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Dineo Sheshee Bopape, 'Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings]', 2016–18. Courtesy the artist

The 10th Berlin Biennale recently concluded. Spanning five spaces, Berlin’s Kunst Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, the Akademie der Kunste in the sleepy district of Bellevue, the Volksbuhne Pavilion in Mitte, Hebbel am Ufer (better known as HAU) in Kreuzberg, and the ZK/U center for Art and Urbanistics in north west Berlin, the Biennial was its usual sprawling self this year, but curated by Gabi Ngcobo, the curatorial mission statement was considerably tighter than the one pursued by DiS, the collective that curated the preceding Biennale. Where DiS’s curatorial stance, for me, evoked the young Voltaire’s famously chillaxed philosophical aphorism “whatever is is right”, Ngcobo makes a much more assiduous effort to ensure that the art viewing public of Berlin eat their aesthetic vegetables instead of proceeding straight to the whipped cream course. 

This more serious-minded and essayistic approach reflects a world disfigured by the political abdications of 2016. Writing in the curatorial statement, Ngcobo provides the following description of her aims. The exhibition she curates “is a conversation with artists and contributors who think and act beyond art as they confront the incessant anxieties perpetuated by a willful disregard for complex subjectivities.” Amen, though I have to say, the explanation of the title used for this year’s Biennale, We Don’t Need Another Hero, borrowed from a 1985 Tina Turner hit, rings a bit hollow; the title is drawn “from a moment directly preceding major geopolitical shifts that brought about regime changes and new historical figures”. One could say this about pretty much any moment in history. 1979, for example, 1992, 2003, 2016, 2017. One could go on. Indeed, just considering Turner’s own back catalogue of titles, “Break Every Rule” (her 1986 release including the similarly evocative track titles “Back Where You Started”, “Afterglow”, and the depressingly appropriate pre-#MeToo anthem “Typical Male”), might have offered a richer frame of reference. When I read this on the wall of the Akademie der Kunst, I have to admit, I feared the worst, a kind of worthy festival of brow-furrowing for serious times and serious people, devoid of the gleeful nihilism that lent DiS Biennial its flashes of transcendence. Happily the show transcended its title and backstory like a good Marvel movie, and, along the way managed to touch on the themes Ngcobo aimed for admirably, particularly the ways in which institutions and the inertia they embody (for good and for ill, it seems) relate to evolving subjectivities.   

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Sondra Perry, 'IT’S IN THE GAME ‘17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection', 2017. Photo: Timo Ohler

The Akademie der Kunst section was, for me, the highlight of the Biennale. Populated by a number of powerful video works, it also seemed to demand the greatest sense of urgency. Between the delicate reed sculptures positioned throughout the space by Sara Haq, some lovely works on paper by Moshekwa Langa, and canvases by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye were videos by Sondra Perry and Mario Pfeifer which demanded and repaid multiple viewings. Perry’s work, ‘IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection’ (2017) centred on the nature of institutionalisation and power dynamics. As a computerised voice reads out the contents of various museum holdings, including the circumstances of their acquisition, the euphemisms for “theft” pile up. Pieces from the African continent, and from Easter Island come into the hands of “explorers”, and then monarchs, and then to the institutions of state memory and display. Perry’s video moves between images of museums and of video games, specifically a basketball video game from EA Sports in which a relative of hers features as a character. As a player on the Georgia Southern Team, Mr. Perry appears in the game alongside his teammates in hyperreal CGI. His likeness, as with those of other players, was acquired and reproduced without their explicit permission. 

The pillage of identity by imperial cultures, be they national or commercial—or a lethal cocktail of the two—continues via technologies that are no less invasive or pervasive for their invisibility: just because you can’t touch capitalism doesn’t mean it can’t abuse you. Pfeifer’s film, ‘Again/Noch Einmal’ (2018) touches the bleakest corners of contemporary struggles for freedom, autonomy, and humanity. Focussing on the vigilante actions of a group of white German men in a town in Saxony—in which these men dragged a recent refugee from Iraq out of a supermarket and then beat and tied him to a tree with electrical cables—the work explores the convoluted stories of the life of the refugee who escaped Iraq to seek medical treatment, but ended up freezing to death in the cold of a Saxon winter in the country that initially seemed a refuge. As the story concludes, the voices of residents of the area are included. Having watched the film themselves, they discuss the feelings and fears the story evokes. In light of the recent far right demonstrations in the Saxon city of Chemnitz, Pfeifer’s work has the grim air of prophesy, and, like Perry’s work, admirably archives Ngcobo’s aim to “confront the anxieties … perpetuated by disregard for complex identities”.   

