When French Algerian artist-curator Kader Attia was invited to organize this year’s Berlin Biennale, he asked himself, why put on yet another international roundup? Recalling his existential deliberation in a curatorial statement for the show, titled “Still Present!,” he came up with a neat and tidy answer, convincing in part. Art, he said, can render visible certain histories, wounds, and perspectives that have long been suppressed by colonialism and its afterlives. Sure, we are inundated by online images and information, but art—because it requires a different kind of attention—best functions as a sort of magnifying lens or as a tool for slowing down perception of the present. In today’s world—one Attia terms a “world of wounds”—such slowing down has become, paradoxically, urgent.
The thing about existential questions, though, is that tidy answers are rarely enough to ward off gnawing doubts. To say you’ve figured out art’s best current function is like urging people to sign up for some quasi-religious cult on the basis of brochure bullet points outlining the meaning of life. There’s some wisdom in Attia’s pitch, to be sure, but life and art are never so simple.
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As nice as his idea sounds, the works that most directly illustrate it are the weakest examples currently on view across six venues in the German capital. They are also the most plentiful: umpteen didactic, research-based works make their points literally and directly, taking the form of archival materials in vitrines, timelines and infographics pasted on walls, and essay films using found footage accompanied by omniscient voiceovers. The show even includes research projects by such academics as media theorist Ariella Azoulay and group dynamics analyst David Chavalarias, printed in vinyl and attached to walls as if they were artworks.
What’s wrong with that? Martin Herbert of ArtReview said the exhibition “cunningly critic-proofed itself.” He meant that the show is something of a devil’s advocate incarnate, proposing that political issues matter more than—and are wholly separate from—aesthetic ones in a manner that is hard to dispute, but also hard to agree with, given the numerous disappointing works included. The biennale, which Attia put together with a team of five women curators, centers on histories of anticolonial struggle, featuring sections devoted to decolonizing ecology and feminism, plus a number of works concerned with restituting looted art. And it’s certainly true that these are more pressing issues than any esoteric aesthetic concerns. But it’s worth pushing against this “critic-proof” show, and indeed, most critics so far—Rahel Aima in Frieze, Ben Davis of Artnet—do find Attia’s take on political art unsatisfying. I hope we can inch toward a better goal than visualization—which here, involves mostly the rather literal illustration of political issues—even as I suspect we’ll circle around defining a new one for maybe the rest of human history.
Forensic Architecture, which presents videos in three of the six venues, is often invoked to confirm the usefulness of political art. Led by Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, who terms the large, evolving alliance a “multidisciplinary research group,” Forensic Architecture uses various visualization tools to investigate human rights violations and instances of state violence. The Killing of Nadeem Nawara and Mohammed Abu Daher (2014), a multimedia project that deals with two Palestinian teenagers shot by Israeli security forces, has been cited in court cases, and this clearly matters more than “art.” But the takeaway is not as simple as asking people with degrees in art and architecture to drop their paint brushes and start doing investigative reporting. The problem isn’t only that artists are rather poorly equipped to expose shocking events, despite their fear that corrupt governments and the news organizations they control will avoid doing so. It’s also that, most of the time, their investigative contributions are not necessary to share in a gallery. We already know the world is terrible, and (knock on wood) little can surprise us after Trump, Covid, climate change, and other recent disasters.
That unnecessary impulse to expose is precisely what makes Jacques Lebel’s Soluble Poison (2013) the most universally—and justly—hated work in the biennale. Lebel tries to shock viewers with a truth everyone already knows, in an installation replete with pixelated images of the prisoner abuses committed by United States soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Who hasn’t seen these gruesome photographs, and who could have forgotten them? But to drill in the horror, the French artist has blown up these pictures and installed them in a labyrinth, so that viewers are always surrounded by them and have trouble escaping. We are forced to behold them in all their cruelty, as if the only reason to look away would be an unacceptable desire to live in ignorant bliss. The most charitable reading possible is that perhaps this work felt different a decade ago, when it was first made, but its inclusion seems almost to caricature the simplicity of Attia’s goal—rendering visible imperialist abuse. We see, we (still) know, it hurts—now what?
