It won’t be long before you will be able to explore the psycho-geography of each city around the world through a contemporary art biennale. Two recent examples delineated the urban conditions of two very different, large European cities: Berlin and Bucharest. But while relying on an atmosphere of critical awareness, the two cities operated with very different budgets and individual curatorial approaches.
The 4th Berlin Biennal was entitled Of Mice and Men after the Steinbeck novel, but had no overall concept. Instead, a narrative flow of ideas came from the curators —Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick—threading through the numerous exhibition sites on or near Augustrasse, now the epicentre of Berlin’s commercial art scene. The compact geographical focus for the exhibition allowed for an art-tourist ‘dérive’ along this thoroughfare in the city’s east. The history of the locale was explained in detail, the curators’ introduction claiming the street as an archetype.
BB4 paid homage to the 1992 project 37 Räume, acknowledging the long-standing role of alternative spaces in the city. The inclusion of historical works from collections alongside contemporary pieces was reminiscent of a museum show, while the pranksterish project Gagosian Gallery Berlin presented an extension of the curating team’s earlier art ‘joke’, the ‘Wrong Gallery’ in New York’s art district, Chelsea. There seemed a playful opposition to art dealers in these conceptual currents—curious, given the proximity of so many of them.
Art was rich in variety: some of it underwhelmed, but some was intensely powerful. The most successful venue, the former Jewish girls’ school, was derelict—an unnerving security scan at the entrance served as a reminder of current social problems. More subtle works were overpowered by the venue’s faded murals and graffiti: largescale pieces making bold statements fared better.
Echoing the site’s former function, Viktor Alimpiev’s video ‘Summer Lightnings’ juxtaposed schoolgirls drumming fingers on their desks with intermittent glimpses of brooding thunderstorms; a frisson of psychosexual tension. The monumental ‘Wagon’ by Robert Kusmirowski was a life-sized reconstruction of a railway cattle truck: a sombre expression of what became of the original pupils of this school.
Other sites with strong resonance included former post office stables, where a bright yellow staircase structure by Michael Beutler transformed the gloomy interior. And at the Old Garrison Cemetery the Biennale came to a fitting conclusion. Loudspeakers mounted on four trees relayed the sound work ‘Follow me’ by Susan Philipsz, while more a literal intimation of mortality could be seen in the lapidarium: Berlinde De Bruyckere’s ‘Corpse’ comprised horse hides sewn onto a frame—attempts to re-animate the dead animal’s body.
To mark the beginnings of the Romanian art magazine Pavilion, a copy of the publication was exhibited in a tent at the Bucharest Biennale, only to be repeatedly stolen by avid readers. Curator Zsolt Petranyi, of Mucsarnok Kunsthalle in Budapest, worked with Pavilion’s co-directors Razvan Ion and Eugen Radescu to produce the Biennale under the title Chaos: The Age of Confusion .
To a theorist, chaos might have relativist connotations: the butterfly in Patagonia which causes a tornado in New Orleans. To a pessimist, chaos could mean contemporary art as untidy, slippery, disorderly, lacking rules or borders. An optimist might see the haphazard machinations of bureaucracy and political corruption in post-Wall Europe as a sign of artistic diversity and creativity.
More in the latter camp, Ioana Nemes exhibited 60 emotional entries from her personal diary, ‘Monthly Evaluation Project’ in the foyer vitrine of Bucharest University’s biology faculty: an architectural relic of socialism situated in the grounds of Bucharest Botanical Gardens. Next door Dan Perjovschi’s ‘Decorative Chaos’ was drawn on the crumbling façade of the Greenhouse, while nearby his limited edition skateboard was on sale in a trendy shop: a satirical exposé of how the sign of the middle finger has evolved with Romania’s nouveau riche.
Avoiding MNAC, the largest museum of contemporary art in South-Eastern Europe, BB2 also migrated to non-art venues—a skateboard park in the east end and the Museum of Geology in a leafy neighbourhood, where a skating video shot in a decommissioned Spanish prison made statement about ‘Democracia’: one of a selection of video works on show.
BB2’s emphasis on street culture extended to urban graffiti in the stencil drawings of Attila Stark, ‘The brown ship of two drunken cooks’. Rainer Ganahl’s video documented his attempt ride his bike hands-free, against the flow of traffic—‘Bicycling Bucharest’ was not for the faint-hearted.
But Ilona Nemeth’s ‘Morning’ was the strongest video work on show here. Commenting on the burgeoning private security industry, the artist went to her local supermarket accompanied, absurdly, by bodyguards ready for any potential threat.
Chris Byrne & Iliyana Nedkova formed Art Research Communication in 2004