Twilight of Heroes
10th Berlin Biennale

“Negotiating hierarchical and postcolonial structures in political spaces” – such formulations in press releases about the Berlin Biennale make one expect the 10th installment of the most important art event in the German capital to be aloof and theoretical. But the exact opposite is true. South African curator Gabi Ngcobo achieved a sensual yet definitely political show. While the two previous Berlin Biennials relied on provocative political statements and hippie virtual experiments of the Post-Internet generation, this edition is conspicuously restrained. The guiding principle comes from a pop song: Tina Turner’s We Don’t Need Another Hero from the 1985 sci-fi thriller Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome.   

As in the film, Ngcobo was interested in the question of how things continue when systems collapse. The Biennale’s answer is clear: In the future, it will not be heroes who lead us out of crises, but collectives, new forms of social cohesion, of collaboration and creativity. Ngcobo herself has worked in a collective in Johannesburg since 2010. In that year, she and Kemang Wa Lehulere, Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2017, initiated the Center for Historical Reenactments, which examined the repressed history of apartheid in South Africa. She did not work in Berlin alone either, but organized the Biennale together with four co-curators.  

Ngcobo is the first black curator of the Berlin Biennale, and her team also has African roots. As a result, many expected the 10th Berlin Biennale to be emphatically de-colonial. However, the makers were interested in dispensing with such simplifications. It is not by chance that they entitled their public program “I Am Not Who You Think I Am Not.” The double negative causes confusion and aims to encourage visitors to think about identity, their own and that of “strangers.”

At the same time, the organizers wanted to show art that bucks the usual overpowerment strategies. Those expecting high-tech art, shock elements, or completely new trends will be disappointed. Perhaps the most elaborate work is the classicist ruin that was built in front of one of the main exhibition venues, the Akademie der Künste in the Hansa district. The ruin is a replica of Sanssouci, not the palace erected by Frederick the Great in Potsdam, but the palace built by King Henry I in Haiti. The name and design were inspired by the magnificent Prussian building. The Dominican artist Firelei Báez had a fragment of the palace, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1842, reproduced. While both Sanssoucis are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Caribbean palace, an important symbol of awakening black self-awareness, is not very well known, at least not in Europe. But even with this in mind, the installation seems meditative, like a place that reflects transience.
On the top floor of the Akademie der Künste, the Biennale has a museum-like air, with paintings, drawings, and collages expertly presented on gray walls. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s hermetic portraits are particularly impressive. The London-based artist paints fictive characters with only one clear aspect: They are black people who are portrayed with great skill reminiscent of the Old Masters. Otherwise these people do not reveal anything about themselves. This ties in very well with an exhibition in which there are no signs next to the works telling where the artists come from and when they were born. It seems the organizers thought that such information might limit people’s views of the works.

Abstract painting also has a place at the Akademie. Alongside Herman Mbamba’s dynamic compositions, the shimmering paintings of Moshekwa Langa are particularly striking. The South African artist, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, covered construction site tarpaulins with surfaces changing from green to blue and from red to orange. His paintings refer to Color Field Painting as well as to the massive construction in his home city of Johannesburg.

Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid, one of just a few prominent artists represented at the Biennale, which includes a total of 47 lesser-known artists. Painting-like drawings by Himid are on view at the Akademie and also at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art and the Center for Art and Urbanistics, the show’s other main venues. Like other works in the Deutsche Bank Collection, they are based on kangas, colorful garments worn as skirts or dresses in East African countries. Himid adapted their characteristic design – a distinct frame containing motifs such as palms or flowers accompanied by a saying – in order to tell associative stories about migration and identity. Her works seem to be a kind of leitmotif of the exhibition.

Mario Pfeifer's impressive video installation Again/Noch einmal generates a bit of agitation in the subdued atmossphere at the Akademie. The work is a reenactment of an incident in the Saxon village Arnsdorf. Here a asylum seeker from Irak quarreled with a cashier in a supermarket. Therefor vigilantes tied the young man to a tree. The four men were tried but found not guilty. However, the victim was not able to testify in the court: A week before the verdict his body had been found in the woods where he had frozen to death. Pfeifer's reenactment takes a disturbing look at the realities in German society.

At the KW Institute, the original venue of the Berlin Biennale, the installations and video works are particularly conspicuous. In the lower hall, Dineo Seshee Bopape installed a scene of destruction bathed in an orange-red light through which lethargic bass rhythms and the voice of singer Nina Simone reverberate. The catastrophic mood of the environment references Bessi Head’s novel A Question of Power, in which the South African author portrays a woman who gradually drifts into madness as a consequence of racism, which Nina Simone also suffered throughout her life. Colonialism and its legacy have left behind devastation that affects the psyche.  
Luke Willis Thompson’s film installation autoportrait(2017) is even more intense. In two short scenes he shows a young woman, Diamond Reynolds, who posts the murder of her African American boyfriend during a traffic check live on Facebook. The film, accompanied only by the rattling of the projector, is like a silent indictment, also of the fact that the policeman responsible was acquitted. Like Himid's drawings als Thompson's sculptural inventions are present in all three main venues of the exhibition. 

While the works at the Akademie and the KW may sometimes seem a little too docile, in the basement of the Center for Art and Urbanistics, the Biennale’s third-largest venue at the edge of Moabit, contains an installation which expressly contains a warning. It can trigger epileptic attacks. And indeed, to a hard industrial soundtrack Tony Cokes has the monitors flicker like a stroboscope in a techno club. On monochrome color surfaces, one reads inflammatory slogans from pop songs and academic texts, combined with blurred images from weekly newsreels of rebellions in black ghettos in the 1960s USA. The work is hard, angry, and direct, almost physically palpable. Given the state of the world, it would have been desirable to have more works like this or Mario Pfeifer's Always at this somewhat well-tempered biennial.
Achim Drucks

X Berlin Biennale
Until September 9
KW Institute / Akademie der Künste / Volksbühne Pavillon / ZK/U – Center for Art and Urbanistics / HAU 2