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In the slush puddle of existence

The 4th berlin biennale of contemporary art steers clear of all that big contemporary exhibitions show all the time. By Hanno Rauterberg

The first page shows loss, the second, disaster. Then comes death exile suffering collapse pitfall enemies unease repression nakedness wilderness coffin horror malediction geworfenheit danger apocalypse emptiness suicide. And then "schweinwerferlicht" (light thrown by a pig, a misprint of "scheinwerferlicht" the light of a spotlight - ed).

Schweinwerferlicht, page 177 of the short guide to the berlin biennale for contemporary art – you won't get a better Freudian slip. The exhibition truly sheds light on all things jettisoned and swinish, wallowing in all the slush puddles of existence, wallowing in the depths, in the darkness. And the short guide lays it all out for you, page by page: loss disaster death schweinwerferlicht.

Andro Wekua: Boy O Boy, (2005-2006) Installation view. Photo: Uwe Walter

This sounds like the great depression and is... a huge surprise! For once, there is a complete and welcome absence of everything that all big contemporary exhibitions show all the time. No colourful arbitrariness, no dry mountains of facts, and also none of things that made Maurizio Cattelan famous. He curated the Biennale together with Ali Subotnick and Massimiliano Gioni, but is an artist by profession, an ingenious trickster and fool, who loves the grotesque and is a master of spectacle. He once crushed a sculpture of the pope under a meteorite. And his wax Hitler is the size of a schoolboy, kneeling at prayer. His has steered clear of all that here.

The Biennale is not out to bolster that which is quite strong enough at the moment. The race for bigger, faster, dearer can be run at auctions and fairs, where art currently brings in absurd sums, and it's all about trends, glitz and glamour. Berlin's Biennale wants just the opposite. It wants art to mean something, it is seeking closeness to life, it's is looking for things that last. It goes to church.

Kris Martin: Mandi III, (2003) Installation view
Photo: Uwe Walter

It is one of those Berlin brick churches, and inside, immediately above the portal, hangs a big black box by the Belgian artist Kris Martin. It looks as if it's been stolen from the airport, a departures and arrivals board, the display discs clattering away. But no letters appear, no numbers, no message. Just a rattling silence, nothing more. So it begins, the procession of futility.

Twelve stations await the art pilgrim, who sets off from the Johannes Kirche, wanders across Berlin's history, straight ahead through through the conditio humana, meeting mourners, child-bearers, breakaways, crazies, the abused, the screaming, the dying, and finally finds himself standing in a graveyard, without ever leaving Augustraße.

Former Jewish School for Girls in Berlin's Auguststraße. Photo: Uwe Walter

No Biennale before has ever pulled off such a show. It leads us from the sublime to the private, from the private to the public museum, from the museum to the dustbin. Along the 900 meters of the Auguststraße, the doors open to old stables, a dilapidated Jewish girls' school, a portacabin, an artist's apartment, a run-down ballroom. And the mood is different at every stop, new experiences lay in wait. That art's on the agenda too, is almost secondary.

At this Biennale the curators are the artists. They open doors to the unfamiliar, they show us the world in new combinations. They lead us into weathered places that tell of yesteryear, when Auguststraße was still called Armesündergasse or Poor Sinners' Walk, when the refugees from Bohemia and Rhineland-Palatinate lived here, many of them prostitutes and petty criminals, and when the Jewish hospital was built in the mid 19th century. The Biennale could relate all these stories, or those of the deportations or from life in the GDR or the convulsions after the Wall came down.

But it doesn't want to go into any of these stories. Auguststraße is merely a supply station where art is fuelled with aura, and with the credibility which so lacking at fairs and museums. Aside from that, Berlin is for the Biennale-makers no more than a "backdrop for a story which ideally, could take place anywhere". The locations of the exhibitions are mere "metaphors" for the end of humanity.

This is an enactment of a sort of neo-existentialism, and were it not for the raw columns and the enchanted buildings, you could quite easily mistake the Biennale for an offshoot of the Neue Nationalgalerie where the huge "Melancholie" exhibition is currently showing. Or even a branch of the Berlin Flick Collection which set out with strong existential leanings. It is no coincidence that two artists who were centre stage there are represented by two biting key works in the Biennale: Bruce Nauman and Paul McCarthy.