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Mario Pfeifer, 'Again / Noch einmal', 2018. Courtesy the artist

The ZK/U branch of the exhibition perhaps affected me the least, though there were notable works by Heba Amin, and a collection of lovely paintings by Sam Samiee. Somehow the geography of the space overwhelmed the works exhibited in some unspecific way; ZK/U was both too visible and too invisible to entirely allow the works shown to truly achieve either immersiveness or meaningful abstraction. An honorable mention, however must go to the display and works of Tony Cokes. Cokes’ videos explore crucial political subjects, including the erosion of women’s reproductive rights, the use of music as a means of torture by the US military, and the evolution of German dance culture from Black American dance culture. The works are respectively screened on televisions with headphones and projected on the walls of the basement of the ZK/U space. The viewer feels both assailed and respected at once, like being in a university course behind protest barricades. The pop music Cokes uses takes on strange resonances as well, as time has passed since the creation of the works, particularly the voice of a young Stephen Patrick Morrissey, now the leading cultural voice of the far right in Britain (the bar is low, of course). Fame, fatal fame, it can play hideous tricks on the brain, as someone once sang.  

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Tony Cokes, 'Black Celebration', 1988. Courtesy Tony Cokes

Power, the abuse thereof, and institutional awareness and accessibility were key themes at the KW as well. Here the diversity of subjective positioning was an important current in the display. It would be far too reductive to suggest there is a single message to this or any part of the Biennale, indeed, the experience of works like the searingly beautiful and penetrating ‘Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings]’ (2016-18) by Dineo Seshee Bopape was sufficient in itself to transcend mere taxonomies or translations. Bopape’s work uses coloured lights to dye the main ground floor gallery of the KW a lurid shade of orange that felt less otherworldly than like the earth after some calamity has taken place. A precarious cardboard globe dangled over a scene of broken masonry, screens, and music, including the titular version of the pop standard “Feelings” as performed by Nina Simone. It is, like other great works, impossible to summarise, yet terrifyingly lucid, revealing its emotional weight in full force the instant the viewer encounters it. Yet it also proved insistent upon a withholding of, and resisting of, easy legibilities. Bopape’s work showed me that is possible, then, even now, to create a space where an institution speaks to the present, but an imperative to understand the excluded stories on their own terms is a prerequisite, not an ending point.  

Who is admitted to a given interior and who is excluded is a crucial theme of the Dutch artist, Dorine van Meel’s, film, ‘Gentle Dust’ (2018) which was screened as a special event at the KW. ‘Gentle Dust’, rather like a companion piece to Perry’s film, takes as its subject matter the museum as an institution. Van Meel’s film drifts through the interiors of spaces that the viewer gradually comes to realise represent cultural institutions and museums; as the camera moves through emptied hallways and galleries the voices of van Meel’s collaborators on the project play. By turns introspective, outraged and exuberant, these voices from Africa and from the African diaspora question the value of institutions built on corrupt principles—perhaps the defining feature of post-colonial societies, infused as they are by the spoils of depredation, the financial structures of offshore economics, and the industrialised otherings turbocharged by mass media, and, increasingly, social media. 

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Dorine van Meel, 'Gentle Dust', 2018. Courtesy the artist

It would be wrong to interpret the work of van Meel and her collaborators as calls simply for the disestablishment of cultural institutions—though that is perhaps a necessary consequence of the process of recognising the limits of the historic museum structure—but a demand for the recognition of the obvious fact that the content and the meaning of art lies elsewhere, and is, perhaps, least manifested in sites sanctified by capital and privilege. The early Christian injunction that “wherever two or three are gathered” in the name of their beliefs, there the location of value truly lies seems as valid with regard to cultural as to religious practice. If one can have a salon des refusés, as the early impressionists constructed, then a museum of the excluded is just as valid—indeed more valid and necessary—than the museums of inclusion. As Perry interrogates the violence inherent in the structuring of institutions, van Meel and her interlocutors offer a vision of a new kind of institution or a new culture in which the institution becomes democratised. The Biennale is, of course, one such institution. Ngcobo’s determination to interrogate the possibilities of such an institution has made her Biennale a success on its own terms, and provided not a guide, but the beginnings of a logic for such events going forward. If an institution or exhibition is a platform, then it is not merely the job of a curator to use that platform for the greater “good”, but to look beneath the platform itself, to identify all the surfaces and stories it covers.

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William Kherbek is the writer of the novels Ecology of Secrets (Arcadia Missa, 2013) and ULTRALIFE (Arcadia Missa, 2016) and the epic poem, Pull Factor (2016). Kherbek’s poetry collections, Everyday Luxuries and 26 Ideologies for Aspiring Ideologists will be published this year by Arcadia Missa and If a Leaf Falls Press respectively.