I was fortunate enough to have the possibility of attending the press preview of this years 8th edition of the renown Berlin-Biennale, that is even more than usual scattered around town. Besides of the traditional nukleus of the Kunstwerke for contemporary art in Auguststrasse, Berlin-Mitte, this years Biennale introduces locations far out in the western, bourgeois parts of the city, the ethnological Museums Dahlem (the Underground station actually is named: Dahlem-Dorf, Dorf meaning village) and the Haus am Waldsee, a former private Villa that became one of the most important venues for contemporary art after WWII, only to obscure more and more after the fall of the Berlin Wall because of its location far away from the new centre.
Much as most Biennales, the 8h edition of the Berlin Biennale is an intellectual construct that follows a general idea, in this case the outside look on the city and – even more importantly, looking at the works and the make up of the exhibition – postcolonialism. Both fields of research are not new to the international art circus of Documentas, Triennales and Biennales. What is probably different, is the very postmodern approach taken by the main curator Juan A. Gaitan, to propose this field of research and to work from that alongside his artistic team and the participating artists. The outcome is respctable, you have not one of these big shows, were the curator becomes the artist or is dedicately making his thesis, the works, venues and themes are always open for dialogue and the spectator is required to deal himself with the artworks, alongside their sometimes quite long explanations (the concept, after all, rules the work itself, that, in many cases, cannot be understood without context). Regarding this special makeup, the concentration of drawings in this Biennale makes sense: the artwork is a proposal, a possibility rather than a „work“, sitting pretty and satisfied with itself, they are in essence rather ephemere products of artistic research and subjective approaches on themes.
The proposed start for a walk through the Biennale venues is the Haus am Waldsee. Now there are a lot of critics out there stating, that this expeditionary starting point tries to set private collection as kind of an approach on art (which is partly true, regarding that there is a section named private collevtion just after the entrance of the villa), what they, in my view, neglect are the implications of the very special venue, being a bourgeoise Villa with a beautifull garden, regarding the theming of colonialism, collecting, and ethnology. Out of these surroundings, wealthy and mostly non aristocratic, the european dominace over the world turned to collecting its artifacts int he 19th century, from Napoleons Egyptian expedition to Alexander von Humboldt and so on. The imagined supremacy and the – oftenly romanticised – fascination with the „other“, that always unveals more of the self than of the other, especially when displaying their artifacts out of there natural, sociological or ritual context. The displayed artworks also reflect this very uniquely. Carla Zaccagnini from Argentinia proposes with „Le Quintuor des Négres“ an installation that assembles a classical music piece with that same name by Johann Nepomuk Hummels that is shown as a notation and is played from the terrace of the Villa, overlooking the splendid garden reaching downhill to a small lake. Additionally she showcases several volumes of a nineteenth century novel dealing with the „paradisic“ life in the colonial world, alongside Rousseaus theory of the good „natural“ human. The music fits very well the villa, this european model of bourgeoisie, the title of the piece itself transports the romanticism and adventure of the „other“, the books draw us into the science of humanities and europes intellectual view on its outside, tainted by the very limited idea of eurocentric civilization. Next to it, the work of Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnec, cryptically entitled „Sector IX B Prophylaxis of Sleeping Sickness“, is displayed. Glasses with mosquito larves, on the walls photographs from ethnological objects out of the lost collection of his grandfather, who worked out of Gabon, and finally a vitrine showcasing pages from a 19th century guide how to collect ethnological artifacts for the french museums, if travelling remote corners of the earth. Personal history connects with the idea of collection, displaying and science (as in the larves, needed for research on mosquito transmitted diseaes), both given in an open, wide angle of proposition for the spectator to meditate over, but again taking into account the „private“ angle of collecting and the citizen as hobby researcher, breaking the eurocentric view by displaying it. Outside, in the garden, a sound installation by the artist collective „Slavs and Tartars“, does in a way break the privateness of the villa, its garden and its bourgeois surrounding by intervening through a muezzin chant in turkish, alienating the idyllic and for the european spectator culturally so well known setting of a garden and a villa.
Although this might read very positively, it is, in question of the whole curatorial set up, a rather pressing question, if an opposing of these works with the artifacts in the ethnological museum would not have been more fruitfull. A Dialogue between the artifacts and this contemporary works, directly dealing with the intention of collecting artifacts, might have been a more disturbing, more discursively approach. In itself though, the Haus am Waldsee presents a series of interesting works, besides those mentioned especially the installations by Matts Leiderstamm on the upper floor.
Secnd thoughts and a virtual wordy stroll through the Museum Dahlem and the works displayed there will follow soon.