Curator Gabi Ngcobo opens her introductory essay for the catalogue of the tenth Berlin Biennale by invoking an empty pedestal: that which once held a statue commemorating the nineteenth-century British colonialist Cecil Rhodes that was taken down at the University of Cape Town as a result of the Rhodes Must Fall protests, which swept South African and British universities in 2015. “What has remained evocative for my curatorial thinking,” Ngcobo writes, “is an image inscribed in my mind, that of the vacant concrete plinth where Rhodes sat contemplatively for more than 80 years. What future possibility does this open space hold or enable us to foretell?” Ngcobo and her team—Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula Souza, and Yvette Mutumba—focus not on the symbolic triumph of toppling a monument but on the aftermath, asking us to live for a while in the sort of interstitial pause represented by a newly vacant plinth.
As suggested by the show’s title, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” after the 1985 song by Tina Turner, the biennial’s curatorial framework is defiantly modest: featuring only forty-six artists and collaboratives (by contrast, the ninth edition, in 2016, included more than one hundred), the show offers no overarching statement about the works on view, let alone the world. If anything, it is characterized by a refusal of the extensive explanatory apparatus that typically accompanies large-scale international exhibitions. What the show refuses most pointedly is the idea that a biennial organized by a team of black curators from Africa and the diaspora and featuring mostly artists from the Global South has any obligation to represent postcolonial subjectivity for a European audience. “We are not here to educate people about postcoloniality, decoloniality,” Ngcobo says. “We refuse to provide this as a service—to educate, to help decipher, to correct.”
But the curators’ radical rhetorical posturing—“we are at war,” they insist in the catalogue, whose patterned cover is modeled on the dazzle camouflage of World War I battleships—bears little resemblance to the exhibition they have actually produced. Tidily installed in a handful of venues, the works are for the most part formally conventional, subdued, and ultimately forgettable.
Placed just outside the entrance to the Akademie der Künste, a sculpture by Firelei Báez takes the form of a crumbling Rococo palace facade, collapsing together the architectural features of two royal residences named Sans-Souci: Frederick the Great’s summer estate in Potsdam and Haitian ruler Henri Christophe’s palace in Milot, the latter built in an attempt to emulate the monarchical stylings of European kings. Another work by Báez, exhibited in the Akademie der Künste’s foyer, suggests an excised interior wall of the Haitian palace, with a portrait of a nearly faceless turbaned woman—an homage to Christophe’s wife, Marie-Louise Coidavid. Inside the galleries, the presentation is dominated by paintings and works on paper that rarely rise above perfectly fine: a triptych of cheery biomorphic abstractions by Herman Mbamba (Wait for me in the lurking landscape, 2017–18); spare renderings of leaves in ink and graphite made in the early 1980s by Ana Mendieta; Johanna Unzueta’s elegant, plexiglass-encased free-standing watercolors, whose circular patterns are inspired by the work of Indigenous Mapuche weavers in her native Chile; two sets of small, brushy portraits of imagined sitters by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (A File for a Martyr to a Cause and The Dearer Here, both 2018). Yiadom-Boakye is, I think, among the most accomplished figurative painters working today, but this installation of small, muted canvases in a dimly lit room does her no favors.
The most bracing, if overly didactic, work here is a two-channel video by Mario Pfeifer (Again/Noch Einmal, 2018) that reconstructs the controversial trial of four German men in Saxony who brutally beat an Iraqi refugee in a supermarket in 2016. Though the assault was captured on video, the men were acquitted: they had acted, they said, out of “civic courage,” claiming that the victim, who had a history of epilepsy and mental illness, was threatening the store’s patrons. Adopting the slick style of television crime shows, Pfeifer attempts to picture a fair trial, convening a new jury of German citizens and inviting them to deliberate on camera.
At KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the display is anchored by Dineo Seshee Bopape’s meandering installation Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings], 2016–18, which occupies the entirety of the vast ground-floor hall. The orange-lit room contains a maze of detritus—piles of smashed bricks, broken columns, buckets catching drips of water—interspersed with monitors, one of which shows a 1976 performance by Nina Simone. At the entrance, a giant cardboard orb haphazardly assembled with tape and glue—Discoball X (2018) by Jabu Arnell, one of three artists invited by Bopape to embed their works within her own—hangs from the ceiling, part disco ball, part wrecking ball. The installation’s theme is madness, but it takes a curiously understated form: a slow, creeping confusion rather than roiling chaos.
There are several strong video works at KW, including Simone Leigh’s newly commissioned Untitled (M*A*S*H), which portrays a fictional troop of black nurses running a field hospital on the front lines of the Korean War, and Grada Kilomba’s ILLUSIONS Vol. II, Oedipus (2018), in which she plays the role of the griot, a traditional West African storyteller, to narrate the Oedipus myth. But in this venue especially, the curators’ unwillingness to make explicit claims about their intent often results in incoherence: in one room, Luke Willis Thompson’s Autoportrait (2017), a somber filmic portrayal of Diamond Reynolds, who, in 2016, broadcast on Facebook Live the immediate aftermath of her boyfriend Philando Castile’s murder by a police officer; in another, charmingly wonky paintings from Lydia Hamann and Kaj Osteroth’s series “Radical Admiration” (2014–18), in which they imagine themselves mingling with under-recognized female artists.
Even a welcome mini-retrospective of works from 1988 to 2016 by Tony Cokes—slideshow-like videos displaying fragments of political speech, whose blinding monochromatic backgrounds and pop-music soundtracks result in a jarring sensory overload—can’t redeem what is by far the biennial’s weakest venue, the Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik (ZK/U), an exhibition space and residency program housed in a former railroad depot. Several artists were invited to participate in ZK/U’s residency in advance of the biennial, and the results—including an inscrutable installation of sloppy paintings on cut paper and stacked wooden boxes by Sam Samiee (The Unfinished Copernican Revolution, 2018) and Tessa Mars’s cut-paper collages and drawings depicting grotesque, cartoonish figures—are almost uniformly dull and amateurish.
There is something admirable about Ngcobo and her team’s willingness to minimize their own authorial presence, to allow the works to speak for themselves. But the absence of a thematic armature means that the works have nothing to prop them up, and too few are able to stand on their own.