Draftsmen’s Congress” initiated by Pawel Althamer at St. Elisabeth-Kirche. Photo: Sandra Teitge

Features A megaphone for the “artist-politician”

The questions posed by this year’s Berlin Biennale are an expression of anger; over the lack of attention to issues that concern ownership of access to the public space, control of money, and frustration about how the art world is being controlled by increasingly few hands, even as events are increasing in number and being spread all over the world.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 3-4, 2012, p 83.
Published on balticworlds.com on January 9, 2013

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This year’s Berlin Biennale, the seventh incarnation, is called “Forget Fear”. The curators are Polish artist Artur Żmijewski and Joanna Warsza, the latter active in the Warsaw-based organization Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique). Żmijewski and Warsza have together created a platform where the art tourist can take in political manifestations from all over the world, from the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Antanas Mockus, a practitioner of non-violence, to the civil rights movement in Hungary. Things heat up when the focus is switched to the lines between Poland, Germany, and the EU. In Świebodzin near the Polish-German border zone — usually a zone of smuggling, prostitution, and violence — Mirosłav Patecki has built a gigantic statue of Jesus gazing across the landscape. The work of building the statue was filmed and the documentary shown during the Berlin Biennale.

The activist art collective Voina (War) was denied exit visas from Russia to attend the press conference, even though they were the associate curators of the entire Biennale. “But surely it is the Schengen countries that decide who is allowed in, not the countries outside who gets to leave”, a journalist from Copenhagen opined.

Voina are the creators of several actions that have garnered considerable attention. They painted a seventy-meter-long phallus on the Liteinyi drawbridge in St. Petersburg, thus creating a huge “Fuck You” sign pointed directly at the headquarters of the secret police on the shore. They also participated in the “blue bucket” protests, a street uprising in which motorists put blue buckets on their car roofs as a protest against the way powerful politicians routinely use flashing blue lights to abuse the envied high-speed lanes in Moscow, where traffic jams are relentless.

The hub of the entire Biennale is KunstWerke, The Institute for Contemporary Art, now an established cultural institution that has over the years shown
high-quality exhibitions including “Shrinking Cities”,
“Privatizations: Contemporary Art from Eastern Europe”, and “Regarding Terror: The RAF Exhibition”. Thus a zone of cheap, squatted buildings was transformed in the space of a few years into a gentrified gallery district. Klaus Biesenbach, now the director of the prestigious MoMA PS1 in New York, founded both KunstWerke and the Berlin Biennale “to give space to controversy”.

The Biennale has worked as a megaphone for the “artist-politician” dedicated to using the alternative means of art to create power “without the fear, opportunism, and cynicism of the politicians”, according to curator Joanna Warsza. “We want to give a voice to people other than the tiny elite that usually monopolizes the major international art events.”

One of the main themes in Berlin was to bring street-level political debates to the fore by putting them in the art salons. The other main theme was memory: how do we describe history, how do we relate to our history, and is there one collective image that is cherished above all others?

In the middle of tourist flows among the city landmarks of Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building, with its glass dome by world-renowned architect Norman Foster, is the unfinished Sinti and Roma Holocaust Memorial. The foundation pit for the pedestal is filled with debris and rain water and is partly hidden behind a mobile construction hut and shabby chicken wire. Even if marked on the biennale map, both my friend and I, who have lived in the city for twenty years, had difficulty finding it. When we first passed it, we thought is was just one more of those non-sites so plentiful in Berlin.

In the “Berlin-Birkenau” project, people can sign up to plant a birch sapling from Auschwitz-Birkenau and thus assume responsibility for caring for a memorial for several decades. “Join Us in Remembering” shows objects that millions of people displaced in World War II tried to save along with themselves. We have seen black-and-white photographs of people walking in columns along endless roads of mud, dragging their belongings with them after having left their homes, farms, and businesses. A carefully pressed handkerchief embroidered with the family monogram, a muff that protected fingers from frostbite, the coat worn by pregnant woman. As the only material link to the family’s roots, these pitiful objects and their stories have been cherished as precious heirlooms by children and great-grandchildren. The exhibition is being made permanent and will be shown at Deutschlandhaus, just a stone’s throw from Potsdamer Platz.

As soon as the gunpowder smoke had settled after the performance art piece “Reenactment of the Battle of Berlin, 1945”, I asked the Polish “soldier” dressed in a Russian uniform, “Is this a way to cope with the war trauma? Or a way to communicate history?”

“No”, said the soldier, in Germany for the first time even though he does not live far from the border. “Not at all. I am here because I collect uniforms and stuff from the war. Weapons and so on.”

He explained that the Berlin audience that day was served the “light version” of the battle: “Not so much blood”. After all, it took place on a Sunday afternoon in a recreational park between amusement park swans for couples in love to be photographed in and dinosaurs for the children to climb on. This is where I met Janet Cardiff’s collaborator George Bures Miller, who recorded the sounds of machine guns for their “Documenta 13” video walk.

The Berlin Biennale is more than an art exhibition in the traditional sense. It is a network of places and events that are tied together for a few months in the summer. Another purpose is to start an ongoing process and to enable the political art manifestations to continue after the official event has ended. The net has been cast over that which until two decades ago was an insurmountable barrier, and the threads reach far beyond the city limits. This November, teatr.doc in Moscow is going to perform an action in which the actors are displaced migrants without passports from former soviet republics.

The questions posed by this year’s Berlin Biennale are an expression of anger over the way things are arranged in the world, the issues Naomi Klein has pinpointed in her books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine: the lack of attention to issues that concern ownership of access to the public space, control of money, and frustration about how the art world is being controlled by increasingly few hands, even as events are increasing in number and being spread all over the world.

The 2012 Berlin Biennale has, quite rightly, had to withstand some criticism: “Lukewarm cynicism”, proclaimed an indignant Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Certainly, it could have been somewhat less of a blunt instrument. And yes, I would have preferred that the participants understand they were involved in an art event and not just an ordinary protest action or theatrical performance. And it is possible that today’s Occupy members are not as well-spoken as their predecessors, the situationists of the 1968 revolts or the German artist Joseph Beuys with his social sculptures. But they have nonetheless found their way into the most rarefied circles of the art world. After the Berlin Biennale, Occupy went on to Documenta in Kassel, the most important art event in Germany. Political art has thus finally made a true breakthrough, even in the news media. And news from the former Eastern Bloc is also being given more space. The Russian punk group Pussy Riot, whose message about Putin’s pact with the Orthodox Church, moved from social media to the elite news forums — the news columns of the daily broadsheets. After all, the trick is getting people to listen, which can be especially hard when you are trying to bring attention to oppression and suffering. ≈

  • by Margareta Tillberg

    Associate Professor in Art History, Uppsala University. Adjunct Professor, Stockholm University. She defended in 2003 her doctorate on Russian art and artists, Coloured Universe and the Russian-Avantgarde. M.V. Matiushin on Colour Vision in Stalin’s Russia 1932. Main research interests concern art in the widest sense possible (including theory and practice of visual culture, design, architecture, media) in Russia, the former Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, applying interdisciplinary perspectives.

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