Bb6  Renzo  Martens 02 300Dpi
Renzo Martens, ‘Episode III—Enjoy Poverty’, 2008, video. Courtesy Galerie Fons Welters Amsterdam / Wilkinson Gallery London

The 6th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Kathrin Rhomberg’s what is waiting out there, initiates a dialectic between reality and realism, and the socio-political truths and fictions both embedded in and engendered by them. This ambivalent foundation generates an uneasy relationship between the curatorial structure and the audience, leaving the Biennale perilously open to criticism. Interrogating art and artists’ relationship to reality on the one hand, and on the other, highlighting the unreality embedded in our collective consciousness, the Biennale may depend too much on the audience’s tolerance for ambiguity in broad strokes in the face of artworks that could hardly be called equivocal.

For if the Biennale’s professed goal is to call attention to questions rather than propose answers, the didactic tenor of many works resist such open-ended intentions, while the heavy reliance on new media (namely, video) and a general aesthetic paucity make this Biennale easy to fault and hard to like—an inflection, perhaps, of reality itself.

Spread out over six exhibition sites, including the Alte Nationalgalerie, artist Dahn Vo’s studio, a shop front, a former garage, an abandoned department store in the gentrifying district of Kreuzberg and the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and including a three-day partici-patory performance event orchestrated by Pierre Bal-Blanc, Rhomberg’s peripatetic Biennale holds itself at a distance from the more historically-charged sites in Berlin, and thus from the recent legacy of the Berlin Biennale itself. In situating our collective consciousness in relation to post 9 / 11 realities, she chooses not to pay diligence to the fact that Berlin was both the epicentre of Cold War symbolism and the seat of Nazi Germany, along with a whole raft of associated realities and unrealities—subjects heavily referenced by the previous two Biennales. Here, Rhomberg’s arms-length references to Berlin are deliberately subtle. Included in the ambit of the Biennale is an exhibition of works by the Berlin born 19th century realist painter Adolph Menzel, curated by Michael Fried, which serves as an historical reference point, and along with works by Michael Schmidt (black-and-white photographs of women rehearsing a repertoire of guarded poses, from the series Frauen, 1997–99), underline the vulnerability of works to time-sensitive forms of recontextualisation—in Menzel’s case, by the biennial format, and, in the case of Schmidt, by the use of his enigmatic portraits as anonymous flyposters throughout the city.

Andrey Kuzkin, 'Resistance', performance documentation, Project Fabrika, Moscow, 2009. Courtesy Open Gallery Moscow. Photo Irina Steinberg
Andrey Kuzkin, ‘Resistance’, performance documentation, Project Fabrika, Moscow, 2009. Courtesy Open Gallery Moscow. Photo Irina Steinberg

KW is left conspicuously empty. With the main entrance obstructed, viewers are redirected to enter via the basement, emerging into an outsize installation by Kosovo-born Petrit Halilaj titled ‘The places I’m looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I don’t know how to make them real’, 2010: a model of his family’s house, complete with clucking chickens. An intervention by Rhomberg on the second floor—an empty, all-white room—foregrounds a window through which one can espy Halilaj’s structure extending beyond the institute’s walls and onto the roof. The same sense of immersive self-portraiture occurrs in the large survey of George Kuchar’s aesthetically seductive, nostalgic and humoristic videos from his series ‘Weather Diaries’, presented in the Mehringdamm 28 former garage outpost. Spanning multiple decades, the video installation constitutes an overwhelming portrait of the artist’s career, refracted through his annual visits to Oklahoma’s ‘tornado valley’.

