The Ninth Berlin Biennale:
The Present in Drag
Various locations, Berlin
June 4 – September 18, 2016
What was Berlin in the 20th century if not an outlier-exemplifier, what with that city’s extreme history of occupation, splintering, reunification, multiculturalism, and global emergence? It is small wonder, then, that this city should be the site of one of the more polarizing art events of the 21st century. Reviews of the Ninth Berlin Biennale (BB9), titled The Present in Drag and curated by the New York-based art/fashion/marketing collective DIS (Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro), range from outright disdain to oracle-like praise, and nearly every judgment in between. Anyone familiar with DIS knows they enjoy and perhaps even planned such discordant takeaways. Writing on the BB9 website, the curators claim that the biennial “materializes the paradoxes that make up the world in 2016: the virtual as the real, nations as brands, people as data, culture as capital, wellness as politics, happiness as GDP, and so on.”
Such unbothered inversions are at the heart of camp, described by Susan Sontag in “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964) as that which “converts the serious into the frivolous, and the frivolous into the serious.” Considering the brazen branding for The Present in Drag (e.g., a poster that reads “Why should fascists have all the fun?”), DIS marries the tongue-in-cheek promotionism of Warhol with the irreverent celebrationism of drag queens like RuPaul, all of whom reflect the zeitgeist as if through funhouse mirrors. Indeed, the on-brand curatorial campiness of BB9 does not criticize the contemporary moment as much as it underscores, flips, distorts, parodies, and re-presents its chief characteristics.
At the entrance of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art is perhaps the biennial’s most popular (read: most photographed) piece: a billboard-sized sculpture of Rihanna in a bikini, titled Ewaipanoma (Rihanna) (2016) by Juan Sebastián Peláez, that is empty in its entertain-iness and entertaining in its emptiness. Despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that she is headless with her facial features composited right above her breasts, the Frankenstein Rihanna compels the modus operandi of contemporary art spectators, indeed of contemporary people: the selfie.
Army of Love (2016) by Alexa Karolinski and Ingo Niermann is a video installation also at the KW Institute that tenderly takes as its subject the commercialization (or “liberalization”) of love and attraction in the age of Photoshop, peak pornography, and Grindr. Attempting to work around the hierarchies and stigmas of data-driven image culture, Army of Love instead advocates for “complete love,” a more nuanced and horizontal alternative of empathic, platonic, sensual, and sexual relations. Ironically militaristic and cultish in this openhearted mission, the work also demonstrates that contemporary subjectivities are ambivalently suspended between personal desires, cultural norms, and patterns of control.
Continuing this draw on contemporary incongruities is MINT (2016) by Debora Delmar Corp., a functional installation on view at the Akademie der Künste that riffs on wellness culture by aping its trademark aesthetics (cheerful logo and blown-up photographs of lettuce) and products (bottled green infusions and kale smoothies). Both art installation and boutique juice bar, MINT calls attention to the contradictory ethics and complicity of wellness culture in reaffirming class and geopolitical divisions. Panned by some critics as enacting and acquiescing to the problematics that it would call attention to, MINT invites audience/consumer participation in the form of drinking a juice product, and in so doing metabolically reveals that the lines between art, culture, and commerce were long ago put under erasure.
Further blurring these lines is Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s New Eelam (2016), a multimedia installation at the Akademie der Künste that exists in varied, interconnected forms: as an actual start-up company with a website (new-eelam.com), a promotional video, and an offer of “liquid citizenship” for a monthly rate; as a documentary playing on a central TV and several iPads which relates the dissolution of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (a revolutionary group in Sri Lanka) with the rise of Amazon and other transnational companies; and as the exhibition space that houses the documentary—a cross between an Ikea showroom and a Madison Avenue shrink’s office. In its profligate mixing of media, messages, and modes, New Eelam both celebrates and caricatures the amorphous reach of corporate empire in shaping subjectivities today.
In addition to the KW Institute and the Akademie der Künste, BB9 also unfolds at the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), as well as at the private Feuerle Collection and a Blue-Star sightseeing boat. Two popular and divisive works at the ESMT are Simon Denny and Linda Kantchev’s Blockchain Visionaries (2016) and GCC’s Positive Pathways (+) (2016). As with Denny’s other work, Blockchain Visionaries looks like a corporate PowerPoint presentation come to life, marking a reversal of the modernist dynamic whereby artists innovated and mass culture followed. Likewise, Positive Pathways (+) continues GCC’s interest in the cultural transformations of corporatizing the Persian Gulf states. The installation of a warped running track features a sculpture of a woman giving a New Age remedy to a child, thereby suggesting the unique route the Gulf has undertaken in hybridizing so-called “Petro-Islam” with the “positive energy” ethos of Silicon Valley.
That BB9 is as polarizing and incongruous as the contemporary moment itself is a testament to the curators’ ability to “materialize the paradoxes that make up the world in 2016.” Far from being politically neutral or downplaying the significance of global winds of change, BB9 takes as its starting point the contradictions and chaos of the present, costuming and branding such elements in order to expose and exploit their embeddedness in our moment and create cascades of actions-reactions. In occupying this grey zone, DIS demonstrates that one person’s infamy is another’s fame, that harmony can be seen as divisiveness, that vanguardism is the new mainstream. Responding less to art history than to the friction of the present, BB9 will be remembered as equal parts political, blasé, antagonistic, stereotypical, and atypical. It is, in a word, queer.