Don’t let the screens and AI fool you – this edition of the Berlin Biennale draws warmth from the most surprising of places
The ninth Berlin Biennale reflects a time when most of our experiences are commodified and/or mediated through technology, when constant surveillance is a given, when virtual reality is the next big thing. As the reviews come out, it’s clear the atmosphere of post-internet ennui conjured by the curators, New York collective DIS, has ruffled the feathers of a few very unimpressed critics. But much of that seems to be click-bait excitement to rip an alternative biennial a new one, when in 100 years people will probably look back on this as rather influential. And after seeing hundreds of images of device-wielding hands, post-Armageddon cinematic dramas, and works that celebrate the universality of our anxiety, a strange feeling lingers – connectedness.
Really, it’s surprising how much optimism abounds in installations like “Blockchain Visionaries” by Simon Denny, where three actual companies that work to decentralise money pitch their post-capitalist products in a mini tech convention at ESMT. Further spelling out the demise of the banking industry is Korpys/Loffler’s “Transparenz, Kommunikation, Effizienz, Stabilität”, on at The Feuerle Collection, which combines Super 8 footage from 2015 Blockupy protests outside the European Central Bank Building in Frankfurt with crisp shots from inside its glassy interior. In today’s world, the glass high-rise is the epitome of the ivory tower.
Berlin’s art world ivory tower, the Akademie der Kunste at Pariser Platz, holds much of BB9’s institutional and political critique. Hito Steyerl’s two-part video installation blurs truth and fiction, teasing out the confounding relationship between war, industry and entertainment. Halil Altindere’s music video “Homeland” features Syrian rapper Mohammad Abu Hajar’s powerful account of the trials and tribulations of refugees, showing them flipping and flying over barbed wire, as if in a superhero movie, only to find that Willkommenskultur is just a front.
In the cabin of the Blue Star tour boat, amidst an installation of vines, black tar, a brown fur carpet, and matrix-like cables, is Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic’s film “There’s a word I’m trying to remember, for a feeling I’m about to have (a distracted path toward extinction)”. A disjointed narrative takes us from dinosaurs to a not-too-distant future where giant rats inhabit a desolate Earth, rendering humanity’s existence a mere blip. On board, time is scrambled, and the Spree becomes the Styx.
Humanity is further scrutinised in Cecile B. Evans’ show-stopping installation at KW, “What the Heart Wants” (photo, above), a huge video projection viewed from a T-shaped pier in the middle of a dark room filled with still, pitch-black water. Different characters – a vocaloid’s anime body, a disembodied ear, a sort of Lara Croft with no facial features, and a memory that exists long after its person is gone – question the eternity of AI consciousness post-humanity. Meanwhile, live performers become avatars in Alexandra Pirici’s “Signals”, acting out Abramović performances or Beyonce’s choreography to “Drunk in Love”.
Rather than focussing solely on the confusion of the contemporary moment, the artists have pushed back against the forces that divide us, and argue for deeper understanding, and ultimately love.
Take Alexa Karolinski and Ingo Niermann’s “The Army of Love”, a one-hour “docu-fictional” film showing the activities of a collective that provides touch, eye contact and sex to “undeserving” people like the disabled and elderly. Or Wu Tsang’s stunner “Dulian”, an epic love story from a much less equal past, that rewrites the friendship between Qiu Jin (played by performance artist Boychild), a 19th-century Chinese feminist revolutionary and martial arts advocate executed in 1908, and Wu Zhiying (Tsang), a female calligrapher and poet, as a queer romance. Scenes of fierce wushu martial arts training are interspersed with those of warmly lit pillow talk, some set in modern day and some a century ago. This flattening, of multiple narratives and times, beautifully commemorates an otherwise unknown piece of queer legacy.
Leaving BB9, you’re reminded that through knowledge of the past and the complex web of our present, we can collectively invent the future we want, especially in art.
Berlin Biennale Through Sep 18, citywide, see website for details