Our Favorite Art at ‘The Present in Drag,’ the 2016 Berlin Biennale
Here's what touched our minds and hearts at the DIS-curated Berlin Biennale.
Cécile B. Evans ‘What the Heart Wants’, 2016, Video still. Courtesy Cécile B. Evans; Barbara Seiler, Zürich / Zurich; Galerie Emanuel Layr, Wien / Vienna
This year’s Berlin Biennale is only the ninth iteration of the German artistic capital’s arts festival, but judging by the swift and merciless dismissal of its curators, DIS, and their theme—a cynical post-internet present—one might have confused it for a hallowed art institution. Variously called “navel gazing,” a “slick, sarcastic joke,” and worse, it seems that much of the point (satirizing our hyper-technological present) was lost on critics. Far from just a cynical take on art tainted by its embrace of corporate commerce, DIS shows that it is the masses who are far too enthralled with their own bellybuttons in a world convulsed in political, social, and economic instability.
Like any festival, especially the modern Biennale, the works in The Present in Drag run the gamut between high- and lowbrow art. There are great works of satire, and then there are new media works that are merely slick, like electronic versions of Warhol works, with others occupying various other points across the spectrum. What follows are some of our favorite works at this year’s Berlin Biennale.
Josh Kline - Crying Games
There really is no point in talking about Berlin Biennale without mentioning Josh Kline’s Crying Games. The fourth piece in the labyrinthine KW Institute for Contemporary Art space, Kline’s video installation is nothing if not highly political and, indeed, satirical.
After walking through a door, the viewer steps into an illuminated room full of sand—a space resembling an extraordinary interrogation/torture facility. On the wall hangs a lightbox display and a flat-screen TV, showing a 11-minute video where actors have their faces swapped with George W. Bush’s cabinet officials and Tony Blair. These officials all cry about their big Iraq blunder that caused untold deaths in Iraq; and, with the benefit of hindsight, destabilized the whole region, leading to the birth of ISIS and the refugee crisis, and the rise of virulent anti-immigrant extremism in Western nations. If Kline’s work isn’t incredibly relevant, it’s hard to tell what is.
Cécile B. Evans - What the Heart Wants, Handy if you are learning to fly, and Endurance Study: A Pictorial Guide
Before reaching Kline’s Crying Games, viewers wander into Cécile B. Evans’ immersive and mesmerizing installation, What the Heart Wants. Stepping through the door into the space, the viewer is confronted with a monolithic screen, the light of which reflects off of water surrounding a T-shaped platform where viewers sit listening to the audio. The video features a number of scenes, including students in the car of a robot, commercials, an immortal cell named “HELA,” a memory of 1972, and various other narrative strands.
Surrounding the platform are four stands holding cases that contain holograms of moving images, including butterflies, an airplane, a crowd and a 3D mass of arms. These stands are the works Handy if you are learning to fly. Nearby server works are known as Endurance Study: A Pictorial Guide. Together, the works constitute a strange, beautiful, and fragmented science fiction. Kaleidoscopic in approach and featuring multiple collaborators, Evans created something cinema and even virtual reality could never be: a work of multiple dimensions, both real and virtual, that gets to the heart of a world hurtling into a future where the grip on reality, or at least what we thought it was, is in a state of constant slippage.
Anna Uddenberg - Journey of Self Discovery
It’s impossible to prove, but Anna Uddenberg’s Journey of Self Discovery (from the exhibition Transit Mode – Abenteuer), which features a sculpture of a girl using a selfie stick to take a photo of her anus, likely accounts for a fair share of Biennale vitriol. How visitors could not laugh at this mirror of modern reality is, frankly, astonishing. Want to see America, Western civilization and, oh hell, the rest of the world valuing self-obsession over all else, diluted into one singular work? Go see Journey of Self Discovery. There is much to learn in staring at this sculpture.
Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic - There’s a word I’m trying to remember, for a feeling I’m about to have (a distracted path toward extinction)
This exhibition is the only moving installation at Berlin Biennale. That is, Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic have set up There’s a word I’m trying to remember... on a boat that moves up and down Berlin’s Spree River. This is one of a few works that addresses the potential for human and non-human extinction in this age of accelerated climate change, but it also has an unexpectedly personal touch that brings the messaging home.
The exterior of the boat is outfitted with images of a giant rat embracing Arunanondchai’s grandfather. In the boot’s interior is a sort of simulation of a nonspecific wilderness clashing with modern technology, like colored lights and a screen. This screen features a video of Arunanondchai's brother on his wedding day, as well as footage about human extinction, and a future scenario where giant rats rule the Earth.
Halil Altindere - Homeland
In terms of visceral impact, Halil Altindere’s video installation, Homeland, is perhaps the most striking. At nearly 10 minutes, it is a blend of reality and fiction, one that deals topically with the Syrian refugee crisis.
Beginning with a series of sweeping aerial drone shots of the decimated Syrian cityscape, with an eerie electronic soundtrack, Altindere takes his camera to the Mediterranean shores of Turkey, where a yoga session is underway. Seated on a pier, the yoga class executes various poses. The instructor talks mindfully of being observers, watching and listening to “all the voices in the environment,” while just down the beach, Syrian refugees stroll towards an uncertain future. As metaphors for modern civilization’s self-indulgences go, yoga students tuning into their environment, but actually seeing nothing outside themselves, couldn’t be more acute.
From there, Altindere introduces the Syrian rapper Mohammed Abu Hajar, an artist now based (rather fittingly) in Berlin. Hajar lays down rhymes for viewers as they are taken from a border crossing to Istanbul, then on to Tempelhof complex in Berlin, a former airport that now functions as a refugee camp. Altindere fills his frames with all of the obstacles that greet Syrian refugees—barbed wire fences, drones, surveillance cameras, bodies of water, and more.
Homeland is far from flashy new media art. At the same time, it is a great example of a meaningful multimedia art experience at the service of social, political, and economic critique.
Click here to read more about the installations at the Berlin Biennale.