There are three main venues for the Berlin Biennial and in my last post I dealt with the main venue, the KW Institute. In this post I will attempt to tackle the work on exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie. However, my ability to do so is hindered by the fact that in this particular venue it was difficult to know who did what because there were no labels. Instead, the visitor is provided with a rather cryptic “map” in the Biennial leaflet. The map is populated by shapes that sometimes appeared unrelated to what was there; it is the worst mode of navigating an exhibition that I have experienced (click on thumbnail image left).
The two most intelligent works in this this particular Biennial venue are Susan Hiller’s anthropological non-film, The Last Silent Movie, (which I will treat below) and Gabriel Kuri’s ingenious transposition of the museum cloakroom onto sculptural objects. The sculptures, made of yellow painted sheet steel, obey the the modernist art critic Clement Greenberg’s prescription that the pinnacle of fine art was to be found in abstraction and flatness, and one can see this dictum materialised in the sculpture of Anthony Caro.
Kuri deconstructs the look-but-don’t touch preciousness of sculpture by intersecting it with and everyday aspect of the museum. It did appear as if the clothes slung onto the sculpture were changing but that may have been my imagination. If I went back to this exhibition, which will not, I would keep a sharp eye on this particular work to see if people were changing the clothes and where they were coming from. I hardly think that these items really come from the cloakroom, and so the reference to everyday life is metaphorical. Nevertheless, this was the most stimulating piece in the Biennial exhibition in this gallery (note that the downstairs of the gallery has a superb collection of art on show and that it closes at 6pm whereas the top part, reserved for the Biennial closes at 7pm, personally, if running late, I would treat myself to the downstairs first and then do the Biennial second—you could do the Biennial aspect in an hour, or less).
Another intelligent work was Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie, 2007. This is principally a sound installation but it is presented as a video. We sat under a projector in front of a screen but all that appeared on the screen were subtitles. Indeed these subtitles were necessary because this work was a collection of people speaking dying languages. Susan Hiller trained as an anthropologist turning to conceptual art in the 1970s. Aparently she has returned to anthropology, which is interesting in the context of the generally poor work on display in this Biennial all in the name of “conceptual art”—even though they may be basically no-frills paintings and sculptures. The notion of “dying languages” is also quite pertinent to this Biennial.
As for the rest of the exhibits, they were generally depressingly poor. However, some of the exhibits were so self-consciously abject that it seemed to me that they were commenting on their own aesthetic paucity. With regard to this phenomenon read my post on the work of Thea Djordjadze whose contribution to the Neue Nationalgalerie aspect of the Biennial is so self-consciously abject that I have provided it with a separate post (artintelligence).
Apart from Djordjadze’s radical abjection, another interesting instance of sculpture on view was Goshka Macuga’s construction made from sheets of glass. Its title Deutsches Volk-deutsche Arbeit (German people, German work) has a distinctly East German ring to it. The title may also refer to the ways in which modernist architecture, which was pioneered in Germany, has been associated by its critics with dictatorship and fascism. The glass wall after all is a typical feature of modernist architecture. But this work didn’t seem especially fascist, if anything it seemed more communist because the reflections and transparency made the gallery visitors become part of the fabric of work. One was reminded of Dan Graham’s extensive use of half-mirrored glass made with the express intention to involve the viewer in the work of art.
As for the rest of the show I don’t want to say too much because it is not really worth the effort, and I have really said it all just now. One notable aspect of the Biennial exhibits at the Neue Nationalgalerie were two films shown at the back of the gallery. What is noteworthy is that they were both films not videos. I find a significant because using film is a an ideological decision especially when high definition video can supply the same quality. It is as if these artists want to position themselves with a historical media rather than being too contemporary. I spoke to one of them, Paul Sietsema, a few years ago in in Los Angeles and he is a very intelligent and creative individual, who produces work much more interesting than the one exhibited here. But also I know that he has been obsessed with Clement Greenberg. Greenberg developed a theory of art which we would now conceive of as being highly conservative. Greenberg was appalled by popular culture and saw the duty of art as being to transcend the dross of everyday life. I could not disagree with him more. And when one entered into the projection rooms to see these two films, created by two different artists there was a remarkable similarity. They were both incredibly boring. Below is short sample of Sietema’s film, Figure 3, 2008, so that you can decide for yourself:
Sietsema’s Figure 3 is silent and lasts for 16 minutes. The projection room was packed with people, and I am certain that some of them did remain in the projection room for the full duration, such is their dedication to the church of art.
The most creative feature of Suzanne Kriemann’s series of 26 black and white photographs entitled 12 650 000, 2008, (above) were the numbers on the picture matts. I much preferred looking at Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work now on show in the basement of the Hamburger Bahnhof where one found welcome relief after this Biennial.
Jacob Mishori’s Untitled, 1999, (above) consisting of four paintings from the series Bites of Small Fish, were even more dull than his drawings in the KW Institute aspect of the Biennial (see previous post). We can interpret them, of course, in terms of modernism, maybe the connection between Russian Constructivism and East Berlin, and the relationship between communist propaganda and capitalist mass media—blah, blah, blah. We can always interpret things, but visually these paintings are vapid.
Paulina Olowska’s paintings (above) were even more lacklustre than Mishori’s.
The best thing about Paola Pivi’s sculpture, given pride of place at the entrance of the gallery, is its title: If you like it, thank you. If you don’t like it, I am sorry. Enjoy anyway, 2007. I’m afraid that I didn’t really like it Paola, even the rhinestones couldn’t make it sparkle for me. But the title also points to the throwaway approach to art. You don’t really need to be serious about it. You don’t need to get too bothered about skill—when you are an art star like Pivi you get someone else to make it—you just come up with an idea when you are flying to your latest exhibition and if people don’t like it, so what.
People like Pivi don’t need to worry, because what the viewer likes is irrelevant to fine art. What determines whether something is or is not good art is not the viewer, who is utterly powerless, but the gallery system. The conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth said that fine art is a tautological system. He was right in the sense that fine art is a self-contained system. Proof of this is that you cannot sell a fine art object outside the fine art system, unless you want to put it on eBay. In the context of mass produced culture such as literature and music, the consumer has an important role. If people do not buy your books or your MP3s you are a failure. But in the case of fine art the viewer is simply a guest, he or she has absolutely no impact. Only when we start having to pay to enter art museums will the system change; because I am quite sure that when we have to pay, which is to say when the government stops funding this aspect of high culture, then the number of visitors will plummet.
But maybe I’m wrong. after all 750,000 people visited Documenta 12 which was an appallingly bad exhibition. This was the highest number of people to visit Documenta in its history. But, perhaps this was because Documenta 11 was an extremely good exhibition. Although the fine art establishment criticised it for having too much video art. I wonder how many people will go to Documenta 13. After all, it’s an unlucky number.