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Berlin Biennale 11: An attempt to recentre the margins with the voices of collectivism

The 11th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, which opened to the public in September, focuses on political resistance to underscore the invincibility of togetherness.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Oct 29, 2020

When the cascading shifts in the ecosystem have invariably affected every domain of global networking – the field of art is not left untouched. The experience of visiting and watching the art like pre-pandemic times would take a while to find its renewed energy. The 11th edition of Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art 2020 started with a triad of sequential events called experiences — exp. 1, exp. 2, and exp. 3 — from September 2019 to July 2020, and finally culminated with an epilogue, entitled The Crack Begins Within, which opened on September 5, 2020, and ends on November 1, 2020. Led by female-identified team of South-American curators - María Berríos, Renata Cervetto, Lisette Lagnado, and Agustín Pérez Rubio - the exhibition is spread at four different venues across the German capital of Berlin, including the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, daadgalerie, the Gropius Bau, and ExRotaprint.

The team of curators | Berlin Biennale | STIRworld
The team of curators Image: Courtesy of Berlin Biennale

Not succumbing to the pressures of art capitalism and collectors’ desires, the Berlin Biennale has a niche audience of admirers who are eyeing for both experimental and context-driven art. The latest edition, The Crack Begins Within, does not differ in its approach to the core value of forging relationships between art, artists, projects and Berlin. The title is borrowed from the words put together by Egyptian poet Iman Mersal, through which she explores, as the curators explain, “the many ghosts of motherhood, tearing apart its contemporary morals….As the epilogue of the Biennale, The Crack Begins Within calls out the fallacy of claiming for oneself the destruction of the old and the birthing of the new, refloated so many times by the white fathers as a new scaffolding to secure the continuity of their decaying structures. This is the violence that surrounds us, and that we are a part of”.

To set the tone of the epilogue the triumvirate experiences, housed in the ground-level space of a tower belonging to the architectural complex of ExRotaprint, the fest included programmes such as exhibitions, performances, artist residencies, lectures, presentations, and workshops. Little did the curators know that the exp. series conceived on the prominence of resistance, togetherness and body performances would further the task of contextualising the final ‘epilogue’ against the ongoing pandemic crisis. 

KW Institute for Contemporary Art | Berlin Biennale | STIRworld
KW Institute for Contemporary Art Image: Courtesy of Berlin Biennale

The title of the exp. 1: The Bones of the World, is an English translation of the travelogue named Os Ossos do Mundo, written by Brazilian artist Flávio de Carvalho. The experience shared by the participating artists of this exhibition saw, “the complicated beauty of life when the fire has erupted”. Rising from the ashes, exp 1, with the artists Amanda Baggs, Eiko Grimberg, Felix Brüggemann and Marwa Arsanios, to name a few, was about sharing diverse experiences of the struggles that come with the spirit to never bow down to the edifice of authorities. 

For exp. 2, the works of Virginia de Medeiros and the Feminist Health Care Research Group, led by artists Inga Zimprich and Julia Bonn, redressed the questions of the sexual politics and the care of both the collective and isolated body. Medeiros’ film Trem em Transe (Train in Trance) talks about the social isolation vis-à-vis body of the self-styled transvestite protagonist Simone. The importance of collectivism shared by Medeiros’ work is articulated in the practice of The Feminist Health Care Research Group (FHCRG). Surviving the internalised bouts of fear and anxiety rising out of the physical assault on the bodies, FHCRG calls for feminist support structures that see the shared vulnerability as a potent tool to fight the patriarchal capitalism.

An installation by Andrés Pereira Paz | Berlin Biennale | STIRworld
An installation by Andrés Pereira Paz Image: Courtesy of Berlin Biennale

Sinthujan Varatharajah and Osías Yanov as participating artists for exp. 3: Affect Archives see the body as an archive of political geographies and histories of memories. Varatharajah as a Tamil refugee living in Germany reflected on the “specific history of the (Berlin) Wall as the point of departure for his investigations into physical and cultural borders and the memories of displacement of this community”. Varatharajah showcased newspaper clippings, photographs, maps, and other collected materials as a site of unravelling the untold stories of the displaced people. Multidisciplinary artist Yanov’s immersive installation made out of the spoon, table-like sculptures, clock and columns extending from floor to ceiling engaged the audience to experience the object of sensual significance for the mouth, the body, and the tongue — the spoon.

Bartolina Xixa, installation view | Berlin Biennale | STIRworld
Bartolina Xixa, installation view Image: Courtesy of Bartolina Xixa

Close to a month into exp 3, the pandemic crisis had put halt to the activities and the bubble of supremacy and progression was at once deflated by the power of nature. The pandemic lay bare social vulnerability, cultural intolerance and economic inequality across the section of society. The epilogue opened when a major part of the globe is still grappling with the repercussion of a pandemic crisis. In an effort to explore the cracks of the world around us and destabilise the patriarchal capitalism punctuating the everyday life, the work of the Argentinean Andes artist and performer Maximiliano Mamani at the Biennale speaks volume. The artist takes the role of “diverse drag queen” named Bartolina Xixa in his performances to challenge the hypernormative constructions and burden of colonialism. For the artist, the discipline of art is not confined to the pleasure but serves as a discursive site to underline the need for a change- fill the cracks left opened by the climate change, gender bias, sexual abuse in Latin America.

Installation view of Zehra Dogan's graphic novel | Berlin Biennale | STIRworld
Installation view of Zehra Dogan's graphic novel Image: Courtesy of Zehra-Doğan

Aligning to the thematic structure of the epilogue: “an exercise of mutual recognition, an acknowledgement of the cracks in the system, of those broken by it and their struggles”, the majority of the works stand in solidarity with, “vulnerability of the healers and carers, the fighters, their fractures, and their power”. Retracing the history of revolt against the cracked wounds on the social fabric to the early 20th century is the work of the German political artist Käthe Kollwitz, showcased at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. The monochromatic print Die Carmagnole (1901) highlights the group of female revolutionaries singing the famous French revolutionary song La Carmagnole. Inspired from the Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities, the print with women dressed in rags, celebrating around the guillotine, stages the invincibility of a united voice.  

Cut to present times, little has changed, the dissent against the establishment continues to be a persistent part of the human history. The series of graphic representations, Xezen Dizi (The Hidden Drawings) by Kurdish activist and journalist Zehra Dogan depicts the collective experience of women who undergo incidences of tortures fighting for liberation from the Turkish establishments during their imprisonment. Inspired from her days in prison in 2017, the archival appearance of the images and text on the human conditions at KW Institute for Contemporary Art reiterates the collective appeal for a change. 

Christine Meisner’s installation view | Berlin Biennale | STIRworld
Christine Meisner’s installation view Image: Courtesy of Berlin Biennale

Creeping into the order of the things, crack or call it abyss or fissures, is a reality that made creative minds strive for a just society. Seldom achieved yet the struggle continues. If art has potential to be of certain consequence, the Berlin Biennale 11 for Contemporary Art 2020 once again brings together the voice of collective thoughts of the past along with the present-day struggles with a hope that empathy is not wholly lost in the future.  

The 11th edition of Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art runs at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, daadgalerie, the Gropius Bau, and ExRotaprint until November 1, 2020.

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