Berlin Biennial 11: The Crack Begins Within
On ViewVarious Locations
The Crack Begins Within
September 5 – November 1, 2020
What is it like to attend a biennial during a pandemic? This scenario was unimaginable until I recently found myself in Berlin, my face masked and hands sanitized at a socially-distanced time slot in one of the 11th Berlin Biennial’s venues. As an American based in Europe, I was privileged to be permitted to travel, but I also worried it was gratuitous at a time marred by so many crises. Yet this year’s iteration, The Crack Begins Within, is remarkable in its adoption of unapologetically feminist, queer, and decolonial positions, making it worthy of the pilgrimage. Not only is it led by a curatorial team of almost all South American women—María Berríos (Chile), Renata Cervetto (Argentina), Lisette Lagnado (Brazil), and Agustín Pérez Rubio (Spain)—but also, most of its artists are from the Global South, BIPOC, women/women-identifying, and/or queer. Against the backdrop of the pandemic and global anti-racism protests, the show’s impassioned screed against patriarchal capitalism, settler and extractive colonialism, and Western and neoliberal temporalities and material realities feels urgent and timely.
The biennial’s subtitle, “the crack begins within”—a quote from the Egyptian poet Iman Mersal on the simultaneous pain, mourning, and beauty of motherhood—references the so-called “cracks in the system” and those who have been broken by it. The exhibition represents what the curators term the concluding “epilogue” of a series of events, activated through three “experiences” over the last year, intended to help the organizers build relationships with participating artists and local communities, as well as to slow down the typically fast pace of a biennal. Presentations and workshops on solidarity, dignity, care, and sexual politics took place at the biennial’s temporary outpost, ExRotaprint, a former printing press transformed into a creative multi-use, tenant-owned space. Postponed since June by the pandemic, this culminating exhibition includes more than 70 artists and collectives (including many unfamiliar names) across four venues, each with its own theme, though recurrent leitmotifs and artists reappear across sites. At ExRotaprint is The Living Archive, which indexes the initial “experiences” through archives, ephemera, and videos on tablets presented on blue table-top displays. The most striking of these are the staggeringly frank videos about personhood and living with nonverbal autism by the non-binary US blogger Mel Baggs (1980–2020). Also on view are historical newspaper clippings emphasizing the legacy of the Brazilian modernist painter Flávio de Carvalho (1899–1973), a progenitor of performance art and drag in Brazil in the 1930s–1950s, whose works also reappears across venues.
At the KW Institute for Contemporary Art is The Antichurch, which contemplates the “criminal rampage of the religion of colonial capitalism” and the rituals of feminist and queer solidarity that resist it. Anchoring the show is Brazilian artist Pedro Moraleida Bernardes’s (1977–1999), Faça Você Mesmo Sua Capela [Make Your Own Sistine Chapel] (1997–1998), comprising crude acrylic-on-paper works and a giant pitchfork-shaped crucifix composed of framed paintings suspended from the ceiling. Recalling the brash art brut of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), Bernardes depicts violent and sexually perverse scenes combined with Christian symbolism: two figures in military garb stand masturbating below severed body parts raining down from above, while animals and humans engage in orgiastic sex acts before black Gothic crosses. Paired with Argentine artist Florencia Rodríguez Giles’s luscious “Biodelica” series (2018), epic black-and-white pencil drawings depicting the tangled bodies of faceless, nude female heroines and fantastical creatures pleasuring themselves and each other, the space is transformed into a sanctuary celebrating the subversive power of sex to challenge theocratic fundamentalism.
Gropius Bau is home to the strongest sub-exhibition, The Inverted Museum, which considers how Western museums have historically functioned as sites where certain histories are erased. These include several exhibitions-within-the-exhibition, including Peruvian artist Sandra Gamarra Heshiki’s installation Museum of Ostracism (2018), two-dimensional trompe l’oeil paintings of Incan ceramics on flat glass panels in spot-lit vitrines, with pejorative terms for Indigenous peoples written on their versos. The Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Berlin consists of a curated selection of Social Realist paintings, folk tapestries, and political posters from the collection of the titular Chilean museum, constituted by artworks donated from around the world to express solidarity with deposed President Salvador Allende. Although the artworks were confiscated by the Pinochet regime after the US-backed coup in 1973, the museum’s founders rebuilt the collection and it functioned as an itinerant museum-in-exile. These two “museums” exemplify effective strategies used by artists to dismantle the imperialist and fascist ideologies upon which traditional museums are constructed.
At daadgalerie is Storefront for Dissident Bodies, which traces affective bodily cartographies through clothing and costumes. Screened on the second floor is Mexican-American artist Naomi Rincón Gallardo’s Resiliencia Tlacuache [Opossum Resilience] (2019), a narrative video based on Mesoamerican myths. Equal parts Ryan Trecartin and Alejandro Jodorowsky, it addresses Oaxacan territorial dispossession through characters including a Hill, an Opossum, and a Mixtec Cave Goddess, all wearing playful handcrafted costumes.
Gallardo’s is one of several over-the-top videos across venues engaging indigenous cosmologies and campy excess to express a queer (or cuir) Latinidad. These include Peruvian artist Elena Tejada-Herrera’s flamboyant three-channel video installation at KW Institute, They Sing, They Dance, They Fight (2020), celebrating Latina femininity in all its glorious genders, ages, and sizes, and Bartolina Xixa’s (an Andean drag queen performed by Coya artist Maximiliano Mamaní) bewitching music/dance video, Dry Twig, The Permanent Coloniality (2019) at Gropius Bau, one of the most compelling works in the biennial. Costumed in traditional Cholita garb—a ruffled pink skirt, blue floral shawl, and bowler hat—Xixa writhes and twirls in a smoky trash dump to Aldana Bello’s infectious music and stridently eco-feminist and anti-imperialist lyrics, demonstrating how an artist in a former colonial region marshals the dissident body to resist both the traditional gender binaries perpetuated by folk art and the predatory and extractivist regimes of imperialism.
The Crack Begins Within doesn’t just locate cracks forming in biennials, it attempts to shatter their conventions completely. But whether the European spectators who will be its primary audiences will be able to grasp these works beyond the lens of otherness is unclear. Are biennials even capable of ameliorating what the curators describe as “the inequality endured by the vast majority of people imprisoned by patriarchal capitalism”? They contend that by giving visibility to those who fall through the cracks and by privileging time, care, and vulnerability, new solidarities can be forged. Perhaps though, the onus is on us, the viewers, to radically alter how we view, experience, and evaluate such shows. While to my eye this biennial sometimes comes across as unedited, overly didactic, and even maladroit, it also seems to suggest a lesson we would all be wise to heed: maybe such assessments are rooted in biases of privilege and access, and those too need to be shattered.