Biennials: Mixed Messages

View of the exhibition "LIT, " showing lightboxes by (left to right) Roe Ethridge, Martine Syms, Akeem Smith, and Hood by Air. 

All installation shots Timo Ohler. All images this article at the ninth Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.


Fiction and artifice are everywhere in the ninth Berlin Biennale. Most international exhibitions on this scale strive to define contemporary artistic trends. This one offers a coherent set of fictions amounting to a comprehensive vision of the present. “There is nothing particularly realistic about the world today,” write the show’s organizers, New York–based collective DIS (Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro).

Even the venues for the show, “The Present in Drag,” feel like a put-on, like architecture in drag. The Akademie der Künste, an art school adjacent to the tourist-thronged Brandenburg Gate, is the largest of the biennial’s five sites, most of which are clustered in central Berlin. The early twentieth-century building has been extensively renovated in the manner of a tech company’s headquarters. Concrete ramps and stairways jut at odd angles, connecting glass-enclosed classrooms and forming the off-kilter interstitial spaces in which DIS installed artworks, quasi-artworks, conceptual branding projects, music videos, and fashion lines. These components illustrate, in a heightened and almost systematic way, particular aspects of the “post-contemporary” condition, as it’s named in the catalogue, just as props and scenery in a theme park convey various fantasy settings.

DIS set out to “materialize the paradoxes that make up the world in 2016: the virtual as the real, nations as brands, people as data, culture as capital, wellness as politics, happiness as GDP, and so on.” In their version of Present-land, this agenda is enacted almost word for word. Nations do exist as brands, as evidenced by Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s installation New Eelam (2016), a tastefully appointed real-estate showroom lounge with videos and pamphlets that represent Sri Lanka’s brutal history as a foil to a fake service offering “liquid citizenship” to global elites. Secure data is the mark of self-realization in Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum’s Autonomy Cube (2015), which offers encrypted access to the anonymous internet network Tor. Wellness is an instrument of class politics in Debora Delmar Corp.’s high-end juice bar; the artist’s corporate identity may be a fiction, but the healthy juice is really for sale, and really overpriced. Happiness and commerce do collide in a fake boutique by Telfar Clemens, a real fashion designer whose digitally manipulated visage, fixed with a hyperbolic grin, serves as a trademark for his luxury brand (slogan: “extremely normal”) and appears on the mannequins that populate the school’s lobby.

And so on. A list of discrete artworks fails to convey the overarching effect of coherence, reinforced through the exhibition’s ubiquitous stylized roman numeral logo, custom-made uniforms worn by guards, ads for the show, and a series of high-production-value lightbox images—produced by a group of well-known artists and designers—that look like they could be ads for the show. Immersed in this broader field of signs, artworks tend to lose their autonomy, an effect that’s underscored by the facility with digital media evident on every level. Contributions to the biennial are instrumentalized to support the curatorial thesis, and they are legible primarily as facets of DIS’s unreal present.

This process of instrumentalization represents a status change for artworks that many critics have viewed as a demotion, with the serious art—by such figures as Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, Adrian Piper, and Hito Steyerl—mocked by and subordinated to commercial imagery. However, there are important precedents for DIS’s approach, especially in the exhibitions organized by Britain’s Independent Group, such as “This Is Tomorrow” (1956), where images of Robbie the Robot and Marilyn Monroe mingled with surrealist-inflected sculptures. Harald Szeemann’s late projects, in which he conceived the exhibition format itself as a Gesamtkunstwerk, are also a touchstone. There are even echoes of László Moholy-Nagy’s “Room of the Present,” a 1930 proposal for an integrated display of film, sculpture, mass media, and abstract art. Today, such initiatives are regarded as canonical, but you rarely see exhibitions that manifest such radicalism. The historical shows live on as platitudes, examples of “disrupting the white cube” and “flattening cultural hierarchies.” To see this disruption and flattening actually happening in a contemporary exhibition remains a bracing experience.

“The Present in Drag” isn’t for everyone, as the outpouring of negative critical reactions has made clear. But one of the show’s achievements is that it instantiates an image of whom it might be for, its public. The Art Newspaper’s Mostafa Heddaya argues as much in his thoughtful critique. Yet he finds this public vague: a general public to which DIS offers simple thrills. Nothing conjures the empty-headed masses quite like a mention of selfies, and Heddaya, like most reviewers, notes the large photo cutout of Rihanna’s bikini-clad body in the courtyard of the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art (KW), where the biennale was founded in 1996. The Barbados-born superstar’s facial features have been transposed to her sternum. The work, Ewaipanoma (Rihanna), 2015, by Juan Sebastián Peláez, is thought to be a selfie magnet, and DIS has helpfully suggested the hashtag “biennialeglam” to accompany the snaps. But the work also represents an implicit taste test: will you dare to take a selfie at the most obvious spot? Will you roll your eyes at the tourists who do?

