Is curator the hero 10th Berlin Biennale doesn’t need?

Stefano Pirovano

Titled after the famous song by Tina Turner and including only 46 names, edition 2018 of the Berlin Biennale opens the door to many talented artists which are still to be discovered by the main galleries. But its curatorial statement looks like a missed opportunity.

The 10th Berlin Biennale proves at least two things. First, the day when drawing a border could be enough to create an art exhibition is luckily still far away. Secondly, the human brain is lazy by nature, hence it tends to anchor on the curator’s name – that is one – rather than on the artists’, who are many and generally difficult to memorize.

With regards to the first issue it should be noted that, despite key-concepts like Africa or African diaspora are unequivocally present in the four exhibiting venues of this year (KW Institute, Akademie der Künste, ZK/U and Hau Hebbel am Ufer), the 46 protagonists of the 10th Berlin Biennale are first and foremost human beings, rather than citizens of a certain continent, state or city; and as such they ask to be-clearly recognised. Thus, it may be better to leave political, military and economic geography to the multinational corporations’ strategists. When it comes to talking about art these perspectives confuse more than actually help to see better. It’d be better to read the context starting from the artwork, rather than the other way around. And it would also be naive thinking that, as the previous Berlin Biennale dealt with Post Internet because that was the hot-topic of the moment, the current one talks about, or above all, ‘africanness’ for the very same reason. Whether the curator Gabi Ngcobo was born and grew up in Durban, South Africa, shouldn’t really matter. After all, Ngcobo had already collaborated with Berlin Biennale in 2014 and has taken part, two years later, to the curatorial team of the 32nd Sao Paulo Biennale. Africa has been there since ever, like India, or South America – our eyes see only in the direction our head is turned to.

Concerning the other issue we mentioned at the beginning, as it often happens in the case of Biennale, the media logic and the human psychology end up drawing the attention to the curators instead of artists, thus learning a lot about the first and nothing about the latter ones. That is in a way like going to see a football match and caring about the referee rather than the actual match. Moreover, as it often occurs, also in the case of Berlin Biennale, the curatorial ‘Statement’ doesn’t certainly represent the best part of the event.

Of a completely different quality is the selection of the artists, which for a curator – in this instance she teamed up with other four colleagues – should be what really matters. As we said, there are 46 artists, spread around four different venues (one is dedicated to performances). The title of the Biennale, ‘We don’t need another hero’ is borrowed from an 80s hit written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle for Tina Turner and made famous by the movie Mad Max as its soundtrack. The song doesn’t really help much to be honest. The world we live in, luckily, doesn’t have anything to do with the one of the movie the song was written for. The general need for a better tomorrow is the same that all the ‘children’ of every generation have been asking to whoever is committed to prepare their future. Therefore, it is not about heroes or their absence; but about distress, abandonment, lack of perspective.

The first shining star is Dineo Seshee Bopape, already winner of last year Future Generation Art Price and of the Sharajah Biennial Prize. The installation with which she is taking part to 10th Berlin Biennale, formerly presented at Palais de Tokyo in 2016, occupies the entire central room of KW. The artist, also from South Africa, transformed it into a huge forge of orange light where everything collapses and regenerates. The title, which is ‘Untitled (of occult instability)[Feelings]’, refers to the studies of Martynican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, theorist of the psychological effects of colonial subjugation. Part of the installation’s ambitious narrative are also the biography of a main South African novelist such as Bessie Head – child of a wealthy white South African woman and a black servant when interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa – and Nina Simone’s memorable performance of ‘Fellings’ at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976. The installation hardware includes bricks crumbled apart as if they were biscuits, fallen columns, a big cardboard ball hanging from the ceiling (that is by artist Jabu Arnell) and works by two contributing artists like Lachell Workman e Robert Rhee (this latter made the small sculptures resembling pieces of human brain or entrails). Is it the tragedy we are living in? It may be, and even if Bopape’s approach to information resembles that of Goshka Macuga, compared to this latter the South African artist seems to have more expressive aims, and is therefore easier to grasp, as also the movie she is presenting at the ZK/U proves. In ‘Not yet ttile’ (2018) she addresses the controversial trial involving South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma and Fezeka Khuzwayo, also known as Khwezi, who in 2006 accused Zuma of rape. Aids activist and writer, Fezeka Khuzwayo died of HIV in 2016. By allusive dancing and symbolic images Bopape also in this case represents an historical event apparently in order to keep memory of it, as if an installation or a video could stand for real monuments.

Less monumental, but clearly as effective as Bopape’s demanding works, the ‘Trans:plants’ by Sara Haq are disseminated around the Akademie der Künste’s exhibition galleries. These groups of basic blades of grass are installed within the narrow space in-between the building floor tiles. They probably stand for families, or sort of human groups. which are positively able to grow up overcoming adversity and hard times.

The third artwork we would like to mention is Mastur Bar by Fabiana Faleiros, which is exhibited at KW. It is an aggregation place where the main topic is female masturbation. The project started in 2015 and consists of many collaborations with musicians, poets, writers and with Greek artist Antigoni Tsagkaropoulou, who has produced a big clitoris-shape pillow for this occasion where, during the opening, she was comfortably sitting mobile phone in her hands – fingers are indeed a leit motiv of the project. Faileros is Brasilian, she was born in 1980 and has an alter ego called Lady Incentivo, that is an improbable pop singer who transforms the exploitation of female sexuality into a parody. She also laughs at the incentives that in Brasil, and in many other countries, are allocated to art and culture. It is not the artwork that matters here, and perhaps not even the character Faileros has built around herself. Rather, it is interesting her eccentricity in relation to the official art system, and this is possibly the main fil rouge of this Biennale. Besides Oscar Murillo, Ana Mendieta, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, the same Bopape, and another handful of names, the artists invited by the curatorial team are outsider, that is to say very good artists in some cases, who however are not backed up by important galleries or collectors. Think about the cuban Belkis Ayón, the same Sara Haq, Patricia Belli, the performance by Okwui Okpokwasili (that is extremely effective), the outstanding engravings by Gabisile Nkosi, or the installation by Zuleikha Chaudhari, based on the exceptional biographical life of the Indian nationalist Subhash Chandra Bose.

Moreover, only a few among the fabulous 46 is represented by local galleries, which don’t seem that involved in the event, and this is seriously compromising the current Berlin Biennale’s visibility. Only 7 among the artists live or work in Berlin. On top of it, there’s a serious lack of information about the pieces on exhibition – which is something disadvantaging the artists themselves, rather than the visitors. Considering the relatively small amount of artists invited by the curatorial team (they were 120 in 2016), and considering that most of the current edition budget (€ 3 million) went for producing the artworks, you wouldn’t expect visitors feeling as disoriented as they were while navigating the show during the opening days. Or, as it already happened with Documenta 14, should we look at the 10th Berlin Biennial as a statement against an art system which tends to exclude and sets limits to artists, dealers and collector? Is it a call to exploration? Perhaps here is the third thing this Biennale is proving. Even in Berlin art and the art market are not the same thing.

June 13, 2018