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Sometimes Ambivalence is OK: The Twelfth Berlin Biennale

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You know those moments where your mental rolodex starts spinning, desperately searching for a card catalog entry for a useful text or quote, read years ago, that might help make sense of an upsetting experience in real time? This happened to me last month, in one particularly grim gallery of the extremely disturbing twelfth edition of the Berlin Biennale.

I stood paralyzed in front of two side-by-side displays at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. To my right, a group of people sat silently staring at a screen, chins resting on furtive fists, watching looped grainy surveillance footage of detained asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border. The refugees in the video shivered and huddled together, slowly inching around a freezing cell, trying to keep warm under thin silver space blankets—dehumanized and reduced to a visual uncomfortably evocative of old black-and-white documentation of Warhol’s “Silver Clouds.” To my left were the daunting blocks of didactic text and archival images I had just diligently read, outlining the mass rape of German women by allied soldiers in the ruins of postwar Berlin in the weeks following the city’s “liberation”.

The two pieces, “Icebox Detention Along the US-Mexico Border” (2021-2022) by Susan Schuppli and “The Natural History of Rape” (2017/2022) by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, presented violence by agents of the state with as cold and clinical a lens as their titles would suggest. Having just paid an admission fee to become a spectator of human suffering, packaged dispassionately, I found myself wondering, “Why am I doing this to myself?”

Psychically scrolling through the hazy copies-of-copies of the untold pages of critical theory PDFs our mental libraries end up stuffed with after grad school, I tried to recall some pearl of wisdom from the writer Maggie Nelson. I remembered appreciating her book The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, which interrogated artists’ impulses to present violence as a curative remedy for the viewer’s apathy—as if we had all been born with an original sin, empathy out of alignment, and the artist’s role were to forcefully jolt it back into place with an “orthopedic” shove.

In the weeks that followed, I casually revisited the text a few times, hoping to find some brilliant quote to summarize my complicated feelings about how to critique an art Biennale so loaded with representations of nonfictional cruelty that it included a literal rape museum. And I came up empty-handed, partly because Nelson’s conclusion is largely that sometimes ambivalence is okay. And then I remembered that was the lesson I had originally cherished back in grad school—one that probably informed my art-viewing career more than any other.

The problem is, I really wanted to enjoy the Berlin Biennale.

 

Dana Levy's documentation of Israeli environmental violence against Palestinians. As you can see, it was a real crowd-pleaser.
Did looking at countless images of torture victims staged like a haunted house or portraits of incarcerated women arranged in a grid make me more empathetic? Or numb? After days of untold hours of content forcefully wringing my brain for outrage or despair or guilt or disgust, there was simply nothing left to spare.
Michael Anthony Farley

Curated by Kader Attia and titled Still Here!, this year’s edition mulls the lasting impacts of colonialism, modernity, globalization, and ecological exploitation and collapse—as well as dozens of tangentially-related ills. Kader Attia has long been one of my favorite living artists, in part because his personal practice manages to approach the above topics with a mischievous wit, nuanced consideration of what it means to be “marginalized”, and an appreciation for unexpected beauty—or at least a poetic sensibility—when dealing with very ugly truths. Based on Attia’s oeuvre and the title, I expected a cautiously-optimistic, aesthetically gorgeous exhibition celebrating acts of resistance and moments of empathy in the face of global capitalism, nationalism, religion, and all other forces that convince individuals to do very bad things to one another and the planet.

But glimmers of optimism (and to a certain extent, even works resembling art objects) were few and far between. Instead, Attia and his invited collaborators Ana Teixeira Pinto*, Đỗ Tường Linh, Marie Helene Pereira, Noam Segal, and Rasha Salti, decided to present a collection of mostly didactic, documentary, or investigative projects outlining all the myriad ways humanity (along with every other living thing on this planet) is very much fucked. (*Ana Teixeira Pinto ended up resigning from the curatorial board last month, following outcry at the inclusion of photos of torture and sexual abuse from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in an artwork by Jean-Jacques Lebel).

