Since it debuted in 1998, the Berlin Biennale has looked on, and participated, as contemporary art changes and evolves parallel to the city that hosts it. Although the cosmopolitan disparity between the Berlin of today and yesterday may seem striking, the motivations of the Biennale remain perhaps more appropriate than ever. Driven by the theme “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” South African curator Gabi Ngcobo and her team (Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula Souza, and Yvette Mutumba) have selected 46 groups and artists that they feel embody—and perpetuate—the idea of independence in contemporary art.
The 2018 Berlin Biennale kicked off with the help of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Akademie Der Künste, the Volksbühne Pavillon, HAU Hebbel Am Ufer, and the ZK/U Center for Art and Urbanistics. While Ngcobo’s colleague and co-curator Masilela has said that the team “worked to steer clear of an overarching theme,” they are aware of a number of concerns that they have continuously developed. However, the Biennale curators refuse to offer a concrete perspective on thematic direction or on the direction of the collection as a whole.
“It would be rather arrogant of us to presume to be able to speak for society,” Masilela tells Format Magazine. “It would require assuming an authoritative voice that has rather consistently constructed toxic historical narratives—and it would work against our desire for creating spaces of possibility." We explored the artwork currently on view at the Biennale and rounded up five not-to-be-missed works from artists who are showing incredible pieces in that space of possibility. The Berlin Biennale continues through the end of summer until September 9.
Belkis Ayón: La Consagración (1991) at Akademie Der Künste
A triptych of paper monoprints by the late Cuban artist Belkis Ayón are among the most impactful work featured in the 2018 Biennale. Dark, unsettling images of cult proceedings in Ayón’s homeland take centre stage as race and gender face up for spiritual consideration. In one of the AdK’s largest pieces, the artist’s other monoprints only serve to set the stage—or audience, as the faces of her other work look across the gallery at the large-scale triptych—and frame the three paintings. It offers a suggestion that the presence and existence of such cults is far from extinguished.
Heba Y. Amin: Operation Sunken Sea (The Anti-Control Room) (2018) at ZK/U Center for Art and Urbanistics
Berlin-based artist Heba Y. Amin’s The Anti-Control Room is part of her larger project Operation Sunken Sea, in which she revisits plans of military and political leaders of the early twentieth century to drain the Mediterranean. In revisiting these theories, she has compiled a selection of speech loops on television sets and photographs featuring the artist in a makeshift control room, like one that would have been used by the so-called geo-political “megalomaniacs” of the time. “The idea being, that I’m replacing [the architect] as an attempt to kind of erase him from history,” she says. But what follows is another question: “Do you have to embody the original infrastructure in order to overcome it? Or do you then, by doing that, reinforce the very same problematic model?” Though Y. Amin’s work looks to the past, the questions it raises are nevertheless of contemporary importance.
Sondra Perry: IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection (2017) at Akademie Der Künste
In one of the Biennale’s stranger works, American artist Sondra Perry confronts the issue of public profit through a study of college basketball players. By analyzing the presence of amateur athletes in video games sold across the United States, Perry compares the public profit of the rest of the world through the use of social media and technology. Whether a multimedia documentation of an antiquated museum, or the free promotion of clothing brands on Instagram, Perry reveals the true paradox in living through a digital screen in this video loop. The conclusion? It’s becoming increasingly challenging to tell the seller and the customer apart.
Mario Pfeifer: Again (Noch einmal) (2018) at Akademie Der Künste
This work builds on the controversial scandal of a migrant who froze to death in 2017 after being beaten and tied to tree outside of a German supermarket. Artist Mario Pfeifer has professionals re-enact the story from beginning to finish, including the trial of the four Germans accused of using excessive force on the mentally unstable migrant. The 45-minute-long video, titled Again, is an exercise in the disparity of human thought, and certain to elicit a variety of opinions. While Germany has struggled to confront its past before, Pfeifer is proving the struggle hasn’t yet ceased.
Dineo Seshee Bopape: Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] (2016-2018) at KW
This collection of work by Dineo Seshee Bopape is arguably the Biennale’s standout contribution. Taking over the massive Mitte-based exhibition space of the KW, it is a display of uneasiness, a melange of disarray and discontent. From the oxidized rust color of the works and the materials used by Seshee Bopape and her collaborators—like cardboard, water, napkins and broken bricks—to the loop of emotionally-charged Nina Simone performances, this is a piece of pure resistance. Taking a walk around the work is an experience in human emotion, charged by the difficulty in coming to terms with the modern world.
Images courtesy of the galleries. Header image: detail of Belkis Ayón’s La Consagración at AdK.