Welcome to the Post-Contemporary
The 9th Edition of the Berlin Biennale

Pariser Platz is a place many Berliners tend to avoid. It is mainly tourists that flock to the square between Brandenburg Gate, the U.S. Embassy, company representations, and the Adlon hotel. Selfie sticks are omnipresent. Of all places, Pariser Platz is the main venue for the 9th Berlin Biennale. While the last edition was staged deep in Berlin’s “old west,” this year’s event is being held in the center of the city – and the center of power. The government district is right around the corner.

So Berlin’s most important exhibition for contemporary art has said farewell to the ruins romanticism of previous Biennales. Instead, this Biennale occupied the Academy of Arts and transformed it into a mix of shopping mall, detox bar, landscaped interior, and video installation. Monitors, hermetic surfaces, living environments, artificial biotopes, and a touch of trash characterize the show. Everything is hybrid, everything is flowing: identities, gender roles, the boundaries between people and avatars, the private and public spheres, art and fashion.

This Berlin Biennale belongs to the generation of digital natives, and so of course Ryan Trecartin, the most well known and radical representative of Post-Internet Art, has to be there. Back in 2008 the Deutsche Guggenheim, today the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, presented him in Berlin for the first time in the group exhibition Freeway Balconies. >From the counter of a small, dark bar, visitors can experience Trecartin’s extremely nervous protagonists on an odyssey through the USA. If Facebook could have nightmares, they would look like the videos of the artist, who resides in Los Angeles. His most recent work, realized together with Lizzie Fitch, is not only about love and jealousy, but also – surprisingly – about genetically modified crops.

Halil Altindere demonstrates that the refugee crisis can be addressed without the usual misery clichés. His music video Homeland shows a group of refugees on the way from Istanbul to Berlin – some of the passages seem like something from a documentary, while others seem like sequences from an action film. The soundtrack was provided by the Syrian hip-hopper Abu Hajar, who confidently raps that he will return to his home country some day. The artist Trevor Paglen, in cooperation with the security expert Jacop Appelbaum, focuses on another current social issue. Their “Autonomy Cube” alludes to government surveillance of the digital sphere. The Plexiglas box equipped with computer switchboards is both a sculpture and a router enabling Biennale visitors to surf anonymously.  

Such works show that initial concerns that the Biennale curated by the New York-based collective DIS would be an apolitical event were unfounded. Under the motto The Present in Drag, they show an exaggerated, flickering image of a consumer society that has lost its belief in a better future. We live, say the four curators, in the post-contemporary age. “The future feels like the past: familiar, predictable, immutable – leaving the present with the uncertainties of the future. Is Donald Trump going to be president? Is wheat poisonous? Is Iraq a country? Is France a democracy? Do I like Shakira? Am I suffering from depression? Are we at war?” These words are written in the Biennale statement, reflecting the contradictions of life between personalized tennis shoes and social and ecological crises, the paradoxical juxtaposition of themes and news in the social media, quite well.

The Biennale campaign designed by Roe Ethridge already demonstrated the curators’ fascination with the perfect aesthetics of advertising. The American art photographer, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, makes his pictures so slick that they seem almost surreal. The light boxes that visitors encounter all over the Academy are also borrowed from the world of commerce. Cao Fei made one of them. In an interview with ArtMag, the young Chinese artist said we are living in end times. Her symbol for this are the undead, which are currently experiencing a comeback in such successful American TV series as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. At the Biennale, the Chinese artist has the zombies from her film Haze and Fog appear. Johannes Paul Raether, who was among the participants in the Globe art and performance festival marking the opening of the Deutsche Bank Towers, dedicates his light boxes to one “Transformalor IKAEAE,” a shiny silver being whose raison d’etre is “hysterical shopping.” Another Globe artist is also prominently represented at the Academy: Ei Arakawa transforms Seth Price’s book How to Disappear in America, a guide for how to escape mainstream society from 2008, into a musical which is performed live.  

Photography, installation, video, and sculpture are the media that characterize this Biennale. Apart from the Academy, there are four other venues: the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the European School of Management  and Technology, the Feuerle Collection, and the Blue Star, a passenger ship on the Spree. In the KW, where the Berlin Biennale had its inception in 1998, the young American Cécile B. Evans flooded the entire large room in the basement. From a jetty, one can see monitors on which HD videos show a dystopian world dominated by an anonymous power called Hyper. It is about corporations that try to manipulate our wishes, and cloned children cared for by robots. Amalia Ulman’s installation is also remarkable. With her fake Instagram postings, she became a star of the Post-Internet scene. Female roles and corporeal images are also the focus of her Biennale contribution about her alleged pregnancy, which in her fictive life puts BabyBjörn Tragen stretchers next to her Prada shoes.

The selection of the European School of Management and Technology as an exhibition venue was a clever move. Here Berlin’s history and present coalesce in a paradoxical way. The ESMT is located in a former State Council Building, a prototypical example of East German Modernism completed in 1964. The portal of the destroyed Berlin City Palace, from whose balcony Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the “Socialist Republic” on November 9, 1918, is integrated into the façade. When you enter the bright lobby of the building, a monumental glass window catches your eye. In a place where students learn how capitalism works, Walter Womacka’s From the History of the German Workers’ Movement still announces the victory of socialism. The ESMT is the perfect place for Simon Denny’s Blockchain Visionaries. The installation looks like the tradeshow booth of an international company. Indeed, Denny’s presentation advertises for three actually existing companies that deal with the possibilities of independent, digital currencies. And while you contemplate whether the bitcoins of today are the dollars of tomorrow, you can look out of the window and observe how the concrete slabs of the new palace building opposite are clad in brick wallpaper to look as historical as possible.    

Contemporary architecture that reflects transparency and openness is at the center of the video installation by Korpys/Löffler, the most impressive work in the rooms of the Feuerle Collection, a new private museum for Asian art housed in a former bunker. Korpys/Löffler, who are also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, contrast images of the slick facades and interior spaces of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt with photographs of the Blockupy protests in March 2015. Large mirrors integrate spectators, making them part of the work. Which side they assign themselves to is completely up to them.

The last Biennale venue is the Blue Star, a passenger ship adorned with artificial flowers that sails on the Spree through Berlin Mitte. Below deck, another concentrated load of images and sounds awaits passengers. Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic installed a mixture of pillow landscape and proliferating installation here. Gothic meets trash. A rapidly cut film with an electro soundtrack is running on the monitor. Major existential issues are dealt with: creation, death, and rebirth. Even if you don’t really understand it, it all looks very hip. If this is too much for you, you can flee to the upper deck and get comfortable between apocalyptic sculptures on artificial turf and, like an ordinary Berlin tourist, watch the buildings of the government district pass by.

Achim Drucks

9th Berlin Biennale
Until 9/18/2016