Nearly every gallery in the Biennale—spread across various institutional spaces around the city—is dominated by multi-channel video installations, archival material, or text-based works that ask an awful lot of time and emotional endurance from the viewer. There is a breaking point in which the psyche develops a callous after repeated trauma. Does anyone really have the bandwidth to grieve every single body in a mass grave? Every species pushed to extinction? Every meter of stolen indigenous land tainted by the petroleum industry’s “forever chemicals” killing the microorganisms that literally bind the soil together? Or of melted permafrost? Did looking at countless images of torture victims staged like a haunted house or portraits of incarcerated women arranged in a grid make me more empathetic? Or numb? After days of untold hours of content forcefully wringing my brain for outrage or despair or guilt or disgust, there was simply nothing left to spare.

 

"The Natural History of Rape" (2017/2022) by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay

I should clarify that I myself unfortunately am by no means someone who tries to live in blissful ignorance. My friends and family joke that I’m like the “Debbie Downer” character from Saturday Night Live, whose encyclopedic pessimism is so absurd her own creator famously couldn’t keep a straight face in one sketch. More than once at a party, I’ve responded to a compliment about an outfit with a segue about Bangladeshi sweatshops and the carcinogens textile workers are subjected to. As I write this, I’m feeling guilty about the conflict minerals in my second-hand laptop.

But even I choose to have faith—perhaps misplaced—that art, even at its most seemingly escapist, can inspire positive change or at least solidarity. Yet if an international team of curators tasked with selecting the best and brightest minds couldn’t find anything redeeming about humanity, what are we supposed to be motivated to fight for?

There’s a German word that’s snuck into abstract English (as there so often is) I found myself contemplating as I trudged gray Berlin streets from one house of horrors to another: Weltschmerz. Weltschmerz (literally “world pain” or “weariness”) is that feeling you have when the world you live in is very much not like the reality you long for. Weltschmerz could romantically motivate a person to make the world a better place, or resign oneself, emotionally exhausted, to nihilistic sulking. Should our generation of creatives attempt to solve the staggering mountain of problems we’ve inherited? Or simply eulogize a dying planet?

 

Nil Yalter's installation at Dekoloniale Erinnerungskultur in der Stadt
Susan Shuppli

Part of the problem with Still Here! is its unrelenting focus on victimhood—nearly to the point of problematic fetishization—and near-total negation of agency. Stories of successful resistance are few and far between. Instead, we’re shown soul-crushing diptychs of despair such as Susan Shuppli’s “Cold Rights,” and “Weaponizing Water Against Water Protectors,” two side-by-side documentary videos from 2021-2022 that reinforced notions of futility when viewed in the context of so much similar bad news. “Cold Rights” tells the tale of a 2005 petition against the United States government by Inuit activists in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Text summarizing their logical argument—that greenhouse gas emissions from the US are changing their climate, and therefore making their way of life impossible—is interspersed with the kinds of B-roll footage of melting arctic ice we’re now accustomed to seeing daily. We learn the petition failed. On a separate screen, we’re shown archival videos of protestors unsuccessfully attempting to block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through Sioux land as they’re blasted with police water cannons in freezing temperatures. These are important stories to tell, of course. But unaccompanied by any call to action, or indication that other outcomes are possible it’s just one more condemnation of apathy and complicity that in turn reinforces feelings of powerlessness as two more case studies in a museum of hopelessness.

A few meters away in any direction at the Akademie der Künste Hanseatenweg campus, visitors encountered works about French nuclear tests in the Algerian desert, the petrochemical industry’s toxic ecocide in African American communities along the Gulf Coast, and the Israeli Defense Force’s systematic felling of centuries-old Palestinian olive groves in spite of protestations, respectively. The artists, devastated communities, and destroyed ecosystems all began to blur together. We can’t stop a crime that’s already been committed, we’re told, and now the artists’ sole job is just to draw the chalk outlines around the corpses.

 

Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn

I’ve always been a tiny bit wary of projects that position the artist as a worker in another specialized field with its own code of ethics and professional practices (e.g. artist-as-social-worker, early education expert, therapist, etc…), and at some points in the Berlin Biennale, I wondered, with healthy skepticism, if framing the artist as journalist might occasionally be a disservice to both fields. Indeed, some of the strongest moments in Still Here! were unabashedly allegorical, fictitious, or just weird.

Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn’s dreamy two-channel video installation, “My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure Your Wretched Desires” (2017), comes to mind as a highlight. Touching on Vietnam’s long history of colonialism and conflict, mythology, and environmental concerns, the narrative follows the wandering soul of the last Javan rhinoceros, hunted to extinction for the supposedly magical healing properties of its horn. A voiceover conversation between the angry rhino and a long-lived, wise turtle is paired with gorgeous, but upsetting, cinematography of animal exploitation. The turtle recounts Vietnam’s violent human history, including an animal rebellion against French imperialism, and related contemporary ecological problems. The piece owes something to Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, which humorously is referenced as the turtle discusses various hypocritical political and spiritual philosophies. The turtle suggests Buddhism as a strategy to teach humans compassion, even though its practitioners so often exploit animals in their rituals, and explains the idea of reincarnation. Presciently, the angry rhino instead says he wants to be reincarnated as a virus to infect and punish the humans who abuse and kill animals for the rumored medicinal benefits of their body parts—filmed two years before the COVID-19 virus likely jumped to humans from pangolins, a species poached, farmed, and killed for its use in traditional medicine.

 

DAAR (Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti)

Nearby, the Stockholm-based duo DAAR, the collaborative name of Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, installed one of the few standout sculptural objects in the Biennale. A deconstruction of an imposing façade from Italy’s fascist period, “ENTITY OF DECOLONIZATION” figuratively “topples” a symbol of oppression and reimagines it as modular street furniture for public space. It was one of the rare political works on view in Berlin with a sense of fun, playfully reconnecting the aesthetics of postmodern design with the dark history that inspired it. And yet it also represented another curatorial missed opportunity—Berlin is a city still pockmarked by oversized authoritarian plazas. This supposedly interactive piece could’ve lived happily in an unloved public space, actually functioning as a site of human-scaled discourse instead of symbolizing one as an artifact in a museum.

Indeed, Still Here! on the surface seems to proactively reject the Berlin Biennale’s tradition of site-specific interventions. Germany is a country that watches the political scandals of its art world with popcorn and pitchforks, the way other societies might keep up with the Kardashians or a royal family, or riot at the outcome of a soccer match. Past iterations of the Biennale took advantage of Berlin’s surprisingly still-abundant stock of vacant buildings and industrial spaces, inciting criticism that the art world was drawing potential real estate speculation to undervalued sites.

When DIS curated the 9th edition, the collective circumvented that controversy by installing artworks camouflaged as commerce in already-gentrified spaces—leading to accusations of cynicism or capitalist assimilation. Kassel’s DOCUMENTA, before it was plagued by its own various scandals, was praised this year for its utopian vision of collective resistance and community-building, dispersing interactive projects and artist-designed sites of potential around the city. So it was hard not to read the decision to concentrate so many decidedly un-art-like projects in the most bland galleries of art institutions as a deliberate privation. Or perhaps interpret the message as an admission that it’s too late for art-for-art’s-sake in a world on fire. Those of us looking for aesthetic experiences in our ivory towers should’ve been watching the news instead.

 

Forensic Architecture
Forensic Architecture

That’s not to say that there are no strictly “art objects” in Still Here!—I just found them overwhelmingly drowned out in quantity, quality, and volume by didactic multimedia presentations. There might’ve been a few works on paper or canvas within eyeshot of a larger-than-life, immersively slick projected video wall alternately showing explosions, street protests, and colorful infographics by the collective Forensic Architecture. But almost nothing could’ve competed for attention spans with the installation and its urgently apocalyptic content.

Forensic Architecture systematically documented and classified various types of toxic clouds—from tear gas and chemical weapons to forest fires and pollution from fossil fuels in communities of color—and displayed their research with a deceptively seductive, cyberpunk design sensibility. The artists draw a parallel to the 19th Century “cloud atlases”, which reflected both the era’s obsession with scientific categorization (an obsession that in other, uglier manifestations went on to racialize humanity and “justify” colonialism) and the somewhat endearing desire to accurately document natural phenomenon so that they might be replicated more realistically in paintings and illustrations. The contemporary cloud atlas they presented here applies their namesake forensic methodology to found footage, from cell phone videos of state violence to satellite imagery, documenting interrelated acts of oppression, violence, and ecological devastation from both private corporations and the authoritarian governments protecting their interests. It was hard to watch, but even harder to look away from.

