Grand disillusion: it’s taken me this long to finish posting about the Berlin Biennial

Tuesday 15 August 2006

Sometimes you wonder why you bother. As an artist, as a curator, as a gallery-goer. An interview with the curators of the fourth Berlin Biennal reveals a quiet desperation as they discuss the scratching around they’ve done in a hunt for some means to break their lassitude. Contemporary art novices will wonder why they don’t talk about art; old hands won’t even bother clicking the link.
For their professed perversity, the curators’ attempt to shake things up doesn’t amount to more than pissing into an ocean of ennui. The only thing that got me truly puzzled at the Biennial was the inclusion of 30-year old art by Bruce Connor and Christopher Knowles, and even this looked like a curatorial gesture of defeat. No-one here, on either side of the Talent Moat, was operating outside of their comfort zones.
The biggest part of the exhibition was held in the old Jewish Girls’ School in the former Soviet sector: it was the first time the building had been open in over ten years. Really, everyone should know by now that attempting to put art in derelict buildings is a mug’s game. The art is left to compete with the building, and almost always loses. Correction: always loses.

At any rate, we were left free to roam the four floors of charming dilapidation only occasionally obstructed by artwork, once we had successfully passed through the security check and metal detector at the entrance. My German isn’t good enough to say whether they were searching us for bombs or for spraypaint. “Do not photograph,” admonished the sign tacked to the door, “this is not an art exhibit.” As we had guessed because, like the crumbling walls, it was more interesting than the art inside.
For the most part the art was trying to look Serious, i.e. grim and grotty in an effort to look more in tune with the darker aspects of life; the artists trying to pretend they weren’t quite so pleased with themselves, like the pious po-face of a libidinous preacher fronting up to Sunday service. Stockhausen spending a week barefoot in a rented log cabin in the mountains, divining the rhythm of the universe before he has to drive his Mercedes back to K├╝rten for a lecture. The grant recipient seeking inspiration by ramping up some empathy for the Turkish guest worker who comes into their flat each Tuesday.
Some of the art was just plain derivative (a room full of earth? in 2006?). People were making jokes about the dodgy lighting in a corridor being a Martin Creed work, until they found a title card showing that it was, in fact, a Martin Creed work. Then they made jokes about the Martin Creed work.
For all the standard curator-guff about inclusivity, the one piece that stood out and wasn’t thirty years old was Jeremy Deller’s film Theme for the 4th Berlin Biennial, shown in the old stables behind the former postal sorting centre: an old Klezmer group playing in someone’s flat, presumably the home of one of the band members. The tune they play is their own anthem to Auguststra├če and the Biennial exhibitions that run its length. If only the rest of the show was as lively, well-crafted and generous as the theme tune performed in its honour. If only the other turgid, heavy-handed works in the show spoke as eloquently to the matters of history, society, and culture they loudly pretended to wrestle to the ground.
Curators need their fun, too: the room containing Christopher Knowles’ sheets of obsessively typed paper were hung in an old science room with a tattered poster of Einstein pasted on the wall.
Previously: Looking at looking at art.