The imagined public for the Berlin Biennale isn’t interested in renouncing expertise, as Heddaya proposes. It’s defined instead by the presumption of expertise across multiple fields. Consider the fake ad campaign in the catalogue (and yes, there are fake ad campaigns in the catalogue) designed by members of DIS with artist Bjarne Melgaard, who is otherwise not represented in the show. These images feature ordinary adults modeling a clothing line envisioned as a collaboration between the critical theory publisher Semiotext(e) and the trendy streetwear brand Supreme. One middle-aged woman wears a red tracksuit emblazoned with the typographic cover of Introduction to Civil War by the radical philosophy collective Tiqqun.

Reading this image, which is typical of many in the show, arguably requires a connoisseurial appraisal of different brands (of anticapitalistic philosophy, of cult streetwear, of contemporary art, of biennials, of fashion styling) that’s loaded with contradictory class implications. The public addressed by the “Present in Drag” is wary of global capitalism’s deadening effects, but also has the leisure time, resources, and inclination to spend a day wandering through a European capital looking at art. And the displays they encounter, particularly at the Akademie, reflect back their fitness routines, health-conscious diets, and idiosyncratic fashion tastes, as well as their range of activist concerns about big data, rising fascism, and environmental degradation. Such a portrait of the biennial-goer may appear, at times, grotesque, insufferable, elitist, and hypocritical. But this multifaceted perspective also feels like the most realistic part of the show.

In this sense, the fictions that DIS offers also represent an attack on those (sanctioned, though largely unacknowledged) fictions underlying all international biennials. These exhibitions are usually presented as serious intellectual efforts that highlight challenging global art; they are always, at the same time, money-soaked tourist attractions organized to bolster national prestige or to benefit the private collectors who fund them directly or indirectly. Biennials function well as critical and social events so long as everyone accepts a tacit separation of panel discussions from opening parties, contemplative reassessments of Neo-Expressionism from the indulgent meals at the New Nordic spot nearby, praise for socially engaged artwork from a discussion of funding sources.

In the Berlin Biennale these experiences are mixed, and this mixing feels like the point of the show. One of the official venues is on the city’s sightseeing boats. Luxury brands have sponsored several of the artworks, including a goofy video installation on an oversize bed by the New York collective M/L Artspace. Affirmations of consumerism, corporate sponsorship, and upper-middle-class leisure interact with projects that address ongoing catastrophes.

Do these realities cancel each another out? Is it simply impossible to wear Supreme and imagine, with Tiqqun, “the conditions of another community,” one that stands apart from capitalism? Or does the insistence on foregrounding leisure amenities and sponsorship deals disqualify any sustained engagement with complex artworks?

For many critics, the answer has been an unequivocal yes. One trope of these negative reviews is to list the world’s problems: mass murder, terrorism, rising fascism, civil war in Syria, violence against women. In the face of these crises, Anna Uddenberg’s sculptures of female mannequins posed as if taking selfies of their genitals, and Amalia Ulman’s videos celebrating luxury goods in her installation PRIVILEGE (2016), can appear totally irresponsible. (One isn’t supposed to sext during wartime, after all.) The few pieces that have been more or less universally praised, such as Cécile B. Evans’s epic 3-D animated tour of a dystopian neocolonial future, get lost in the shuffle, hopelessly tainted by what the Guardian’s Jason Farago derides as an “ultra-slick, ultra-sarcastic” curatorial framework.

Farago offers a solution to DIS’s problem, guidance for how artists and curators might go about the tasks he implicitly assigns them: halting the rise of far-right political movements and rescuing refugees from the Mediterranean. “Try being sincere; try believing in something,” he admonishes. As an example of sincerity in art, Farago cites a photograph printed at a massive scale and displayed in one of Berlin’s highly trafficked public squares. The documentary image, presented for a truly general public, shows a forbidding EU border fence between Morocco and the Spanish enclave Ceuta. The blunt reminder of Europe’s illiberal frontier is meant as a call—to someone—for action and activism.

Farago is right: this version of sincerity is absent from the Biennale, but the present imagined in the show is not all green juice and selfies. Political concern is evident throughout, presented in fictional guises that in most cases embody a more complex idea of sincerity. For example, Halil Altindere’s music video Homeland (2016) also addresses the travails of displaced people. The work, played full blast in a lobby space at the Akademie (you can’t look at some of Uddenberg’s pieces without hearing it), features Syrian-born rapper Mohammad Abu Hajar, who came to Berlin as a refugee. The video depicts Abu Hajar and other refugees in scenes of protest and migration, but it also adheres to the conventions of hip-hop performance, with all its posing and bravado. It’s a poetic work, with elements of fantasy; it also holds the potential to convey the truth of the artists’ experiences. Farago accuses the biennial’s contributors of never having read an art history textbook, but his evident struggle with this basic premise of fiction suggests he’s never read a novel.

