…in which your host takes a trip on a tiny ship for a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour.
This week, Artipoeus visits the Berlin Biennale in… well, Berlin.
The theme of the 9th Berlin Biennale this year is The Present in Drag. The premise is that the future is actually more knowable and comprehensible than the present — we know the next iPhone will come out, we know that electric cars will become the norm, we know that accessing music will change once again. It’s the present that is a mystery: it looks familiar, but we’re just not sure… what’s happening in Syria? What’s happening in the US? What is sexual identity, or just identity? What is my role in society?
The Biennale spans several different venues around Berlin, and includes an on-going series of talks, performances, screenings, music and theatre all summer long, in addition to the exhibits, curated and organized the creative group, DIS. DIS is the same group that curated the exhibit “Co-Workers” at the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris last year.
At KW Institute, it’s floor after floor of clever wordplay and visual pun, each artist assuming they are outsmarting the Man: a lot of video, a few very clever photos that use that invite interaction by the viewer, a locked door on the top floor that we had to wait in line to see, only to learn that we couldn’t go in. A room full of large printouts of emails asking the artist for various support – nonprofits, charities, etc — and her overwrought responses, this coupled with more childlike artwork, paintings of animals thought to mate for life, meant to be a comment on humans’ childlike habit of anthropomorphizing and romanticizing the animal kingdom.
I had the same problem I had with DIS at their group exhibit in Paris last year. The work is two dimensional, like a picture of a picture of art. And like the work in Paris, this collection of artists seem to be feeling disenfranchised and rather apocalyptic. The claim in this collection for Berlin is to make the viewer uncomfortable, immerse us in all the mundane, inane, insane aspects of our own culture that is systematically destroying the earth and our very species: commercialism, branding, capitalism, greed, consipicous consumption, conformity.
At Reederei Riedel on the river, there is a boat. It’s a member of the fleet of sightseeing boats run by the tour company Blue-Star, that sail up and down the Spree all spring and summer long, giving tourists a look at Berlin and Berliners a look at the tourists.
But it’s also art. Called “Boat Rage,” by Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic, both artists who live and work at least part time in the US, the boat has been transformed inside and out, through props and installation and a video, into a floating piece of… art.
The upper deck and the sides of the boat are festooned with fake flowers entangled in long, twisted black tubing. The deck itself is covered in Astroturf, eroded away here and there to reveal dirt and photographs of a fiery hellish place underneath. An entire shadowbox is installed in the middle of it all like bowels of the earth spilling out in some sort of artistic hernia, more black tubing, rotting pieces of clothes, and taxidermized rats and mice.
Clear acrylic chairs, burned or besmudged are arranged on deck almost as for a ceremony. At the bow of the boat, in another giant shadow box filled with more residue, a disembodied human hand stretches toward a giant disembodied hand of a rat, as though reaching toward an unholy matrimony.
On the lower deck, this all becomes a little more clear. The lower deck as well has been outfitted with more props of some strange, post-apolyptic universe: the interior is black, the deck floor covered in something shaggy brown that is supposed to be rat hair, I guess, another disembodied rat hand in there somewhere. Giant very comfortable pillows — like bean bag chairs only better, are the only things to sit in, positioned just so in excellent view of the video on a loop.
Like so much art made by this group, a long explanation of the art we’re actually experiencing is provided, this time in the form of a video. It’s called video art but it’s really a short movie. It tells the story of the future — the year 2040, actually, so not the very distant future, when humans will destroy the Earth and the DNA of rats will become almost identical to human DNA, each morphing into the other. The film is made up of clips from Youtube and TV, other films and some original footage, the soundtrack produced by a wellknown music producer, and the whole thing edited together so slick it’s as good as any summer blockbuster.
But like a summer blockbuster, it’s nothing more than entertaining. All the passengers on the boat watched the film, but nobody seemed to be moved. When the rat transforms into a more humanoid creature, it communicates through what sounds like record scratching, understood by none of hte audience on teh boat except the baby on baord (see what i just did there?), a 9 month old Italian cutie named Gio, who responded to every scritch and scratch the rat spoke with enthusiastic gurgles and coos. As soon as the film was over, everyone went above to enjoy the sun and the journey through the city.
