Berlim Biennial #2
Berlin Biennial special, part two: an inaugural experiment
Dereck Marouço / Felipe Molitor
3 Dec 2019, 2:36 pm
In the heart of a family neighborhood, a symbolic building full of cultural and social initiatives has defeated private interest. Constructed in 1901, the old printing factory, now the ExRotaprint building, was once one of the largest employers in the Wedding neighborhood in Northern Berlin. The company came across difficulties in the 1980’s and eventually went bankrupt in 1989. Later, in 1991, the building was listed as a site of historical heritage and was placed under the control of the neighborhood’s subprefecture, who in turn passed the building on to the administration of a real estate company whose objective was to sell the building off, for the highest possible price. Since the 1990’s, the building’s spaces have been rented out to small businesses, art and culture initiatives and social institutions. In 2005, threatened by private capital, the tenants united, forming an association which met with investors capable of buying the building and, in this way, made it possible for projects the building was already hosting to continue to exist. The process took two years, ending in 2007.
In sharing the old factory with other artistic projects, the 2020 Berlin Biennial, which is curated by Spanish Agustín Pérez Rubio, Chilean María Berríos, Argentinian Renata Cervetto and Brazilian Lisette Lagnado, is already sharing an idea that culture workers are still having to defend, even now in the 21st Century: art as work. Not only because they have a workspace in the building, where they are present and working whilst the exhibition is simultaneously open to the public, but because they are exhibiting propositions at a rate faster than is usual of Biennials. Beyond that, because there is no system in place to facilitate education programs, the curators themselves have direct contact with visitors, thus bypassing the need for such a system. The rhythm between labor and its result is made visible in their process. The Wedding neighborhood, next on the list of potential areas for gentrification in Berlin, is still a family neighborhood with a large number of Germans of Turkish, Arabic and African origin, not to mention immigrants from conflict zones in other European countries. This differentiates it from the central region of Mitte, where you can find the Kunst Werke Institut, home to the main axis of the exhibition, which also spreads out further into other institutions in the city. The curators, who have all come from or who are experienced in Latin America, bring with them their own references, most notably Flávio de Carvalho, who viewed art itself as an experience.
Inspired by Flávio de Carvalho’s modus operandi, the first proposed experience took shape in the exhibition Os ossos do mundo [The Bones of the World], also the title of a book published by the artist in 1936, in which he records his travels and experiences in Europe. This act anticipates discussions and exhibitions taking place before what is considered the official opening of the event. The curatorial team is made up of people from the geopolitical South and who, whether in statement – or in experience – typically identify as female. By using an institutional structure to break down pre-established and systematic patterns, this Berlin Biennial is already proving to be in tune with its predecessor, in a practical sense. In the 2018 10th edition, We Don’t Need Another Hero, the overall curation of which was by South African Gabi Ngcobo assisted by Ugandan Moses Serubiri, North-American Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, German Yvette Mutumba and Brazilian Thiago de Paula Souza, the break with heroic figures and disruption of the perspective of the other, which had had the image of the white man as a rule, was an institutional revolution that helped form the identity of the Biennial. Now, like Carvalho, the 11th Berlin Biennial proposes to continue this questioning of current systems through experiences capable of creating a space of reflection, and not only about art, taking into consideration art’s capacity to exert change in both everyday life, and in the world today.
A photograph by Leo Corrêa in the center of the exhibition focuses on the Bendegó meteorite amidst the ruins of the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro after the huge fire that destroyed the same museum in September last year. This record exposes governmental neglect of cultural equipments, which are crucial for research and for the dissemination of knowledge. There is a cycle in Brazil that is being repeated again and again, a rhythm of destruction and reconstruction that condemns us to always live in the present moment. If Flávio de Carvalho wrote his book Os ossos do mundo [The Bones of the World] to relate his journeys to the “old continent”, that is, to the bones of the Western world, then the very idea of a museum, being the fruit of a world at the beginning of globalization, is itself one of these “bones”, a process that conserves objects that can offer insight into cultures and time periods.
German artist Felix Brüggemann’s work also creates an instability in historical boundaries and consensuses. By superimposing an image of the 1950 reconstruction of the Berlin Castle, a symbol of the Prussian Empire that was demolished by the communist German Democratic Republic government, with a current photo of its reconstruction after the destruction of the old Palace of the Republic – which had previously stood on the same spot – he makes explicit not only the anachronism of the action, but also the fact that the plan is one to erect a monument to colonialism (it was criticized as such in various protests). The Palace of the Republic replaced the old building and was demolished between 2006 and 2009, after the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). The reconstruction was planned with the idea of replacing its modern architecture, designed by architect Heinz Graffunder and the Academy of Construction of the Democratic Republic of Germany and built between 1973 and 1976, with the baroque architecture of the Castle, which in turn was built in the 15th Century. The building will host the Humboldt Forum and its collection of non-European items and will bring Germany’s colonial past to the surface. Bonaventure, Director of Savvy Contemporary, theorizes that the collection of artefacts from other cultures was important in creating the idea of the other in the geopolitical north-Western world during colonialism and, at the same time, now affirms the identity of oppressive cultures. Through architectural anachronism and the contents of its collection, the reconstruction proves that there are still existing power structures and that, in using public money for the maintenance of a predatory idea, there is still a will to put Germany at the top of a global vision that was achieved precisely through the subjugation of this other, and of the idea of otherness. More than 100 million euros were spent on the project.
Staying on the subject of monuments, this time immaterial ones, the photo “Generosa” from the series “Guerrilheiras” [Women emale guerrillas], by Virgínia de Medeiros, brings an image of Marielle Franco shown by Generosa Maria, a resident of the 9 de Julho Occupation in the center of Sao Paulo. Generosa Maria, who is part of several political movements, including the black women march, the city center homeless movement and the group Ilú Oba De Min, is an example of how small cells in the social fabric can multiply, not only through ideas, but through actions, and how memory, even when state structures try to erase it, resists. Medeiros’ series is a visual archive of how the women it portrays are politically active through their work from within a patriarchal society. The image of Marielle Franco, who was killed for political interests, which the state system insists on ignoring, engenders a dialogue on representativeness, but also on its consequences, in a country as violent as the former colony.
The Berlin Biennial’s proposal Experience Nº1 doesn’t differentiate between works of art and recordings, memory and news, and in exhibiting its developing visuals, it fosters debate on urgent issues. The photo of protestors with the poster “Pueblo Tiene Arte con Allende”, which was used in the political campaign of the last democratically chosen candidate in Chile, before state coup that put Augusto Pinochet in power, reminds us how neglect and attacks on art and culture have always been strategies of fascist and totalitarian governments aiming to eliminate resistance structures. In considering productions that reflect on the complexity of these times, the Berlin Biennial offers the visitor an aesthetic experience that is at the same time a reality check, that invites the visitor to let themselves be affected, and to reflect.