Nauman shows a labyrinthine perspex rat cage surrounded by a host of TV monitors in which a rat appears fleetingly, followed by a man who is thrashing the life out of a sack of sand with a baseball bat, so loudly, so frenziedly that you soon lose sight of which one the prisoner is.

Paul McCarthy: Bang-Bang Room, (1992) Installation view. Photo: Uwe Walter

And McCarthy also shows a cage, a huge one, that takes the form of a living room, nicely wallpapered, and which suddenly erupts. The walls veer off, doors slam, the very emblem of security has gone off the rails.

The Biennale is not otherwise so energetic. It has its shrill moments with some early Otto Mühl bloody outpourings. Otherwise it focusses on quieter works. There's a lot of drawing, pale and diffuse. And black and white photos are popular, as are blurred photocopies, or installations of tea bags and clay figures and screwdrivers. The artists plunder photo albums or the fridge, they wallpaper dividing walls or the floor, fragment of ideas here and there, vague associations, but no more. After all, the world is without rhyme or reason, so why should art be otherwise?

Anri Sala: Time after time, 2003
Video still

But there is a lot of concentrated work at the Biennale, particularly in the video rooms. Anri Sala shows a horse standing by the side of a motorway at night, one hoof raised anxiously, lorries thundering by every now and then, ominous and honking. The horse remains, the threat remains, the camera remains, nothing happens, only the automatic focus struggles for contours in the darkness.

The film maker Reynold Reynolds also shows paralysis, but of a much more laconic type. He films a burning house, fire in the fridge, in the bed covers; the inhabitants flick at the flames as they would mosquitoes with a newspaper. As if the danger were not dangerous, as if they had long grown accustomed to death.

Reynold Reynolds with Patrick Jolley: Burn, (2001) Film stills

This feeling – that everything is irrevocable, it's fate sealed – infuses the Biennale. It is a mood which all three curators worked very precisely, very consciously to create. They wanted to show, so they state in the catalogue, "that we are living though a protracted, uninterrupted, tragic end."

You may well wonder about al this whispering fatalism, especially because Cattelan and his friends are well known for dressing up in all sorts of guises. Only a few months ago, they slipped into the role of the New York mega-gallerist Larry Gagosian, illegally opening a gallery under his name. Now, you might assume, they have donned the existential abyss. But whatever their motivation – their production has a very perfidious side.

Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick. Photo: Jason Nocito (2004)

Anyone who sees a place like the Jewish girls' school only as a "metaphor", philosophising sweepingly as this Biennale does about loss and fear and tragedy, is making a mockery of the real loss, the real fear which existed there. It generalises that which cannot be generalised. The architect of the school, Alexander Beer, did not die an art death, he died in the Terezin concentration camp.

It is "time for art to beat a retreat and to hide away inside itself", the curators write in the catalogue. And obviously they mean a retreat from history. Okay, so there's Robert Kuâ„¢mirowski's meticulously handicrafted model of a section of railway track on the floor of the old assembly hall, with a goods wagon sitting on top of it, portentously evoking the deportations. And there is the Klezmer band which Jeremy Deller hired to play a hymn to the Biennale. But the Biennale offers little more than this sort of remembrance folklore.

It opens up the conditio humana to discussion, without inquiring about historical backgrounds, it denies itself the political. And this is the difference between the Biennale and another canonical exhibition in Berlin recently, the big Goya show. Goya's theme was also man and his dark and animal sides. But his art always had a political edge, it was agitational. But the Biennale curators clearly sneer at such a thing, they enjoy bitching about people who refuse to accept the inflationary rents or the gallery invasion of Auguststraße. You can't change anything with this sort of argument, the catalogue says.

Evidently Catellan and his friends really mean it when they say "the end is near". This is the only way to explain the retreat to the ego. This is the only way to understand why they open up wonderful spaces of the everyday and yet remain absent from them. As if they were people in a burning house – everything is on fire and they await their doom elegiacally.

The berlin biennale for contemporary art runs until May 28, 2006.


Hanno Rauterberg is an editor of Die Zeit.

The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit, on March 30, 2006.

Translation: lp

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