(This review was originally published on this is tomorrow in June 2010)
What Is Waiting Out There is the title of the 6th Berlin Biennale and, if we are to produce an answer based on the works in show, the future looks pretty bleak. That gloomy feeling, which resonates coherently with the current socio-economic landscape, is moreover problematised with the overarching concept: an examination of reality, in an epoch where claims to objectivity have long been abandoned in favour of a fear/fascination with staging and performativity. If mistrust is the defining malaise of contemporary Realism, the show put together by curator Kathrin Rhomberg clearly succeeds: most of the works in the biennale –where politically engaged documentary video and photography are key– raise the right questions for the wrong reasons. Doubt and paradox take over the experience, they accompany the viewer along the exhibition like an unwanted friend.
Out of the more than 40 artists gathered for this 6th edition, there is one player that perfectly exemplifies such controversies. Episode III (2008), by Dutch artist Renzo Martens, is an extremely layered and contradictory work that portrays him as a Fitzcarraldo figure of sorts gone to Congo to preach the assets of impoverishment to the locals, by redefining it a ‘natural resource’. Episode III adopts the form of a gonzo documentary that highlights the ways in which the First World economy profits from the impoverished African regions while launching ineffective aid programs to save face. Martens achieves this by making statements and creating situations that keenly question both the international handling of the issue and the agency of political art itself. However this leaves the viewer feeling that his cynicism has gone too far and reached obscene proportions. Is he not exploiting those poor communities he wants to help, just the same as all those westerners (photographers, aid organisations, politicians) he is pointing at, and then touring the biennale and gallery circuit like a morally superior hero himself?
For all those who Renzo Martens’ ninety minute-long opus leaves an uncomfortable taste in the mouth, there is another work in the Biennale dealing with a related set of issues, which seems to tackle the complexities of African post-colonialism in a subtler way, in what almost feels like balm of intellectual rigour and common sense. Everything That Is Solid Melts into Air (2008) by Mark Boulos borrows its title from a sentence from the Communist Manifesto, and delves into the idea of commodity fetishism applied to the production of oil in Nigeria and its subsequent speculative use in North America. Consisting of a two-channel synchronised video installation, each screen depicts one of the two factions struggling for control of the precious good. On one screen we find the Nigerian guerrillas that seek to alleviate the misery of the region by redistributing the oil resources by all means necessary. The opposing screen shows the theatricality of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the largest exchange of futures and derivatives, where corporations trade goods that don’t even exist yet. That removal of the material stuff –absent from both the land where it comes from and trade where is exchanged– is what Boulos means by ‘melting into air’, the path to metaphysical qualities. The two facing screens, which portray such polarised but inextricable realities, build a dialectic and hypnotic space for thought.
The dialogue and comparison between the works is a productive tool to comprehend a biennale where one could feel the least important thing is the art itself, prioritising political and epistemological endeavours in detriment of sensuous and sensorial enjoyment. But there are quite a few things to be gained by engaging with these apparently aloof works. By negotiating the gap between the socio-political events and how they are represented we are already looking at them differently.