With summer in full swing, the Berlin Biennale has opened in the German capital, bearing the title We Don’t Need Another Hero. Referencing Tina Turner’s song from 1985, the show points to a moment before the major geopolitical shifts still rippling across the globe.
“The 10th Berlin Biennale does not provide a coherent reading of histories or the present of any kind,” reads the show’s curatorial statement, courtesy of head curator Gabi Ngcobo. “Like the song, it rejects the desire for a savior. Instead, it explores the political potential of the act of self-preservation, refusing to be seduced by unyielding knowledge systems and historical narratives that contribute to the creation of toxic subjectivities. We are interested in different configurations of knowledge and power that enable contradictions and complications.”
The exhibition program is spread across 5 exhibition venues, with the meat of the show at the KW Institute and Akademie Der Kunst, as well as other projects on view a small pavilion next to the Volksbühne, the ZK/U – Center for Art and Urbanistics and the Hau Hebbel am Ufer in Kreuzberg. The range of venues, each presented on its own terms, allow themes and threads to rise and fall, feeding into each other in a manner that rarely rests on the same thought, but nevertheless manages to reinforce certain concepts and ideas throughout.
The show also seems to move in a direction quite starkly opposed to that of its predecessors, substituting a tightly engrained sense of identity and locality for the globalized commons that Dis seemed to simultaneously rely on and satire. The pieces here, like Sondra Perry’s IT’S IN THE GAME ‘17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection, previously seen at Bridget Donahue, explore the faces and bodies placed into a direct exchange with the landscape of data capitalism, with the artist’s brother identifying and recognizing nameless players in EA Sports’ NCAA video game franchise from his time as a Division 1 ballplayer. Other works draw on similar threads to explore broader concepts in cultural and social critique, particularly Mario Pfeiffer’s explosive work Again / Noch einmal, which revisits the trial of four men for beating and tying up an Iraqi asylum seeker with mental health problems and epilepsy. Pfeiffer’s mixture of recreated scenes, subtle inversions of narrative and interviews with a group of German citizens paints a chilling picture of the modern German identity, one inclined towards a racism and xenophobia still very much weighed down by the dark history of the 20th Century German state.
The aforementioned works, on view at the Akademie Der Kunst, seem to pose one aspect of the show, connecting its themes with a past embedded in racial and social dissonances in Europe and abroad. Yet at the KW Institute in Mitte, the show seems to move in another direction, one that manages to parallel recent elaborations on performance, sculpture and installation as media with the same historically-invested modes of thought and practice. Of prime interest here is artist Dineo Seshee Boape’s sprawling Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] (2016), which draws on South African author Bessie head’s novel A Question of Power (1973), about a woman’s descent into insanity, and Nina Simone’s 1976 performance of Feelings at the Montreux Jazz Festival as an inquiry into mental instabilities that recalls Frantz Fanon’s intersections between madness and the colony. The schizophrenic, scattered materiality of the work, and the presence of works by other artists inside the space references a sense of gradual disintegration, of the movement into a space of indeterminate authorship and identity that mirrors a broader sense of a destabilized, anarchic world.
Yet the show counters these ideas of breakdown and crisis with a masterful final note, as artist Simone Leigh’s video Untitled (M*A*S*H) (2018), a piece that manages to both pose the fragmented violence of contemporary America with a future of hope and mutual support. Referencing the secret organization, The United Order of Tents, and the United States’ technically ongoing war in Korea (the war was never formally ended), the artist poses questions of stability and support, of fraternity and solidarity as a force for survival. If one were to follow this logic to its conclusion, the exhibition’s title, We Don’t Need Another Hero, the show’s closing note at KW seems to pose a suggestion: maybe we only need each other.
The exhibition is on view through September 9th.
— G. Mak
Berline Biennale [Exhibition Site]