Artist and Curator Kader Attia’s Relentlessly Grim Berlin Biennale Forces Audiences to Confront the Ills of Capitalism
Take a deep, long breath before heading into this year’s Berlin Biennale, because it is heavy.
The six-venue exhibition, which opens to the public June 11, offers little reprieve from the weight of the world. Instead, the show, titled “Still Present,” has an unrelenting focus on the destruction wrought by colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism.
During a rainy press preview day on Thursday, the show’s curator, French-Algerian artist Kader Attia, spoke at length about the urgency of the exhibition and how art “can make the invisible visible.”
Among the works on view, at Akademie der Kunste’s Tiergarten location, is a boxed-away assortment of plants in a steamy greenhouse. The work, by Sammy Baloji of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has an adjoining audio recording from the early 20th century made by the state-funded Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission, which sought to index sounds made by African prisoners.
Next to it is a work by the Chinese, Paris-based filmmaker Wang Yuyan that depicts a 2018 Chinese initiative to launch three fake moons into orbit to offer continuous light.
“Art confronts algorithmic governance by nurturing our ability to dream and enabling us to de-automate dreams,” Attia wrote in a curatorial statement.
The tack of the exhibition is not surprising given Attia’s CV. The Berlin-based artist, who is represented by a slew of international galleries, is best known for his sculptures considering the symbolic relationship between injury and repair.
In Paris, he founded a now-closed arts space called La Colonie that hosted community talks and events focused on racism and colonialism, and his Berlin Biennale feels like a thesis-driven dive into the collective and individual traumas wrought by modernity.
Set against this beating sense of a foreboding, a pair of canvases by painter Calida Rawles offer a short moment of rest. Yet even these works, depicting Black children gently floating in clear blue water, deal with the trauma of centuries of oppression and the tragedies of the Middle Passage.
Elsewhere, at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, acclaimed Israeli cultural theorist Ariella Azoulay has on view a research work titled The Natural History of Rape, which examines the mass rapes that took place in Berlin after the end of the Second World War. And at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Jean-Jacques Lebel presents documentation of torture from Abu Ghraib prison.
The show, indeed, presents several documentary displays in an approach not dissimilar to Cecilia Alemani’s in “The Milk of Dreams” at the 2022 Venice Biennale. But instead of whimsy, the Berlin show focuses on historic books and other artifacts that bring more context to some of the contemporary art on view.
In all, one may leave the exhibition upset but wiser—and radicalized to alter the present moment.
The 12th Berlin Biennale takes place from June 11 to September 18, 2022. See some images of the works on view below.
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