The present in drag

It’s July 2016, we’re having a beer with my cousin Jenny, her daughter and her husband at Dieffenbachstrasse in Kreuzberg, Berlin. She has lived in Berlin for – well I don’t really remember, but let’s say – nine or ten years. First in an unmodern apartment in Friedrichshain, then in Kreuzberg, an area highly marked by gentrification, but still not really exploited.

I’m not sure why they left Sweden for Berlin, but I guess it was for the culture. Fredrik, Jenny’s husband, has been working with music for a long time, today he’s developing software for the music production industry.

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Berlin has been a center for arts and culture in Europe during the last decades. There are several reasons to that. The cheap apartments, the cheap studios, the underground scenes, the cultural diversity, the really powerful political history, the social tensions, the young population and so on.

The city has definitely made big efforts to get rid of the associations to the historic traumas, conflicts and shames. Today the tolerant, culturally vibrating Berlin is a part of the marketing of the city. The picture of the whole Germany is a country of humanitarian, ecological, cultural and economic success. Eden.

Peter Eisenman, Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas

We visit the Berlin Biennale, this year curated by DIS, a US quartet, who actually are more connected to design and fashion than art. The art world has been a bit nervous about this – will DIS produce a history-less biennale? Is this the very breakdown of the tradition? But – the answer is no. The Present in Drag is certainly a little bit off the beaten track, but most of the works could easily be interpreted within the traditional framework of contemporary art.

The curator team uses the city as a part of the exhibition. One of the venues is a former telecommunications bunker in Kreuzberg, today used for Feuerle Collection, a huge private collection: “The space marks the steady influx of collectors to Berlin—and the kinds of public-private partnerships driving its cultural economy.” Another venue is Akademie der Künste on Pariser Platz, at the same time a classic tourist trap and a spot for political, economic and national powers.

The theme of the biennale is the present. But the analysis isn’t made from the ‘outside’, no fly on the wall, because it’s just impossible, and therefore the “drag”-part of title. Our time is obviously disguised.

It is the present that is unknowable, unpredictable, and incomprehensible—forged by a persistent commitment to a set of fictions. There is nothing particularly realistic about the world today. A world in which investing in fiction is more profitable than betting on reality. It is this genre shift from sci-fi to fantasy that makes it inspiring, open, up for grabs, non-binary.

Everything is a product, entertainment and an experience at the same time. The biennale is made up of visual codes borrowed from life-style and advertising – the juice bar (Debora Delmar), the gym (Nik Kosmas), and the museum shop (TELFAR) are integrated parts of the exhibition and should be considered as art works. Huge light boxes remind of the language of commercialism, and the texts are written in a kind of marketing discourse – they are modelled on punchlines rather than coherence and fits the theme of The present in Drag. Well done.

Welcome to the post-contemporary. The future feels like the past: familiar, predictable, immutable—leaving the present with the uncertainties of the future. Is Donald Trump going to be president? Is wheat poisonous? Is Iraq a country? Is France a democracy? Do I like Shakira? Am I suffering from depression? Are we at war?

Anna Uddenberg is, as far as I can see, the only Swede among the participants. She displays several sculptures, most of them in staged “non-places”. Anonymous young females, one of them in an extreme selfie-position.

Anna Uddenberg

Another work with a funny touch is Camille Henrot’s Office of Unreplied Emails, in which she gives handwritten answers to automatic e-mails. The answers are overemotional and intimate and give a sharp contrast to the emails, sent by stores, activist groups and others, which Henrot previously has supported by donations or signing up. The work is a human comment to our age of rapid automatization. 

Most of the artists are young, born in the 80’s or the 90’s, but there are at least one exception – Adrian Piper, born 1948. She displays some manipulated signs projected in dead-ends. It’s a kind of contradiction – “Howdy” (short for How do you do?) on no-entry signs.

Adrian Piper

What first reminds of a contemporary version of Duchamp’s Fountain, is a work by Shawn Maximo. He has refurbished one of the toilets at KW Institute for Contemporary Art and at the same time made it to an information center for the biennale. The private moments turn into the sphere of commodification.

The New York based artist Josh Kline shows the film Crying Games, which criticizes some of the leaders of the 2000s. Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others are played by actors, but the actor’s faces are replaced by the political leader’s faces by a simple software. They are crying out: “What have I done?”, “So many people”. A kind of historical revisionism and at the same time a weapon of critic.

Halil Altindere has made the refreshing hip hop-video Homeland in collaboration with a Syrian rapper; it’s blending shots from Istanbul and Berlin as a response to migration crises.

There are definitely parts of The Present in Drag that should be criticized. Some of the works are just not enough elaborated, some of them are too traditional. (I start yawning when I see too many video installations based on the typical mix of documentary and fictional content, especially if they are discussing political issues on routine. And I fall asleep when I have to look at some organic, ‘natural’ sculptures made of ready-mades in combination with traditional techniques, particularly if the concept is weak.)

Anyway. The biennale is definitely a good experience. Although it’s full of imitations, it feels honest. The imitation is clearly the critical tool.  

The 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art materializes 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.


2016-07-24 ||Fredrik Sandblad