The “serious” work in the show doesn’t transcend DIS’s fiction-heavy conceit so much as complicate and deepen it. Adrian Piper has made a long career of dismantling simplistic notions of sincerity and authenticity, as when she teaches dorky grad students to dance in Funk Lessons (1983). Her work at the Berlin Biennale sharply distills the exhibition’s overall tendency toward contradiction. She positioned do not enter signs in front of closed staircases or blocked hallways. However, the signs are inscribed with a mixed message, the down-to-earth, folksy salutation howdy. “Welcome, partner, but also fuck off,” they seem to say, a blunt but effective attack on basic ideas of being real.

Steyerl’s elaborate multiscreen video installation, a fictional documentary about a Kurdish drone pilot and an Iraqi space program, is one of many projects addressing the unresolved legacy of the Bush years. Josh Kline’s video Crying Games (2015) is projected in a subterranean vault at KW, beneath Evans’s. Actors clad in beige jumpsuits sit on the ground, weeping as they apologize. Their faces have been overlaid with digital representations of Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and other architects of the Iraq War. There’s an element of fantasy and wish fulfillment in the piece: politicians responsible for war crimes are at last contrite. Yet the suggestion of crude payback instead of justice prevents the video from being satisfying, just as Blair’s real apology, following the release of the UK’s official Iraq Inquiry a month after the biennial opened, was too little too late.

If these geopolitical fictions establish the wide ambition of DIS’s address to the present, other works examine the self from positions of calculated artificiality. Wu Tsang stars as the protagonist in her video Duilian (2016), a narrative about a love affair between Qing-era female poet and revolutionary Qiu Jin (1875–1907) and her female companion, played by boychild, a performance artist, actor, and magnetic on-screen presence. They dote on each other and perform martial arts with a group of female swordswomen, a nod to Qiu Jin’s role in an unsuccessful uprising. According to the artist, the artifice in the work is what allows it to be so personal, so affecting. “Once you introduce a camera it all becomes a construction,” she told Artforum. “If we make it really obvious that we’re performing, then the real self can emerge anyway, because we’re not pretending to be ourselves anymore.”

This sentiment is true not only of films and videos; it applies equally to Julien Ceccaldi’s romantic anime-inspired paintings, Simon Fujiwara’s “biographical” museum, and Ei Arakawa’s ambitious hour-long musical (with Dan Poston and Stefan Tcherepnin), How to DISappear in America, about the fundamental impossibility of losing oneself completely in a world of data-mining and online social entanglements.

The presence of artwork that warrants sustained discussion doesn’t necessarily counter some of the show’s harshest critics. Many of the exhibition’s contributors are established art stars whose work typically garners effusive praise, or at least grudging respect. Reviewers have been careful to hedge on this front, acknowledging the inclusion of some strong pieces while lamenting, as Farago does, that they have been “absorbed into the DISosphere.” Farago has this exactly backward: rather than being absorbed into anything, the work on view has, to a significant degree, emerged out of this DISosphere, which is, for lack of a better word, a coherent “sphere” of public discourse that DIS has fostered online over the last six years.

DIS’s members are not curators. (Nor do they constitute a “fashion collective,” a moniker applied by some critics aiming to dismiss the biennial as vapid.) Though they’ve exhibited artwork in museums and galleries, they are not exactly artists either. The group might be most accurately identified as publishers, and their vision for the present has been debated and refined through their primary outlet, DIS Magazine.

The high degree of coherence in the show is organic, despite all appearances. Many biennials are opportunities for curators to embark on global treasure hunts for new talent. DIS has rejected this model. The exhibition instead reflects the collaborative working relationships that the group has built over time. The majority of the contributors to the exhibition have produced critical essays, digital artworks, DJ sets, stock photographs, conceptual fashion lookbooks, branding campaigns, or apparel designs for DIS Magazine.

This body of work—by a diverse, multigenerational, and international cohort—has created a virtual public, a group of readers bound by an exchange of ideas through texts over time. One of the weaknesses of “The Present in Drag” is that it doesn’t connect its imagined public for an art exhibition more directly to the deeper one DIS has already put together online. The group’s galvanizing magazine could have been a primary venue; instead, it felt peripheral.

The publishing project, which informs DIS’s much-derided curatorial effort, actually crystallizes many of the ideas that structure celebrated biennials and are aired constantly in “legitimate” quarters of the art world, usually with clusters of awkward buzzwords: post-internet art, neoliberal culture, Anthropocene aesthetics, etc. The DISosphere might be a more elegant term for all this. At least it’s one that seems true and real.


“The Present in Drag,” various venues in Berlin, through Sept. 18.