This year’s Berlin Biennale title, The Present in Drag, spells out clearly what we can expect. The aim of the show is to reflect our contemporary moment back to us in a performative guise; in this case, as art. Eschewing the popular trope of future-oriented biennial formats, curators DIS Collective (Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, David Toro) focus their listless gaze on the present, offering it up as a site of endless contradiction. Their curatorial concept is predictable, as they’ve assembled a cast of familiar artworld characters already active on their online platforms, DIS Magazine and DISown. The URL manifests itself IRL, then, under the pseudo-political auspices of institutional critique. By repositioning selfie-sticks and well-known brands in the art milieu, the biennale claims to “create a stage for [the] actor of the self to role-play her own obsolescence.” This often results in art masquerading as product-placement and it’s hard to imagine that as an interventionist gesture. Rather than the Present in Drag, the biennial more closely resembles the Present in Plainclothes, like an undercover cop at protest. Tools of social and political persuasion, according to DIS, swarm the Berlin Biennale, but how to extricate their representation from reality?
Twenty-six years ago, Judith Butler proposed an approach to understanding gender as performative in her influential book Gender Trouble. Using parody – most notably, through drag – one could affect subtle yet meaningful destabilizations of gender identity, previously regarded as an ontological property. This theory undoubtedly had crucial effects in terms of asserting non-binary approaches to gender, but its incidental resurrection (like a poorly thought-out séance) in the context of the biennale, is politically disingenuous. While Butler rightly pointed to the necessity of embracing the fluidity of gender, DIS points to the fluidity of everything and, consequently, nothing in particular. Wellness, big data, cultural capital, virtual reality, war – all hot topics of the “present” – reappear frequently, in this five-venue exhibition, as uncritical reflections, filtered ironically via Snapchat or Oculus Rift.
If the 9th Berlin Biennale were a fashion brand – which it often seems to be – then its flagship store would be the Akademie der Künste (AdK) in Pariser Platz, tucked between the DZ Bank and the Adlon Hotel (where Michael Jackson once famously dangled his baby from a balcony) and facing the Brandenburg Gate. In keeping with its context, the architectural layout of the AdK could best be described as corporate, the foyers and mezzanines serving as catwalks for glassed-in boardrooms. The idea behind making this the main venue was to attract the summer tourists of Berlin, potentially opening up the biennial to a wider and unsuspecting audience.
A series of backlit advertisements by LIT lure passersby from the foyer of AdK and editions of TELFAR‘s custom-designed, off-the-shoulder tank tops are for sale at the entrance. Debora Delmar Corp. has transformed the AdK cafe into a juice-bar called MINT, taking its name from the acronym for developing economic powers Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey. The fully-staffed and operational bar is designed to mimic health-driven lifestyle chains, complete with up-cycled furniture and posters of celebrities enjoying green juices. Like MINT, and artist Yngve Holen’s “Hater Blocker” contact lenses, many of the for-profit facets of the biennial parody corporate start-up culture, while capitalizing, in a very real sense, on the self-congratulatory irony pervading the biennial’s concept.
Yet, in spite of the sardonic curatorial framework, a few contributions to The Present in Drag stand out as considered and poignant reflections on our contemporary state. Deep underground, in the third basement of the AdK, Hito Steyerl’s installation Extra Space Craft (2016) incorporates a multi-channel docu-fiction about drone warfare, set in Iraq. As in her adjacently-screened The Tower (2015), she probes the virtual dimensions of modern tech warfare by intimately portraying both the spaces where this detached state-sanctioned killing originates, and the videogame-like visualizations that help to psychologically separate the violence from lived reality.
The virtual reality and gaming aesthetic continues, however less convincingly, throughout the dark labyrinth of adjoining rooms at the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art (KW) in Mitte. The main room of the venue is given over to Cécile B. Evans’s installation What the Heart Wants (2016), a big screen at the end of a floating catwalk, its projections reflected in the surrounding water. Part of the video is a 3D animation of a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi scene that references tendencies familiar to the present: reflections on the nationalistic dimension of tragedy, as certain people are invited to tag themselves as “safe,” and the reign of a benign activist group seeking converts under the banner of the “Anti-Aging” flag. Later, images of pristine mountain landscapes are overlaid with vacuous text messages: “people had feelings and stuff.” The roving iMessage chat is a common theme in the biennial, popping up on screens with its familiar ping, a kind of contemporary audio-visual poetics.
On the way up the stairs in the side building of KW, Purell hand-sanitizers are installed on the wall with artwork tags next to them, labelled Untitled (Purell) (2012) by the artist pseudonym Puppies Puppies. The piece becomes a metaphor for the apathetic, in-crowd humor of the show as a whole. Small interventions like this one – seemingly innocuous everyday objects, that, recontextualized, are meant to jar us from our presumed uncritical stupor – permeate the exhibitions. Whether reflecting ubiquitous brands or online marketing tools, the biennial works primarily on the surface level, borrowing from the history of readymades, with a contemporary twist. There’s even a urinal (Shawn Maximo, #3, 2016).
Camille Henrot, too, brings to light the absurdities of commercial jargon by transferring virtual tendencies into the physical world. In Office of Unreplied Emails (2016), she has printed out large-scale Gmail missives from various spam or Listserv emails in her inbox. Next to the inordinately large and strangely material emails, she has handwritten in calligraphy intimate and almost romantic replies to everyday pleas, to save the environment or purchase a hot new handbag. The emails are drooping on posts from the wall, or lying on the floor, while Henrot’s paintings 11 Animals that Mate 4 Life (2016) dominate the vertical plane: like the typical subject-line of spam or click-bait headlines, the title serves as a launching-pad for musings on our contemporary need to justify monogamy with reference to the animal kingdom. In contrast to Henrot’s critically-acclaimed 2013 Venice Biennale piece Grosse Fatigue – a video narrative of the creation of the universe, philosophically and scientifically informed by her research at the Smithsonian Institute – the Office of Unreplied Emails deploys hasty and literal concepts in keeping with the biennial party-line. Even admired artists on the roster seem to have fallen prey to the curatorial invitation to inhabit the “post-contemporary.”
DIS’s post-contemporary draws mostly from well-worn art historical devices. Almost three decades ago, Butler aspired to abolish gender by exposing it as a social construct that could be undermined performatively. If we follow this train of thought, implied by the title, the 9th Berlin Biennale aims to abolish the contradictions of the present in a similar manner, by putting them on a stage and exaggerating their absurdities. Yet it fails to differentiate itself sufficiently from that which it purports to critique; in an attempt to expose commodity fetishism, it has enacted just that. In its blasé response to real political issues (one promo poster reads: “Why should fascists have all the fun?”), the biennial reinforces apathetic tendencies. DIS underestimates its audience’s critical capacities, believing that ironic detachment is sufficient ammo against the ever-vague “problems of the present” it claims to address head-on, while failing to offer any substantial argument against the structures that sustain them.