Perhaps this is an aside, but Cloud Atlas is also the title of an influential 2004 novel by David Mitchell (as well as a polemic 2012 adaptation by the Wachowski filmmakers). It might not have been the artists’ intent to make that association, but as a viewer, it was impossible not to in this context. It’s a book I’ve actually included on art appreciation syllabi because it makes a compelling argument for the capacity of art to transmit empathy and concrete change in unexpected ways. It’s not an easy novel to explain, but the convoluted plot loosely follows the ripple effect of a moment of compassion against the backdrop of 19th Century colonialism, inspiring a chain of seemingly-unrelated creative or rebellious acts by alienated or oppressed persons, from symphonies and films to revolution, across different generations and cultures. Ultimately this trickles down to a distant post-apocalyptic future, in which the survivors of humanity escape—at least in the film, the book is a bit more ambiguous—an irradiated and dying planet by collaborating across class/tribal lines. It’s a singularly strange tapestry of interlocking narratives. But for all its dystopian dressing, the story at least offers a glimmer of hope that creating or appreciating something aesthetic can have productive ends, no matter how trivial art might seem when facing down violence, genocide, acidic oceans, mass extinction, or any of the other problems litanized around Berlin’s museums this summer.

 

Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn

When I realized I’d probably rather be reading Cloud Atlas than watch documentation of protestors choking on tear gas and rainforests burning, I thought back to one of the first pieces I encountered at the Biennale and actually liked—one with an oddly similar story to one of the book’s subplots. Another multi-channel video from Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn, the piece was titled “The Specter of Ancestors Becoming.” I didn’t sit through the whole 28 minutes, as it was installed in the Hamburger Bahnhof, another venue oversaturated with time-based media and more text than a viewer could possibly process in one visit. But again, I was struck by Nguyễn’s capacity to mine the ugly legacies of imperialism for unexpected stories. The video features sweeping, gorgeous shots of domestic spaces and intense portraits of a family in Senegal, with audio dubbed over the strangely calm visuals. One of the segments is a bittersweet conversation between a girl in Senegal and her grandmother, a survivor of conflict between France and its former colony Indochina. The French had conscripted soldiers from its then-colony Senegal to suppress the rebellion on the other side of the world. The grandmother took pity and saved the life of one of those soldiers and, communicating in the language of their shared oppressors, the two fell in love. She recounts the story of her decision to marry him and move “back” to Senegal, where they went on to have a large family of dozens, including great-grandchildren—raising them as a hybrid of their two cultures, forever changing her adopted country and passing down a story of solidarity. The grandmother muses about the nature of identity and displacement: can she feel homesick for a country that was never really hers? One that no longer exists? It’s one of the precious few tender moments in a show that tends to forsake nuanced considerations of identity at an individual level for broad-stroke declarations about the pervasiveness of evil.

 

Alex Prager (L) and Birender Yadav (R)
Birender Yadav

A few doors down the hall, for example, an entire gallery is curated around the idea of sublimating the individual into an anonymous statistic. A timeline and morphing infographics by David Chavalarias follow five years of French tweets as they swing around the political spectrum, converting a mass of singular opinions into algorithmic data streams, charting collective xenophobia or general misanthropy. Dominating a whole wall of the gallery, a massive photomural by Alex Prager took on a vaguely sinister connotation in this context. Prager’s models pose as if frozen mid-routine of mundane “first world” tasks. None connect with one other—their faces mask-like representations of archetypes. It seemed to dwarf and loom over “portraits” by Birender Yadav, which comprise photos of the feet of low-caste brick workers in India. They’re callused, cracked, and disfigured from years of walking along impossibly hot kilns. I’m not sure if this veers into the territory of “poverty porn,” but I certainly didn’t feel like I gained anything from looking at them other than a visceral urge to leave. But perhaps more difficult to think about were his other works. Most of the brick workers are illiterate and must use their thumbprints (also scarred from years of abhorrent working conditions) as their signatures. Here, Yadav presents a grid of their photos they’ve been asked to “sign”—their nearly-indistinguishable thumbprints obscuring their faces. Their identity has been stripped multiple times—once by being born into the wrong caste, once physically burned from their fingerprints by exploitative labor, and again by those fingerprints blotting out their features. A physical pile of scorched wooden sandals lay in front of the works on paper—supposedly the very same sandals that failed to protect the feet seen in the images.

I’ll spare the gritty details of more works about suffering, rape, torture, state violence, war, et al… if for no other reason than they’ve all begun to blur together. I found myself asking: at what point does a museum of suffering—specifically focused largely on the suffering of “othered” individuals and groups—begin to feel problematically anthropological for a European audience? Was this altar to a pantheon of distant martyrs a contemporary Pergamon Museum, shipped piecemeal from formerly colonized sites of conflict to be assembled and marveled upon in Berlin as an exotic attraction? How long until someone takes a selfie with the burned sandals, like hapless tourists at the Holocaust memorial?

