 performance of Feelings, though her voice is heard throughout the space, slightly out of sync with her lips. The experience is odd, and lays the foundation for the rest of the Biennale—the viewer is not given an out-right explanation of what to do with this information, but instead must face the wreckage.

Grada Kilomba’s work, entitled ILLUSIONS Vol. II, OEDIPUS (2018), tucked away in a corner of the KW, proves to be one of the most important pieces within the Biennale. The Berlin-based artist has been working on their ongoing ILLUSIONS series since 2016, with this iteration commissioned specifically for the exhibition. The films visualize and narrate episodes in Greek mythology, all the while teaching lessons of decolonization and oppression. ILLUSIONS Vol. II, OEDIPUS retells the story of Oedipus; with two screens facing each other, the artist cements her place as storyteller on one, while actors follow along on the larger projection opposite. In many instances, the pairs face each other, or Kilomba joins the cast in the story, playing secondary characters in the tragedy she retells. The cast of actors illustrate the tragedy of Oedipus with a warm-hearted knowing—you get the sense that these actors are comfortable with each other, as moments of pure joy envelop the screen. The genius of the work is one that remolds a Classical treasure into a comprehensible lesson, with Kilomba appearing at the end to spell out the exact metaphor she wishes to make. For once, an artist’s intention cannot be questioned or debated, as she tells you (the viewer) that this story can (and is being) interpreted as a story of father/son rivalry, one that is elevated within black communities. Again, the viewer given neither a call to action, nor anything to do with the information, but instead there exists the work, as a space for reflection that is open.

Mario Pfeifer, Again / Noch einmal, 2018, 4K video transferred to HD, 2-channel installation, color, 5.1 Surround, 23′, installation view, 10. Berlin Biennale, Akademie der Künste (Hanseatenweg), Berlin, courtesy Mario Pfeifer; KOW, Berlin, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, photo: Timo Ohler.

Fast- forward to another venue at the Akademie der Künste. Though it was Summer, and quieted from any students, the Akademie hosted a significantly sized portion of the exhibition. As one of the main exhibition venues, the Akademie contains perhaps the best example of mixing alternative modes of pedagogy and art that I have ever encountered, in line with Ngcobo’s vision of We Don’t Need Another Hero as being a space for learning, community, and ultimately, of collectivity. Mario Pfeifer’s film, Again / Noch einmal (2018) was an experience not easily forgotten—within the work, the Berlin-based artist recreates a well-known media story in Germany, in which a young man was dragged out of a grocery store in Eastern Germany by a “vigilante group” after he was reportedly threatening customers. The man, an Iraqi migrant seeking medical attention in Germany, was then tied to a tree, and left for police to deal with. In a country where xenophobia has exponentially[4] increased, the story garnered both national outcry and support, with many blaming the victim. As the trial date neared, the man was unable to testify, as he was found dead in the woods—frozen to death and suffering from physical and mental illness (which is then explored further in the film).

The film that Pfeifer stages brings together a jury of German citizens to reenact the infamous scene within a studio grocery store. The small group looks on, as actors and narrators recreate all the available visual information in the viral video of the incident. However, the narrators constantly pause the proceedings, educating the jury not only on the backstory of the victim and the four men, but also of the ways in which conflict resolution and bystander intervention could have stopped this scene from ever unfolding. Again / Noch einmal reimagines what an art film can be, and thus, what it can do. In a poorly-paraphrased moment that so well echoes the anti-hero feeling of the biennale, Angela Merkel is mentioned in the film—perhaps her opinion on the matter or general policy that could be enacted—and the “cashier” says, “Frau Merkel? I have never met her, have you?”

The general feeling throughout the Biennale was one of contempt towards art and its histories, while simultaneously existing within its same institutional spaces. Perhaps We Don’t Need Another Hero illustrates some of the ways this can be attempted, but it is hard not to forget the massive state and corporate funding that went into the inception and production of the exhibition. Would it make sense if I told you that I, perhaps felt this sense of collectivity that the curatorial staff was most trying to achieve once I was outside of the Biennale, reflecting on what I saw, heard, participated in? Would it make sense that I felt this collectivity—this against the “Thunderdome”— when I was dancing in a queer club to an American DJ remixing Tina Turner while young Germans clad in leather danced all around me? Would it make sense, that perhaps the best way to feel this collective joy, a community, is to feel it in a real space? And not a biennale?


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