The most thoughtful works in the show are skeptical of straightforward illustration. Take Noel W. Anderson’s digital jacquard tapestries, most of them based on a single historic photograph of anti-Black violence. Anderson warps and twists the image, then transfers it to fabric, defamiliarizing it even further. Some cloths are hung flush against the wall like paintings, while others droop from the ceiling, making the images even more difficult to apprehend. The work suggests a twinned impulse: to commemorate moments of historic violence and struggle, and to protect the subjects who have so often been dehumanized for the sake of spectacle.
So if the task is not visualization alone, what, then, should artists do in this wretched “world of wounds?” The best answers are artworks that don’t adhere to formulas. And “Still Present!” does have some good examples. The biennial is certainly testament to the merit of relying on a curatorial team with expertise in diverse regions, even though it may at times cast artists in the awkward role of cultural ambassador.
One standout work is This undreamt of sail is watered by the white wind of the abyss (2022), a haunting video by Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi. In the 20-minute piece, the artist’s mother, Thuyen Hoa, recalls her experience traveling by boat from Vietnam to Thailand in the course of emigrating to Germany. Speaking to her daughter, she recalls a shipwreck she endured during the journey, and some scenes show the two working together on the film, collaborating to tell Thuyen’s story. At one point, Thuyen finds herself suspended in an endless field of blue. She soon realizes that she has to make a choice: either to drown or to seek refuge from a pirate. Recalling friends’ tales of rape at the hands of pirates, she chooses to surrender instead to the blue expanse, despite not knowing how to swim. Communing with ancestors while underwater, she says in a voiceover that she comes to feel a sense of peace. In the final scene, the ocean fades to blue screen, the action unfolding in a ceiling projection as viewers lie on a 23-by-31-foot blue plinth on which a sculptural hospital-bed-cum-boat also rests.
The forces of imperialism and patriarchy have rendered this protagonist wholly powerless, but they hardly need to be named in the video—you already know them, and besides, this is Thuyen Hoa’s story and not theirs. Because our narrator recalls all this in the first person and past tense, it’s implied that she survives, but we are never told how—just left suspended in blue. Anyway, we’re prompted not to root for her survival and triumph, but to empathize with her desire to abandon this world of violence and war.
This certainly moved me more than any timeline or data ever could. This is not to say that emotions matter more than facts—it isn’t a question of either/or. It just highlights the gulf between the models that Forensic Architecture and Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi propose. Somewhere between them sits a compelling 19-minute, two-channel video by Tuan Andrew Nguyen: My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure Your Wretched Desires, 2017. (The biennale, if you haven’t noticed, is video-heavy.)
In this work, footage showing human-animal relations in Vietnam—at slaughterhouses, in natural history museums, in the wild—is paired with a dialogic voiceover. That Nguyen’s audio is not a monologue distinguishes his video from the show’s many essay films in a simple but crucial way. One voice belongs to the last Javan rhinoceros, poached in 2010 in an incident that rendered the species extinct. The rhino debates revenging or repairing human-animal relations with the turtle that is said to have ended Chinese rule of Vietnam in the 15th century. Their complicated conversation is full of points and counterpoints: While the rhinoceros wants to lead a fight against humankind, the turtle maintains that to combat humans is to be like them. When the turtle points out that there are more species being discovered each week in Vietnam than anywhere else in the world, the rhino replies that Vietnam also has the world’s highest extinction rate, arguing that the two may in fact go hand-in-hand: “discovery” is an anthropocentric way of looking at beings who’ve been there all along.
Recalling other fables featuring wise animals, Nguyen’s video reminds me of how art and literature have passed down crucial messages for centuries—not with ham-fisted didacticism, but by imagining some alternative route, and subtly inviting the viewer along. Fables provide audiences multiple perspectives on a moral situation, gently inviting viewers to make their own wise choices. Without skimping on clarity or facts, Nguyen’s work allows room for viewers to draw personal conclusions, and gives vent to complexity instead of buttoning it up.