The 7th Berlin Biennale is an appeal to the art world to become more politically responsible and socially progressive. It is also an attempt to make people angry. But can art still get people riled up?
What can art do in the political arena? Does it even have a function there? And can art change reality? Can it be critical, useful and political? These and similar questions stir Artur Zmijewski, a Polish artist and the curator of the 7th Berlin Bienniale. In order to get closer to the answers, he has invited some 30 international artists with "a tendency toward the political" to explore the topic in Berlin from April 27 to July 1.
Polish artist Lukasz Surowiec, for instance, had already visited various locations in Berlin last autumn to plant young birch trees from the vicinity of the former concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau - in parks, school yards and places that have a direct connection to the Holocaust.
The trees, called Birke in German, lent their name to the Birkenau camp where as many as 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered between 1940 and 1945. They should keep the memory of the monstrous Nazi crimes alive and at the same time evoke another project - the landscape work of art "7000 Oaks" by Joseph Beuys, which was introduced in 1982 at the "documenta 7." Over the years, Beuys - assisted by dozens of helpers - planted oaks around documneta's host city of Kassel as an artistic and environmental intervention in urban space, coupled with the intention to make a clear statement against urbanization.
The project has long become a fixture of the city and has changed Kassel's image permanently. City residents initially showed a lack of understanding, but it melted away with each new tree planted.
Changing faces of art
Art has changed over the centuries in many different ways but it acquired a distinctly critical stance only after the French Revolution. Until then, works of art tended to be based on idealizations and a set of motives borrowed from the Bible, the courtly life and the wealthy bourgeoisie. After the revolution, the hidden parts of society entered the focus of the artists. And they presented images that had never been seen before.
The Spaniard Francisco de Goya (1746 - 1828) caused a sensation with his paintings documenting poverty, misery and war. The French painter Gustave Courbet (1819 - 1877) shocked the refined Parisian society with images of ordinary people at work. And his compatriot Honore Daumier (1808 - 1879) even got in trouble with the law, because of the way he caricatured the bourgeois life and the judicial system of his time.
One of the first German to visualize a critique of power relations was Adolf Menzel (1815 - 1915). His painting "Victims of the March Revolution Lying in State" shows coffins of Berlin revolutionaries who had been shot at the barricades by the military. An artist had thus given the opposition a face, attention and encouragement.
The 20th century, with all its faults, blunders and atrocities, kept provoking new artistic counter-positions. Art became anti-militarist and anti-capitalist. It mocked the bourgeoise and decadence, and rose up against the atrocities of fascism. The reactions ranged from public outrage and vocal insults to ostracism, denunciation and the expulsion of artists, particularly during the period of National Socialism.
Two decades after the Second World War, art entered new dimensions. It no longer manifested itself only in paintings, sculptures, photographs and drawings, but also in temporary forms and actions in public spaces as a kind of social intervention and a platform against rearmament, human rights violations, war and environmental destruction. At the beginning of the 21st century, this type of art accompanied the G8 summit in the German resort town of Heiligendamm in 2007.
Joas Staal's "New World Summit" represents an alternative parliamentary forum for terrorist organizations
According to curator Zmijewski, the Berlin Bienniale is now set out to prove that art can be "truly effective, influencing reality and creating a space in which politics can take place."
That's why he had the walls of the entrance to the exhibit hall covered with blood-red excerpts from Stephane Hessel's booklet "Time for Outrage." and why he allowed the Occupy movement to "occupy" the main exhibition hall with sleeping bags, sofas and posters against the Nazis and the capitalists.
This year's Biennale focuses on works of art that rub salt into various wounds - refugee camps, drug-related deaths, commerce, radicalization, the Holocaust.
Provocative political art will also be putting the audience to the test - the audience which comes and goes: It checks out the art works, passes critical judgments, and moves on - to a latte macchiato and laughter. The question if reality can be changed all that easily is likely to remain.
Author: Silke Bartlick / tt
Editor: Sean Sinico