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Heroes Need Not Apply: At a Pointed Berlin Biennale, Questions Over What It Means to Be Courageous

Mario Pfeifer, Again/Noch einmal (still), 2018, 4K video transferred to HD, two-channel installation.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND KOW, BERLIN/©2018 VG BILD-KUNST, BONN

Berlin—the philosopher, not the city—is this Biennale’s guiding spirit. While the curatorial team’s mission statement for the 10th Berlin Biennale says that the 46 exhibiting artists do not “provide a coherent reading of histories or the present,” the strongest works do something arguably more significant: They draw attention to the dangers of coherent narratives. Like Isaiah Berlin’s thesis on liberty, the most meaningful works ask what we, as individuals and as societies, want and will tolerate from authority, each other, and ourselves as citizens—and urge us to be cautious about letting righteousness guide our actions or conclusions.

“We Don’t Need Another Hero,” the Biennale’s title, is borrowed from Tina Turner’s 1985 theme song for the dystopian sci-fi blockbuster Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but here it becomes a direct response to Mario Pfeifer’s gripping two-channel installation, Again/Noch einmal (2018), shown at the Akademie der Künste. Commissioned by the Biennale, Pfeifer collaborated with Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, German state-funded television, to produce a chillingly professional combination of crime television tropes, dramatic reenactments, Brechtian alienation techniques, and documentary footage, all put toward recounting the death of a 21-year-old, mentally ill Iraqi man in Arnsdorf, Saxony, near Dresden. During the Biennale’s opening days, viewers of the piece were visibly shaken; some cried.

The subject of Again/Noch einmal, whom Pfeifer identifies as Schabas Saleh Al-Aziz, entered a Netto supermarket in May 2016, to complain that he could not activate the phone card he’d purchased there the previous day. He did not speak German and couldn’t communicate with the cashier. He was in Germany seeking psychiatric care he could not receive in Iraq. He grabbed a wine bottle and started shouting at the cashier in frustration, and in that moment, four massive men in black appeared, beat the slim young man, and removed him from the store. They zip-tied him to a tree and the police later arrived and took him to the local psychiatric hospital, where he was a patient. The four men were discharged at the scene.

None of this would have been accessible to the world were it not for a video made inside the store by a bystander. It went viral in Germany on YouTube and other forums, and garnered passionate support for the four Germans, who were identified as part of a “neighborhood watch” group. Right-wing groups circulated the footage, coupled with hate-filled messages against refugees and asylum seekers. Netto management denied that the men had been summoned, and denounced vigilantism, but the men faced a sympathetic court that did not watch the video, and freed them without bail. A week before their court date, the Iraqi man was found dead—frozen in the woods—after he apparently wandered away from the psychiatric unit; the employees had not searched for him.

The overall mood of Again/Noch einmal is profound sadness coupled with rising suspense. Pfeifer uses cool blues and noirish crime-show lighting in restaging the scene and interviewing actors playing the local townspeople and jury. A silent, faceless figure in a green bodysuit—standing in for the anonymous civilian who documented the events—shows us the actual footage filmed in the Netto. The dialogue is primarily in German, but one giant screen uses English subtitles, and another, Arabic.

Pfeifer does not make the situation and the profound questions it poses easy. Schabas Saleh Al-Aziz is played by a burly actor in a cool, pristine tracksuit, striking a far more threatening figure than the fragile man in the viral video. The highly stylized scene in which he is tied to a tree is a riff on the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Kamran Sadeghi’s accompanying score supplies Hitchcock-level suspense. The entire drama is moderated by Dennenesch Zoudé, the first Afro-German actress to star in the immensely popular TV detective drama Polizeiruf 110, and Mark Waschke, a handsome German actor best known for playing a detective in Tatort, Germany’s answer to Law and Order.

