Of Mice and Men: the 4th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art

Paul McCarthy, Bang Bang Room, 1992

The 4th Berlin Biennial presents art about death, decrepit sculptures and rancid dreams. Tacitly it poses the question: “Is this a world you would want to live in?” And gives the answer: “Too bad, because you already do.” Or as the title of one of the works in the exhibition so aptly puts it: “I cannot forward or rewind this state of being, this aged resign…” (mixed media installation by Sebastien Hammwohner, Dani Jakob and Gabriel Vormstien, 2004) Charged with the task of putting a gloss on contemporary art practice, international art expositions rarely risk making a statement as strong as this – or at least rarely one that is so pessimistic.

Curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnik, who are also responsible for the various initiatives of the Wrong Gallery, the Biennial lived up to the trio’s reputation for defying expectations, but true to form, not in the way they were expected to do so. Other Wrong Gallery projects include a Manhattan exhibition venue of the same name that consists only of a street front space confined to the dimensions of its doorframe, and a 1:6 scale replica of the same that is available for purchase. Like the work of Cattelan himself, the Wrong Gallery’s modus operandi is to tweak conventions within the well-established confines of contemporary art practice. And indeed the 4th Berlin Biennial started out in this mode. Expanding the Biennial’s boundaries in the year leading up to the event, the three conducted bi-weekly interviews with artists in the Berlin listings magazine Zitty, put together a photocopied tome called Checkpoint Charley of unauthorized reproductions of all 700 artists they met with who were not included in the Biennial, and in September 2005, began presenting a series of exhibitions, using guest curators, in a space they called The Gagosian Gallery. Since the real Gagosian Gallery is well known and exists elsewhere, and the art world being the small ecosphere that it is, everyone could experience the fun of being in on the “joke.”

These projects did much to raise the profile of the event and the Biennial benefited greatly from its most inspired innovation: the presentation of the entire exhibition on a single street, Augustrasse, in the centre of the former East. Home to the KW, or Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, the major non-collecting contemporary art venue in the city, Augustrasse also has a preponderance of one of the most distinctive features of Berlin, disused buildings. Spaces richly evocative of the city’s complex and troubled history were put to powerful use by the curators. Naming the Biennial Of Mice and Men, after the Steinbeck novel (the phrase is taken from a poem by Robert Burns) signals a narrative intent for the exhibition: like the street of Augustrasse, it has a beginning and an end – and it tells, however tangentially, a story. Similarly, the art presented in the show is for the most part figurative. The use of the street and the in some cases almost derelict sites and were clearly intended to compound this impression. The romance of seeing promenading crowds on opening night combined with cold wet March weather to reinforce the overriding tone of much of the work in the show, which was dark and gloomy; by forcing its audience to move between venues on the street, the curator’s created a fitting metaphor for the exhibition’s worldview: a biennial about prevailing conditions.

More than one person I spoke with commented that the show’s narrative emphasis had its most obvious manifestation in the curators’ preference for so-called “mannequin art,” of which there seemed to be a lot. Mannequins, dolls and marionettes, defenseless as they are, lend themselves to abject statements, perhaps because of the ease with which they are dismembered, or otherwise abused. The Glaswegian artist Kathy Wilkes’ mixed media installation, Non Verbal (2005) provides a good example of this tendency. In the centre of a selection of disparate scattered objects, a black manikin stands mid stride, her face obscured by a small rectangular painting that is attached to it. The canvas is smeared by a few disconsolate brush strokes of color, its placement where the sculpture’s face should be turning it into the very image of angry inarticulateness. Wilkes’ work is redolent of self-reproach, suggesting that in the 21st Century painters and sculptors of the human figure move in dicey territory.

If this is an ulterior thesis of the exhibition, it is one that the artists, in effect, wrest back from the curators. For the context in this Biennial, especially for those works presented in the Former Jewish School for Girls, is problematically dominant. Distrust of the figure could be considered a theme in the work of American sculptor Rachel Harrison, but it’s a distrust leavened by humour. Harrison refracts sculpture through its contemporary practice as installation, bringing the figure back into the work through the use of pop cultural references. But shown in the Girls’ school, with its peeling paint, dust and faded graffiti, her trademark sculpture’s combining pink insulation foam, plywood and figurative elements – in this case a typewriter – gets dragged down into the firmament of the venue’s pathos-laden ambience.

Other works in this venue fair better, if to the perhaps questionable end of creating a macabre atmosphere. Markus Schinwald’s Otto (2004), for instance, is a life-sized Marionette that sits slumped in a chair. Guy wires are visible but Otto (get it?) doesn’t work. Similarly mawkish, if haunting, is the late Polish artist, Tadeusz Kantor’s The boy in the bench (1983), in which a life-sized child doll sits at a 19th century wooden school desk. More interesting and genuinely unsettling is Bulgarian artist Pravdoliub Ivanov’s Territories (1995/2003) a mud encrusted series of flags running along a hallway on a the school’s first floor, or the Russian Viktor Alimpiev’s Summer Lightings (2004) a video consisting of tight shots of young school girls enigmatically drumming their fingers on their desks, intercut with distant glimpses of summer lightning. Most spectacular in this setting is Paul McCarthy’s Bang Bang Room (1992). Flush with a platform, the four mechanized wallpapered walls of a room, each with its own door incessantly opening and banging shut, lever out to constantly make and unmake a room. The action of the walls is slow enough that viewers can safely step on and off of the platform, but the effect of the work is manic and unsettling just the same, much like the Biennial itself.

 This article was originally published in Border Crossings #98 June 2006


4 thoughts on “Of Mice and Men: the 4th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art

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