Ever since the last documenta the theme of “postcolonialism” has become accepted in Germany too. At the moment two major exhibitions are dedicated to this theme in Berlin: “Hello World” at Hamburger Bahnhof and the 10th Berlin Biennale curated by Gabi Ngcobo with Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula Souza, and Yvette Mutumba. While “Hello World” takes the collection of Berlin’s National Gallery as the starting point for searching for art around the world that can tie in with its Eurocentric aesthetic – happy to find abstract painters, for example, in India – the 10th Berlin Biennale shows, like the documenta, that postcolonialism means rejecting the Modernist aesthetic as universally valid for the entire world. Instead, the 10th Berlin Biennale repeatedly enthralls when it calmly and focusedly presents artistic works that claim their postcolonial quality not least by not being prematurely incorporated into the clean canon of Modernism.
Luke Willis Thompson, autoportrait, 2017, film still, 35mm film, b/w, silent, 8′50′′ @ 24fps, courtesy Luke Willis Thompson; Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne
Grada Kilomba, ILLUSIONS Vol. II, OEDIPUS, 2018, courtesy Grada Kilomba; Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg/Cape Town, Photo: Timo Ohler
In the basement at KunstWerke, where the New York artist collective “Museum Occupy” camped during the entire duration of the 7th Berlin Biennale 2012, you now see the installation “Untitled (Of Occult Instability) (Feelings)” (2016-18) by Dineo Seshee Bopape. Art is once more to be seen, but one that – just like the continuous performance advocating activist participation by “Museum Occupy” – eludes the amazed admiration of alleged “art friends”. The work strikes one as apocalyptic, drenched in diffuse red-pink light, the windows glowing in yellow, piles of bricks lying around, metallic throbs blasting from loudspeakers, and primitive wooden benches waiting in vain for someone to sit down on them. Images flicker across screens, such as of Nina Simone performing her song “Feelings” at a jazz festival in 1976. The next monitor shows the “feelings” of a black woman who has been raped telling “her” story; a third describes the “human zoo” in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris, where slaves were displayed in the 18th century.
The crude mix of different aesthetic media – light, sculpture, sound, music, video, text – in the installation “Untitled (Of Occult Instability) (Feelings)” and the resulting narration, initially neither stringent nor coherent in terms of content, is typical for many of the successful works at the 10th Berlin Biennale: here hybridity replaces formal consistency and linguistic uniformity. This moment of difference, which is capable – precisely thanks to the disjointedness of its elements – of narrating history and stories in another way, also delivers a critical commentary on naïve ideas of clearly defined identities. Of identities that constantly are in danger of sinking into racist platitudes.
That conservative arts sections in newspapers such as Germany’s WELT disparage such art at the 10th Berlin Biennale as “old-fashioned” makes sense: Superficial similarities, such as with arte povera, are used in a defamatory manner to brand this hybrid art as reactionary. Modernism’s faith in progress and its idolization of formal innovation, including uniqueness, while simultaneously degrading a work’s contentuality, remains to this day the solely conceivable notion of any aesthetics that can be taken seriously by the conservative Eurocentric art ideology. A good thing that the 10th Berlin Biennale doesn’t play along.
New Museum, New York. The much anticipated New Museum Triennial, titled this year ’Songs for Sabotage’, opened in February presenting the works of twenty-six artists from nineteen countries, some of which are showing for the first time in an institution.