At one point, Zoudé looks into the screen and asks us viewers whether what we’ve witnessed is “vigilante justice or civilian courage,” referencing the German phrase used to remind citizens always to question authority and maintain their autonomous morality by fighting for the vulnerable. “Civilian courage” was the phrase callously appropriated by the far-right AfD party in Germany after this case to reframe anti-immigration sentiments as self-defense. In this brutal context, the biennale’s curators deploy their title and the Socratic method to take a clear stand against the “heroes” of the German anti-refugee right.

Firelei Báez, for Marie-Louise Coidavid, exiled, keeper of order, Anacaona, 2018, oil on canvas, installation view.

TIMO OHER/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND KAVI GUPTA GALLERY, CHICAGO

The tensions that Pfeifer explores (and evokes) are a running theme throughout the Biennale. Many of the works presented in five of the venues feel slight and frail—which is understandable in a world where powerful and urgent statements in the press, protest signs, and private debates overshadow art’s potential function as our symbolic consciousness. The connection between artworks originating across decades and continents is hazy, but many provoke an all-too-familiar feeling of shakiness, verging on helplessness. In today’s woke world, most of the works merely reinforce the viewers’ omnipresent anxieties, not so much contributing new insights, but rather representing our period of relentless global unrest and outrage.

Ceramic and metal sculptures of medical instruments by the German artist Julia Phillips, for instance, are disturbing set pieces that illustrate pressing concerns about physical safety, bodily vulnerability, and mistrust of authorities. The worn found fabrics in Nicaraguan artist Patricia Belli’s soft sculptures from the late 1990s elicit a similar feeling of queasy empathy. Equally unsettling are the tumorlike lumps of corn and clay by Oscar Murillo, which the Colombian artist scattered throughout the Akademie der Künste, stuffing them in natural fabric sheaths and sewing international coins along the seams where these massive forms appear to burst open, spilling their guts.

At Kunst-Werke Institute (KW) for Contemporary Art, a shrill wail permeates the main building where interactive performance, dance, sculpture, film, and installations are shown. Emanating from Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born’s choreographed homage to eastern Nigerian women’s political protests, it complicates Mildred Thompson’s serene abstract found wood assemblages from the late 1960s.

Sound, specifically music, serves a very different function in KW’s basement, where Fabiana Faleiros (aka Lady Incentivo) staged her Mastur Bar (2015–18), an ode to female masturbation. An earworm rendition of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” accompanies fabric sculptures of spread fingers and labia in the Brazilian artist’s welcomingly pleasure-positive installation. As part of a traveling show that includes workshops, lectures, and a performance in which participants escape oppression by expressing sexuality, Mastur Bar does not advocate solipsistic hedonism but instead celebrates the-personal-is-political, a fundamental feminist trope, by turning female pleasure into an act of self-determination.

Faleiros’s work represented a rare moment of playfulness in the Biennale, one that was more than counterbalanced by Dineo Seshee Bopape’s devastating installation Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings], 2016–17, one of most painful pieces on view. Comprising construction rubble, video screens (one showing Nina Simone’s 1976 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland), and yellow-orange light, it represented the epidemic of sexual violence in South Africa by turning KW’s entire subterranean exhibition space into scorched earth. Meanwhile, at the Akademie der Künste, Firelei Báez’s magnificently disarming installations and her haunting gouache and graphite drawings explored intersections between Haitian and German history, combining sculpture and stagecraft to create uncanny replicas of opulent interiors and architectural ruins, accompanied by documentation combining fiction, myth, and history. Báez’s retellings are simultaneously nightmarish and seductive.

Describing Luke Willis Thompson’s series of gold urinals mounted at a height appropriate for water-fountains, Tavia Nyong’o, critic and professor of African-American Studies at Yale, writes in the biennale’s catalogue, “To enter the mind of Thompson’s work is to realize this: We can’t breathe. We must breathe. Together.” This statement rings true of the biennale as a whole. The curators have tapped into today’s tensions and anxieties, and suggest that we as citizens must remember what it means to be courageous.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 129 under the title “Berlin Biennale.”

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