The 9th Berlin Biennale: The Present in Drag, art for now

 Berlin  |  12 September 2016  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

The 9th Berlin Biennale, “The Present in Drag”, is concluding on 18 September, at its five sites — the Akademie der Künste, the ESMT, the Feuerle Collection, the KW Institute and Blue-Star boats. This new edition, curated by the DIS collective, comments on the present and its contradictions — the “post-contemporary” — through the filter of art.

We access the 9th Berlin Biennale by entering a small door. After penetrating this entirely commonplace entrance of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, we find ourselves projected into the installation by Amalia Ulman (Privilege, 2016). Grey carpet, grey curtains, three screens, a dance barre, a few red balloons strewn on the ground and a pigeon… this “Black Lodge” atmosphere draws on the colours and themes favoured by the young artist on Instagram — the platform on which she has notched up some 120,000 subscribers. The pigeon, Bob 2.0, is a nod at “Bob the Pigeon”, the omnipresent sidekick in Amalia Ulman’s mythology — a mythology in which lightness fills in the gaps as the artist attacks issues including power relationships, male/female equality, but also the trials of pregnancy — a privilege reserved to women.

While this door emphasises the immersive aspect of the installation, the first room of “The Present in Drag” globally sets the tone: a desire to break away from codes, to change the tropes in the showing of art, to promote immersion and to bring the artist back into social dialogue. So where does it lead us?

The 9th Berlin Biennale was a biennale…

This biennale assembled its classic turn-up of artistis who make the rounds of international exhibitions. Korakrit Arunanondchai, Jon Rafman, Camille Henrot and Simon Fujiwara were part of this contingent.

Camille Henrot revealed a double installation (Office of Unreplied Emails and 11 Animals that Mate 4 Life, 2016). In Office of Unreplied Emails, a collaboration with Jacob Bromberg, she scattered frank handwritten replies — gentle and emotional, sometimes angry or resigned — to spam messages from businesses or activist organisations. A few bottles cast into the sea of networks.

Simon Fujiwara offered the Akademie der Künste his Happy Museum (2016). Combining museum and business display codes, he shows a series of objects which, at first glance, seem insignificant: artifacts chosen for their symbolic value and their contribution to joy in Berlin. We thus find the limited series of Kinder chocolate bars which created a sensation during the Euro football event; Angela Merkel’s “HD Make up”, invisible to cameras; the door of the first brothel to be accessible to disabled persons. Concrete expressions of joy, in the eyes of the artist.

“The Present in Drag” placed a focus on videos, often integrated into a wider setup, with the projection space viewed as an extension of the video. Sometimes artificial, this dialogue also gave birth to a few pearls. By using an open-source face-substitution software, Josh Kline (Crying Games, 2015) made defining figures of the 2000s cry. Tony Blair, Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney sob in turn, their tears punctuated by: “I am sorry.” Josh Kline’s stab at political revisionism unfolds in a room that conjures up a dungeon as much as it does a temple.

Meanwhile, Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin (As yet untitled sculptural theater, 2016) offer two videos saturated with colours, cries, euphoria, shown in simulacra of living spaces such as offices, beds, a bar. The codes used are drawn from today: selfies, loud makeup, workouts, outrageous romances… Where are we? A drunken raving? A “constructive” criticism of society? Or a mere spit in the face of bourgeois folk who insist that criticism should be “constructive”? “Food, Sex and Armpit,” cry the young artists. “Stop looking at me like I am the future,” says one of the biennale’s slogans, seeming to echo the pair of artists.

“The Present in Drag” is not a biennale which aims to define the standards in art of today, but rather, a vision of the present by the art of today. This is biennale which has not used the white cubes at its disposal to confer an artificial legitimacy on the works shown, but instead jeopardizes them by twisting and playing with them. Could this be the advantage of selecting artists as the event’s curators?

But there’s more…

The New York collective at the helm of the biennale, DIS, was originally set up by Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso and David Toro. They namely gained a name for themselves via DIS Magazine, known for blending genres, and originally setting out to be a “post-Internet lifestyle magazine”. “Welcome to the post-contemporary,” they write in the biennale catalogue. The “post” has moved on!