On the upper deck, the sun was shining and sparkling across the decaying acrylic chairs. As the boat sailed past all the new and old construction that makes up Berlin, all the Berliners and landlocked tourists soaking up the sun on the banks of the Spree, all the dark and dismal dystopian decay of this installation made me think of one of my favorite websites, Goths in the Sun. We were supposed to be thinking about commercialism and how we’re destroying ourselves, but little Gio was laughing and people were waving at us and new buildings were being built and the water was blue and the sun bright and it was really, really hard to not enjoy all that promise of life instead.
After about an hour, the boat docked at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. We had a 10 minute window to stretch our legs on land before heading back. Everyone got off and didn’t bother to come back. It doesn’t say much if the art doesn’t sustain the viewers for more than an hour. I did get back on, which meant I had the boat to myself. And it gave me a chance to talk to the crew to see how they liked being a part of the art and who were, by the way, really delightful.
I talked to the First Mate, a 30-something German enjoying all the sun. The shipping world and the art world are two different things, he reminded me; they exist at different levels. But after meeting the artists and getting to know the work, he’s grown quite fond of his art boat, and has even come to like it, although he found it a bit too trashy — not something he would have in his home or a museum, if he had a museum. Then he got a call from a colleague and had to stop talking to me. Fair enough — work is work.
I went below decks and talked to the steward. A sweet kid, he’s a native Berliner about 28 years old. He confessed that he’s not really into art, and that listening to the videoon the loop over and over again made him a little crazy, but that’s what all art is today, isn’t it? he said. It seemed to him that contemporary art is mostly made by bored poeple with a lot of money who just try to make crazier and crazier stuff — the crazier the better. And then he turned up his own music and sang along to one of Europe’s favorite summer songs.
The captain — a 27 year old Ukrainian who has been living in Germany for 17 years — loved the work. He agreed with the message of the artists, that we are destroying ourselves, that eventually rats will become like humans and be forced to turn to us to learn how to create civilizations and societies, and we need to be careful of what we teach them or we’ll just destroy ourselves again… at least, that’s how the young captain interpreted the message. But he’s into art, he told me, and he loved the fact that his boat is different from all the other sightseeing boats. He felt it was a real privilege to captain the ship. Of course, he’s also in a great mood — his birthday is coming up, and he’ll be getting his German passport soon, which will allow him to finally return to Kiev without the risk of being forced to stay and fight in the war.
The other thing that’s happening in Europe right now is the European Cup. At the opening game, I was sitting next to a young couple who recently took a very different boat ride. Their English was really good, and they were dressed just like everyone else — middle class casual, button down shirt and shorts for him, a pretty dress for her. In their mid-30s, married, in love, and very friendly. Someone asked where they’re from. Iran, they answered. Oh wow, said the other guy, so you came here by boat ha ha? Yes, they said — killing that joke dead, by the way — we did. We were at sea for a couple of weeks. We had to leave our country because they told us we could no longer do our work, it was illegal. Good luck with your new life in Germany, said the guy. We’re doing our best, they said, and went on to cheer the game and share cigarettes and hold hands with each other and think about the weekend. Refugees — they’re just like us!
I just can’t shake the feeling that DIS is nothing more than a group of privileged kids just hatched out of the safety bubble of college and mom’s cooking and are simply whining about life. Although their mastery of technology — especially in video, CGI and editing — is really impressive, to me they’re only saying the same things every generation says when they get to the same age: life is hard and adulthood is scary, and grownups take themselves to seriously. So it is, and so they do. But maybe they take themselves seriously because they understand how precious life really is.
The Berlin Biennale #9 is on view at various venues in Berlin until the 18th of September. You can find out more at www.bb9.berlinbiennale.de.
Don’t forget to check out — and subscribe! to Glarify.com — the interactive global mapping tool that lets you locate artist studios, openings and exhibits around the world. Become part of your local art scene — every where you go! It’s free! Glarify is an official partner of Artipoeus. Visit Glarify.com.
That’s all for Artipoeus this week. I’m Susie Kahlich. See you around town!
From Susie Kahlich originally posted on Artipoeus