Assessment of the 12th Berlin Biennale: fierce politics and reparation

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Review of the 12th Berlin Biennale: A fiercely political exploration of reparation and modern angst

The 12th Berlin Biennale curated by Kader Attia is a poignant, sometimes overwhelming story of globally interconnected histories and the angst of modernity

A fiercely political Berlin Biennale curated by acclaimed artist Kader Attia this year features works by 70 artists and collectives in five venues and one public venue across the German capital under the title ‘Still Present!’ Despite its defiant ringtone (of perhaps having endured, say, a pandemic), the titular proclamation, says Berlin-based Attia, refers to the imperialist, colonial and capitalist structures that haunt us in the 21st century. “The seeds of fascism are there. They never disappeared. They are in the blind spots of our perception of modernity,” he said at the press conference.

The Franco-Algerian artist’s own practice engages with the notion of reparation, and his thesis-driven exhibition centers on the argument that making visible the wounds of the past is crucial to setting in motion a process of correction.

Dana Levy, installation view, 12th Berlin Biennale, Akademie der Künste, Hanseatenweg, 11.6.–18.9.2022 Photography: dotgain.info

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, installation view, 12th Berlin Biennale Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin, 11.6.–18.9.2022. Photography: Laura Fiorio

Created in collaboration with an all-female international curatorial team that includes Ana Teixeira Pinto, Đỗ Tường Linh, Marie Hélène Pereira, Noam Segal and Rasha Salti, the exhibition is dense and at times severe; the evils it addresses are multiple and tell a global and interconnected story. Video piece by Algerian artist Ammar Bouras tracks (2022) confronts the lasting and devastating impacts of an explosion that occurred while the French were conducting underground nuclear tests in the Algerian desert in 1962.

Elsewhere, the captivating video work of Yemeni artist and filmmaker Asim Abdulaziz 1941 (2021), is a poignant poetic meditation on the implications of living in a country ravaged by ongoing war. Through different locations, several artists, including Forensic Architecture, Dana Levy, and the duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme examine the asymmetry of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Issues of restitution and reparation are tackled head-on, for example in a book by Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige, who found documents, images and a collection of human remains of his Sri Lankan ancestors in several ethnological museums across the country. ‘Europe. The artist created a life-size 3D print of herself holding a replica skull of an Adivasi man in a work titled The self-portrait as restitution – from a feminist point of view (2020).

Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige, installation view, 12th Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 11.6.–18.9.2022. Photography: Silke Briel

Curators have wisely shed light on Berlin’s tumultuous history not only through artwork but also through the choice of locations: two of its sites are the Akademie der Künste, which expelled Jewish members from its ranks in 1933. During the Cold War, the academy split into two separate bodies, operating on either side of the Berlin Wall. Another location is the former headquarters of East Germany’s secret service, the Stasi. (The sprawling complex was featured in the 2006 film The lives of others.) Today it functions as an archive and museum.

A three-channel work by Berlin artist Omer Fast is streamed on handheld devices set up inside the museum’s dressing room. Title A place that is ripe (2020), the book carefully examines the contested use of surveillance cameras in Germany compared to CCTV in Britain, where it is widely accepted. Upstairs in the museum, an intoxicating video work by Turkish artist Hasan Özgür Top, The fall of a hero (2020), shows Islamic State recruiting material explained – right down to the choice of Islamic State’s favorite policeman, Trajan – in an interview with a suspect reconstructed by the artist.

Omer Fast, installation view, 12th Berlin Biennale, headquarters of the Stasi. Campus for Democracy, 11.6.-18.9.2022. Photography: Laura Fiorio

Work after work, the cumulative effect and the density of the issues can seem overwhelming, or worse – the biennale risks flattening the very nefarious mechanisms it seeks to make visible. Fortunately, the exhibition offers a few works that allow the mind to wander into more poetic realms, for example in two remarkable videos by Vietnamese artist Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn.

One is titled My sick beliefs can cure your miserable desires (2017), which mixes mythology, history and magical realism to talk about our relationship with nature. It is told as a dialogue between the last poached Javan rhinoceros in 2010 and a 15th-century sacred turtle whose divine sword is said to have ended Chinese rule. This and a handful of other works in all locations provide much-needed space for viewers to imbue the works with meaning or, as Attia put it, “to hallucinate worlds in which we can perhaps try to exist.” . §

Đào Châu Hải, installation view, 12th Berlin Biennale, Akademie der Künste, Hanseatenweg, 11.6.-18.9.2022. Photography: dotgain.info

Sammy Baloji, installation view, 12th Berlin Biennale, Akademie der Künste, Hanseatenweg, 11.6.–18.9.2022. Photography: dotgain.info

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