 

Moses März

As I neared the finish line of the gauntlet, I began to suspect that perhaps this whole Biennale was an elaborate critique of the very idea of biennials or museums or art—which would be one hell of a battle to pick for someone who chose to be a biennial curator. By chance, the last artworks I encountered at the Biennale were installed in the Akademie der Künste’s Pariser Platz campus, steps away from so many Berlin landmarks with dark histories, now cogs in the endless tourism machine. (A local artist friend of mine convinced me that I really didn’t need to make the trek far East to subject myself to the remaining handful of Biennial works installed in the former Stasi-Zentrale’s secret police torture cells). There, hanging over our heads, were Moses März’s maddeningly labyrinthine flowchart drawings of historical events, art and activist movements, and theory—all of which seemed to simultaneously dead-end or short-circuit while accurately reflecting my Weltschmerz-rattled cognitive functions.

 

Khandahar Okida

The exhibition itself physically dead-ended at a sprawling piece by Khandahar Okida. Titled “DREAM YOUR MUSEUM,” the installation and video present a fictionalized retelling of Okida’s conversations as a child with her uncle, a compulsive hoarder in rural India who dreamed of opening his own museum. At first I found it endearing—he patiently explains to the child what these objects are, demonstrating artifacts from other cultural and class contexts he found interesting for their difference from his everyday experience. Say, items with text in foreign languages or photos of people he’d never met—a contemporary reimagining of the wunderkammer, arguably the origin of the museum as we know it today—casting naïve curiosity about “the other” in a less sinister light than we’re accustomed to in the post-anthropological West. But encircling the collection of objects and hearing the tone of confusion in the child’s voice, I began to suspect the work was another commentary on the futility of object fetishization. We might love our art objects and museum collections the way this man treasures his junk, but at the end of the day, their value or utility is rendered impotent by the nature of their subjectivity.

 

Okida’s installation is semi-encircled by artworks that might be the most beautiful, but also ambiguous objects in Still Here!—bedazzled human skulls (yes, real ones) by the Haitian artist Dubréus Lhérisson. In an odd act of curatorial alchemy, the physical presence of human remains (nothing new in museums, but certainly not without controversy in recent years) was arguably one of the least morbid components of the Biennial. Somehow the concrete reality of death felt less disturbing and exploitative than its myriad depictions in other media. The exhibition text was a bit vague about where these came from, alluding to the possibility that they were found in the street following the deadly 2010 earthquake or looted by grave robbers, adding “the prevailing chaos that reigns in the Port-au-Prince cemetery suggests that there is no rest for the dead in Haiti.” But Lhérisson’s upcycling of human remains, informed by an apprenticeship with a Voodoo practitioner, felt like a more gentle act than, say, presenting archival footage of live bodies in pain as a ticketed spectacle.

In the weeks since my disturbing visit to Berlin, I’ve kept that mental rolodex spinning. Depictions of violence have existed since the earliest forms of representation, so how could I have been so upset by so much of the Biennial’s content? I suspect it was a function of quantity over quality. In a world constantly generating images, never before have humans had access to such a broad range of depravity to sample and appropriate and recontextualize. But thankfully we’ve had a few writers I think do so more thoughtful than most curators. A few days ago I revisited the late, great Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, published in 2003, and her thoughts on the intentions and effects of those who depict, distribute, or view images of suffering or violence read like the review of Still Here! I wish I could’ve written today:

“It is because a war, any war, doesn’t seem as if it can be stopped that people become less responsive to the horrors. Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do—but who is that ‘we’?—and nothing ‘they’ can do either—and who are ‘they’?—then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic…
People don’t become inured to what they are shown—if that’s the right way to describe what happens—because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling. The states described as apathy, moral or emotional anesthesia, are full of feelings; the feelings are rage and frustration. But if we consider what emotions would be desirable, it seems too simple to elect sympathy. The imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others that is granted by images suggests a link between the faraway sufferers—seen close-up on the television screen—and the privileged viewer that is simply untrue, that is yet one more mystification of our real relations to power. So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent—if not an inappropriate—response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”

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