Watching Kuchar’s life unfold in unordered fragments creates an anxiety through the act of viewing that differs hugely from the video works in the other venues, which are shown, for the most part, in some form of isolation from each other. In electing these segregated displays, Rhomberg underlines the different realities represented by each of the artists, as if to indicate the impossibility of any coherent message emerging from the ensemble. This disorienting and disjointed view of reality is exacerbated by the preponderance of video in Oranienplatz 17 and the Biennale as a whole (the black box is not, after all, where one is inclined to feel most connected to reality). From Avi Mograbi’s videos of the artist antagonizing Israeli soldiers at the Palestinian border, to Armando Lulaj’s ham-fisted short of a horse being felled, the videos’ attempts to telegraph ‘reality’ often come across shrill and didactic, if not pointlessly inflammatory. Other works in Oranienplatz 17, however, more subtly explore the distance between reality and life as we have, or do, come to know it. Hans Schabus’s ‘Klub Europa’, 2010, consists of two partly disassembled dinosaur models, taken from the Spreepark outside Berlin, a former GDR recreation park that now stands abandoned. Rhomberg savvily installed the sculpture in the light well alongside the building’s windowed stairway, thus making it the most frequently viewed work of that venue as well as its most allegorical: the reality of passing time accessed through the breakdown of a past reality’s representations. Similarly deft and incisive is Roman Ondák’s ‘Zone’, 2010, a coat check in the lobby—destined to stand unused, its ‘reality’ as an artwork vouchsafed by its seasonal implausibility.

While Ondák’s work reveals itself through disengagement, Renzo Martens’ ‘Episode III—Enjoy Poverty’, 2008, is a brutal illustration of the viewer’s com-plicity in the production and, especially, consumption of images of suffering. This hour-and-a-half long video follows the artist on a Conrad-esque journey through the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he proselytizes the eponymous message to the locals after ruthlessly proving to them, time and again, the hopelessness of their situation. Difficult to witness and even more so to condone, Martens’ work systematically exposes and then forecloses any catharsis we might have hoped to receive from the representation of suffering, and the highly dubious claim that such representation could actually qualify as protest.

Marcus Geiger’s installation in the attic of Oranienplatz 17 embodies the antagonism sought by Rhomberg in her curatorial juxtapositions. Geiger, in
one of the only works to draw attention to Rhomberg’s oblique methods
of presentation in the Biennale, here creates a pastiche of the exhibition architecture, constructing large warped sections of exhibition wall from boards left over from the buildings conversion to exhibition venue. Geiger’s installation, however, is aesthetically comparable to Gedi Sibony’s work on one of the  lower levels, a similarity that diffuses its focus. Instead, the antagonism of Geiger’s gesture is shifted into another register, simultaneously slapstick (particularly with Rhomberg’s decision to juxtapose it with Ferhat Özgür’s ‘I Can Sing’, 2008, a video of an Anatolian woman lip-synching to Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’) and full of grace, promoted by Rhomberg to the vaguely sacral space of the cathedral ceiling-ed attic.

In addition to these grander gestures, Rhomberg’s Biennale has its more discreet gems, such as Henrik Olesen’s dismantled laptop computer, the parts meticulously catalogued on sheets of Plexiglas like natural history specimens, and Vincent Vulsma’s refreshingly straightforward paintings that aesthetisise the packaging of store-bought canvases. Friedl vom Gröller’s 2009 16mm film ‘Passage Briare’ is composed of several takes of the artist seating herself beside a man in a passageway and then—with astonishing swiftness and naturel— removing
her teeth. The action is as taboo as it is quotidian, and as such is a striking example of contemporary realism that makes us intimates with the reality of our mortality. Works like this make clear that Rhomberg isn’t rehearsing the hoary discussion of the divide between art and life, but rather, is pushing forward into more ambiguous territory. In posing such behemoth questions as the nature of reality and art’s relationship to it, she refuses to provide catharsis to compensate for the absence of answers. This is undoubtedly an uncomfortable place to leave your audience, but it is one that sensitively acknowledges that a theme as large as the relationship between art and reality can, and perhaps should, only be answered through a modest, eclectic, ambivalent response—something certainly present in Rhomberg’s work as a curator, if regrettably absent from too many of the works in the show.

Steven Cairns and Joanna Fiduccia