Titled “was draussen wartet” (what is waiting out there), the 6th Berlin Biennale, selected by independent curator Kathrin Rhomberg, featured a manageable 45 international artists exhibiting in six sites around the city. In conjunction with the Biennale, art historian Michael Fried organized a small exhibition of virtuoso drawings by the 19th-century realist Adolph Menzel at the Alte Nationalgalerie-an inspired decision. Looking intently at his world and its conflicts, Menzel favored rough, gritty subject matter: maimed and bloodied fallen soldiers, manual laborers in moments of respite, factories with billowing smokestacks. Implied was a connection with contemporary artists who respond to their own conflict-ridden world in realist works (videos, films and photographs, with paintings as a mere side note) that are, like Menzel’s, socially and politically engaged.
Most of the works were located at a large, temporarily converted warehouse on Oranienplatz, meaning that the Biennale’s center of gravity shifted from Mitte, in the former East Berlin, to Kreuzberg, a neighborhood in the West long identified with immigration, left-wing actions and political ferment. Two adjacent video projections by Bernard Bazile (France) that showed chanting and singing protesters in Paris made you feel like you were in the middle of that version of street culture, with its very specific rhythms and codes of behavior (Protest Marches, 2010). Even more impressive was Minerva Cuevas’s enthralling video Dissidence v 2.0 (2010), featuring many different demonstrations that she recorded in her native Mexico City. (The lovely soundtrack is by composer Pablo Salazar.) Quick shots of ramshackle encampments and imposing government buildings, and people waving signs, wearing costumes, riding horses and tractors, and playing music add up to a stubborn yet festive militancy for freedom and dignity, against considerable odds.
Israeli Avi Mograbi, armed with a video camera, emphatically confronts soldiers at a checkpoint in two short films from 2004. Beyond, Palestinian kids are trying to get home from school. While riding on trains between Italy and their native Albania, Pleurad Xhafa and Sokol Peci sculpted a clay bust of Chicago School free-market economist Milton Friedman; a six-channel video installation playing on monitors shows various stages of their activity (Déjà-vu & Paranoia, 2009). The ironic suggestion is that, in now-capitalist Albania, the goofy, grinning, bespectacled Friedman, speeding from West to East, is the new idol to be venerated, much as longtime leader Enver Hoxha was under Communism.
Idiosyncratic works that do not wear their politics on their sleeves, though still address complex societal matters, ultimately proved most winning. Slovakian Roman Ondák’s absurdly expansive checkroom, located just inside the Oranienplatz entrance and featuring several long counters and row upon row of metal racks, turned a humdrum feature of exhibition life and labor into a surprising focal point (Zone, 2010). In her video The Birth (2003), a wriggling Anna Witt (Germany) simulates her own birth by emerging naked from beneath the nightgown worn by her elderly mother, who is lying in bed. It is an intimacy both touching and unnerving. Large, colorful, captivating photographs by Nilbar Güreç (Turkey) show women of different generations and walks of life who exuberantly occupy an Istanbul house and yard, turning it into their own feminine world. This photographer was welcome in a roster that was fully two-thirds male. Further afield in Berlin, in a big garage, American George Kuchar showed his manic “Weather Diaries” videos. Storms threatening outside the cheesy Oklahoma motel where Kuchar stays annually during tornado season are conflated with his musings on youngish guys, cheap food, digestion and flushing toilets.
The unlikely star of the Biennale was 24-year-old Petrit Halilaj, from Kosovo. In the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict, Halilaj and his family have been constructing a new house in Pristina that resembles their old one but is somewhat larger and free of the memories of warfare. Halilaj shipped to Berlin rough supporting beams and lumber used to build the house, and with them he erected a large, open structure resembling an outline of a house, squeezing it into a space at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Mitte. Halilaj’s immense architectural “drawing” was breathtakingly ambitious, and felt imbued with both personal and national aspirations and anxieties. It came complete with a chicken coop, and roaming fowl sometimes wandered into Halilaj’s “house.” Elsewhere various rickety sculptures and drawings (of chickens, of the future house in Pristina) fleshed out this promising young artist’s distinctive vision.
Photos: (above) Petrit Halilaj: The places I’m looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I don’t know how to make them real, 2010, lumber and mixed mediums. Right, Nilbar Güreç: Unknown Sports (detail), 2009, C-print, triptych, 4 by 133⁄4 feet overall. Both in the Berlin Biennale.