DIS leads visitors through an exhibition that plays with large immersive installations, squats in transit areas not usually graced by art — corridors, meeting rooms and even toilets —, while also invading the bunker of the Feuerle Collection —the conversion of military and industrial spaces being just so natural in Berlin, and in contemporary art in general. In short, spaces, which if not immersive, are politicised — or commercialised —, as in the case of Shawn Maximo (#3, 2016), who turned the toilets of the KW Institute into a relaxation and conversation space interrupted by advertisments promoting BB9 products.

The biennale also took possession of the rooms of the ESMT, the European School of Management and Technology. What do we find here? A few reflections by Simon Denny and Linda Kantchev on the blockchain (Blockchain Visionaries, 2016), a transparent and secure technology for storing and transmitting information, which operates without any central control system. Three stands — featuring real-life businesses, Ethereum, 21 Inc and Digital Asset Holdings — reveal three possible uses of the technology, calling on the scenography specific to trade fairs. What issues are raised by a supranational economy? Does a technology without a control organ truly elimate power issues? These are questions we can ask ourselves while discovering what our future may well resemble. All this in a décor oscillating between the sparkle of a management school and the vestiges of a Soviet past — certain Soviet realist frescoes still set off the room. Here, oxymoron is a vehicle for meaning.

The present as a medium

The blockchain exemplifies the biennale’s predilection for contemporary issues. Many questions raised do not merely belong to period covered by the vague term of “our era”, but the year underway, the weeks just past, as the biennale prepares to close its doors.

Take the queries raised by the DIS collective as a preamble to the exhibition. Claws out, they aim their scratches at the veils raised by the governing elite to separate itself from the peoples it is supposed to manage: “Is Donald Trump going to be President? Is wheat poisonous? Is Iraq a country? Is France a democracy? Do I like Shakira? Do I suffer from depression? Are we at war?” The DIS exhibition does not reveal the world, but the work of artists projected into a present which they can only accept by presenting it in drag. The exhibition offers a vision that is disillusioned, supercharged, sometimes to the point of absurdity, of the world as it is today.

In Le Peintre de la vie moderne, Baudelaire urged his contemporaries to “take from fashion whatever poetry it contains within history, to draw the eternal from the transient.” “The Present in Drag” seems to follow the opposite reasoning: projecting — could we say throwing? — into the changelessness of art everything that is “transitory, fleeting, contingent” about our societies. This explains why this ninth edition of the biennale distorts spaces and plays with the codes of display to such an extent. Here, a physical space no longer simply serves to display — we have Internet for this —, it should allow visitors to feel.

Incidentally, at the crossroads of the virtual and the physical, we find Jon Rafman and his View of Pariser Platz (2016), the biennale’s virtual-reality work-attraction — with its never-shortening queue for the Oculus Rift. Reproducing the view of the Pariser Platz, next to the Brandenburg Gate, where the Akademie der Kunst is located, View of Pariser Platz carries the spectator to the still-tottering, still-babbling world of virtual reality. The Platz fills with thick mist: humans fall from the sky. The ground crumbles and the fall leads the spectator through a number of hallucinatory scenes, in water or lost in a crowd endlessly repeating the same gestures, somewhere between a workout and prosternation. How does technology redefine our reality? Above all, how do we behave in the face of this new order?

Art in the Internet era

“The Present in Drag” opens up perspectives and raises a few questions that are well worth asking: what should a 21st century exhibition be — or become? Should art still hide behind the false neutrality of the white cube and a few solemn deferences in order to assert its legitimacy, given that many artists present at the Biennale use Internet as their first exhibition space? What role should artists occupy in the social space, and how should they interact with they contemporaries?

This 9th Berlin Biennale has created an exhibition space which borrows many of its codes from Internet, the paradigm in which a majority of the exhibiting artists were born. Its melting pot of cultures shatters the walls between disciplines — art, theory, advertising, business, fashion, etc.

“The Present in Drag” reflects aesthetics in the Internet age — and its failings, which are the same as those associated by some with the biennale: candour and cynicism, a lack of depth and a focus on noise. We find the same fascination for the present, or even, more precisely, the instant; the same reuse of coded symbolic images — memes —; the same invasion of all available space; the same unabashed love for the absurd and popular culture; the same desire of immersion. In short, a new community feel with which certain art players and apparatchiks are not acquainted.

This was an anti-bourgeois biennale of sorts, a little bit on the punkish side. A reflection of the city hosting it, a wilful paradox of gentrification — the domestication of its artistic voice —, and the spirit of freedom and revolt.

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