8th Berlin-Biennale. Second Thoughts

After the Haus am Waldsee, as a reasonable proposal for starting the walk through all three exhibition sites of this years Berlin-Biennale (find the article here), I want to take you down some tube stations to Dahlem-Dorf (Dahlem-Village, if you would translate it), the location of the main buildings of the Freie Universität, the Ethnological Museums, were the Biennale is occupying some space, and a mixture of gardens, Villas, Cottages and small retailers, as you would find in any village, probably with more restaurants than usual though. As well as the even more outskirtish location of the Haus am Waldsee, the proposition of Dahlem Dorf as one of the centrepieces of the Berlin Biennale (and it is – at least in my view – the central place of this Biennale, were the overall concept, the works and the form of displaying them as well as the setting probably come into their own) enlarges the cities geography regardind contemporary art once again.

One of the reasons why this museum complex was chosen is their scheduled move into the yet to build Humboldt Forum Unter den Linden, that will be housed in the reconstruction of the Stadtschloss (the old palace of the prussian kings and later emperors), that is underway right now. This move will change the museums and their rather important collections considerably. Now housed in a modernist architecture in a corner of the city less and less visited after the fall of the wall, it will probably become a touristical hotspot in a fake historizised architecture, rebuilding the nineteenth century in the centre of the city instaed of looking (and building!) into the future. The whole project of rebuilding the Stadtschloss is a rather strange one. The Berliners don´t really want it. The peole stemming from the former GDR and – in my opinion every german – lost the emblematic building of the GDR Parliament, that was torn down in that location some years ago, although not necessarily beautyfull, it was a real historical site, that vanished for the purpose of eliminating the recent history, probably all of the misdeeds of the 20th century, which made Berlin actually what it is right now. It is also a project mostly backed by well-off old men from old western germany, entangled into the idea of prussia. The Museums in Dahlem now live like in a deep sleep, waiting for their reawakening and their transformation in the central city, which has become a touristical hot-spot over the years. I do not want to talk too much about the implications this all brings with it, but the anyways difficult display of ethnological objects, mostly collected during times of imagined european supremacy, in a touristical context rather than right now, secluded, for interested and therefore people who are more aware of the entangled problematics, will very much change the museum and the way one will look at the artifacts, because of the auratic impact of the central location, the fake historic faccade and so on.

Back to the works, back to the village, back to the far west, looking from a Berlin perspective. The intervention of contemporary art into an existing collection of artifacts in the formal setting of a museum struck me as highly interesting, when I first heard about it. Something like that had been done in documenta 13, where the curator opposed parts of the collection in the castle with contemporary art. The respond to that was mixed, as usual, regarding a ethnological collection and artists intervening into that with works reflecting colonial, ethnological and collecting issues could be much more fruitfull, due to the more specific nature of the artifacts on showcase. Sadly the intervention only takes place here and there, most of the Biennale pieces are in their own spaces, freed from objects of the museum itself. It may very well be, that it was not possible otherwise, I do not have insight into the arrangement made with the museum for the purpose of the Biennale. It is notably though, that the strongest pieces and installations are those directly taking on the preexisting collection of the ethnological museum. Wolfgang Tillman´s piece „untitled“, a one room installation taking into consideration its former display (the woodlands, USA), showcasing an assemblage of photographies, found images, objects, a nike shoe for instance, set up in a vitrine, just like the ethnological objects in the museum, a woven cap originating from these woodlands (left standing, as you  might say). With this, Tillmann creates an inside-outside view on the collection of the museum, proposes a postmodern ethnological „image“ collection and refers (back and forth) to the location, he installs this piece in. Apart from this, there is a rather lovely touch of proposal in the piece, it is at the same time very adapted to the situation and very open in its dialogical structure, taking you, as the spectator very seriously. Very different in the approach and the final execution is Mariana Castillo Deballs installation „You have time to show yourself before other eyes“, that deals with objects fabricated after originals (some of them actually lost during WWII) from the mesoamerican collection. Plaster reproductions are scattered through the room, on the walls there is a print done from the reliefs (very much like you would do with a cylinder seal of ancient Mesopotamia) and images related to the shown „objects“ oscillating between original and reproduction and copy. It is – for me – a pity though, that this really good piece of work could (as I imagine) not be shown in the halls were the mesoamerican artifacts are on display, it would have harmonized and there woul have been a rather intricate dilogue situation created, I do strongly believe.

Something to be noted too, is the use of rather outdated, sixies or seventies originated showcases and built-in vitrines for some of the contemporary works. The old museum (as in non-event related and outdated) comes here together with contemporary works, sometimes giving them a rather special feel, highligting maybe their datelessness (most of the works could very well stem from some time of the last thirty or fifty years, contemporary yes, but not aggressively „new“).

A work I want to mention, because I personally really adapted to it, are the notepad drawings of australian Artist Gordon Bennett, dealing with racism, white supremacy, images of the other and the self, mostly in regard of the native australians, the Aboriginees. It is also one of the few pieces displaying lively colour, something you will notice yourself in this Biennale that has a tendency to monochrome and silent-poetical colouring.

A review on the final exhibition site, the Kunstwerke for contemporary art will be posted soon.



Über philippkoch

author and curator, specializing in literature and writing on visual arts
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