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9th Berlin Biennale at KW Contemporary


This week marks the winding down of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. A cultural institution in one of the most culturally relevant cities in the world, this event has celebrated the shifts and inaugurations of ideas and themes in contemporary arts for two decades. Often it brings on a host of renowned names in contemporary arts, across various venues in the city, and this year it would’ve made for a great distraction from that annoying football Euro thing where people wave around an inexplicable amount of flags. While I’m never one to say no to art exhibitions, especially one that saves me from the tyranny of loud people yelling at televisions screens because of a ball, a scathing review from Jason Farago of the Guardian in the opening week followed by my own interpretation of their unexciting artist statements made me think twice about going.

The show is called “The Present in Drag”: as in the “now” adorned in glitter and glamour that renders it a caricature, as in the face of its true self peeking through the normative lens of society, as in the paradox of it being both unabashedly real and prodigiously unreal. The description of the show, as I said, is slightly off-putting: the website and pamphlet boasts an array of topical references to American politics, vague odes to the digital age, the intersectional clash of culture versus capital… all clumped together into a pop-philosophical culture bait that resonates as a cringe-inducing attempt of an older generation trying to appease the whims of a millennial crowd. Not surprising, as it was curated by New York based group DIS who, while admittedly have an acute understanding of mass market, fast media, and the aesthetic that this takes on, cater so heavily towards the “too hip to be serious” crowd. I could practically hear the Gen-X’ers chirping: “We can listen to trap music while waxing poetic about the shifting face of reality in a post-contemporary technology obsessed landscape too!” The desperate clawing at relevance made me shrink away from wanting to visit and at the same time curiously piqued my interest all the more. Sort of like how some sci-fi horror films that have the worst possible descriptions can be incredibly enjoyable to watch if you do so with a hint of irony.

But finally I broke down. There’s only so much park drinking one can do in a summer, after all. So with just a week left in the exhibition, I finally got it together and took a gander. And would you believe, it was kind of amazing. Amidst the broken memes and overplayed themes of digital identity, what won me over was the installation by one Cecile B. Evans, “What the Heart Wants”. On a sunny 29 degrees day when the heat is all but overbearing in the city centre, I walk through a door that leads to a dark cool space. It would have been a perfect refuge for sweaty art seekers in their damp discomfort if it weren’t for the eerie music and generally morose atmosphere of the room. I came in just in time to see some big-titted anime girl in a translucent shirt dress twirl around on a screen like the body pillow dream of some guy who wears hats and rarely showers (The dancing girl, I’ll later find out, is a reference to Hatsune Miku, a virtual Japanese popstar who performed with Lady Gaga on her Japanese tour). As I walked closer, the surrounding darkness unshrouded and impressive displays of strange creatures with anthropomorphic parts emerged as holograms atop of a black rippling body of water. The water extended all the way to the screen with the dancing anime girl, reflecting her erratic movements. Then came credits, and the show was about to start again.

I snaked my way to the front where a few seats were just vacated. With the surrounding water, the very front was the most immersive and thus the best spot to watch from. And as the film initiated once more, I found myself mesmerized by the surprisingly engaging philosophical questions juxtaposed against a backdrop of an amateur 3D rendering aesthetic. In this dystopian future imagined by Belgian artist Evans, the very idea of personhood is challenged and reconstituted in a world void of the characters from our present day.

Realness is the product of mass corporations, embodied in jars of flying mayonnaise and slivers of cheese. Memory outlasts the human birth of said memory. Children live in labs and are stoic and unmoved. Somehow they aren’t screaming their faces off or throwing turds or whatever it is that children do these days. The whole thing reads like a Linklater film that was jointly produced by Don Hertzfeldt and Yung Lean, which when brewed together with a female protagonist and narrator makes for a surprisingly engaging video installation. HYPER, the system that is the woman that is the narrator that is the heroine of the piece, treads through this post-internet landscape to engage with the remnants of what was bought out by Chinese corporations and the disembodied parts of miners from generations past. Immersive and challenging, it’s exactly what I want in an art exhibition.

The rest of the exhibition was decent, but What the Heart Wants was the high point for me. The byzantine of installations throughout the KW proved to be enjoyable, if a little less memorable. Larger than life photos and paintings covered in resin with holes that extend through the wall of the building to peer outside, hand sanitizer that may or may not be considered art, a barely lit room with a newsfeed on three small screens… perhaps not life-altering, but in no way does it take away from life. If you get a chance, I’d recommend paying it a visit before the 2016 Berlin Biennale is officially over. I for one will be forgoing the reviews of all the things popping up for Berlin Art Week before visiting this week and going straight to the exhibitions, uninformed and ready to soak in some culture. If there’s a lesson I learned at all, it’s this: go experience art for yourself. It’s so much better in the present.

By Sandy Ydnas

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