12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art

Under the direction of artist-curator Kader Attia, the central idea for the 12th Berlin Biennale was repair. As far as big ideas go, themes have become standard usage in planning an international art event like the most recent edition of the Berlin Biennale. The concept has been explored extensively in the Algerian-born, Paris-based curator’s own artistic practice, as well as through the programming at La Colonie, a multiphasic cultural space he directed in Paris from 2016 until 2020, centred on decolonial discourse in a French context. At La Colonie, exhibitions, talks, debates, parties, performances and other cultural events culminated in a broader decolonial project within a French cultural context whose postcolonial condition is increasingly confronted in mainstream political conversations.

With the 12th Berlin Biennale—a city-wide, institution-engulfing affair—Attia made an effort to export that same discourse, translating it into a broad program of exhibitions, screenings, lectures, conferences and a variety of off-site programming. Attia’s own works are theoretically packed explorations into the diasporic nature of many contemporary post-colonial projects. The curatorial tendencies within his programming share these qualities. At the Berlin Biennale, the program was equally divided between an exhibition and “discursive program”: an extensive list of panel talks and conferences that included academics, theoreticians and artists.

But reparability in the context of the Berlin Biennale is as much a curatorial function as a political one. In the context of an artistic program that was intended to act as a medium for repair, on both a personal and societal level, the limits of representation were encountered. These limits transpired in Poison soluble. Scènes de l’occupation américaine à Bagdad [Solvable Poison. Scenes from the American Occupation in Baghdad], 2013, a labyrinthine photography installation by French artist Jean- Jacques Lebel, which featured life-size prints of photographs, taken by US soldiers and posted online, of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and raped by their captors in Abu Ghraib prison, who gleefully pose beside them within the scenes. The project’s intention, according to the artist, is to “to provoke the viewer to meditate on the consequences of colonialism.” But this intention is instantly confused by the pre-existing infamy of the widely circulated images, which are easily found with a simple Google search. The inclusion of the work in the Biennale, and its awkward, if not fundamentally confounding, installation in direct proximity to two projects by Iraqi artists, led to the publishing of an open letter in Artforum by the curator Rijin Sahakian, and the subsequent withdrawal of the work of three of the artists in the exhibition— Sajjad Abbas, Raed Mutar and Layth Kareem—as well as the resignation of Ana Teixeira Pinto from the Biennale’s curatorial team.

Installation view, 12th Berlin Biennale, Akademie der Künste, Hanseatenweg, 2022. Photo: dotgain.info. Left: Mai Nguyê˜n-Long, Specimen (Permate), 2022, used glass household jars, found objects, organic matter. Right: Ammar Bouras, Traces, 2022, video, colour, sound, 15 feet.

Installation view, 12th Berlin Biennale, Hamburger Bahnhof – Nationalgalerie der Gegenwart, Berlin, 2022. Photo: Laura Fiorio. Amal Kenawy, Silence of the Sheep, 2010, video, colour, sound.

The conflict between a curatorial institution represented by Attia and the Iraqi artists (those who speak and act in solidarity with their refusal to exhibit their work) could be understood as a misalignment of understanding of how the role of representation affects its subjects, especially in contexts in which those represented are most vulnerable. But the connection between repair and representation is not coincidental: both “reps” have become instrumentalized within the contemporary condition of crises precipitated by parallel projects of modernism and imperialism, the ongoing effects of which form the basis of many of the works in the exhibitions. The role of the curator here questions both who and what is represented, and, through those representations, what is broken and therefore requires repair, and by whom? The conflict raises questions around the curatorial project’s ability to perform a reparative action, as well as the possibility that those actions themselves can be repaired. Despite its inherent limitations, the Biennale’s program still offered an expansive array of works, several of which managed to address or even enliven the curatorial project outlined by Attia.

At a large exhibition inside the Hamburger Bahnhof – Nationalgalerie der Gegenwart, video documentation of the late Amal Kenawy’s remarkable performance in Cairo, Silence of the Sheep, 2009, shows the artist “shepherding” a group of men, including hired day workers, her own brother and fellow artist Abdel Ghany, as they crawl on all fours through a busy street. After a few minutes, the artist is confronted by a crowd of male onlookers who question what she is doing and why. The conflict escalates as the crowd continues to grow, yelling provocations as the artist argues about the function of the performance. Eventually, police arrive and the performers are arrested and subsequently released after spending several hours in jail. The work is a simple gesture that complicates the dynamics of power and labour in an intensely patriarchal cultural context.

Many of the other works included in the exhibition tend toward documentary and researchoriented video and text installations. At the Akademie der Künste, Hanseatenweg, a photography and video installation by Algerian artist Ammar Bouras, 24°3’55”N 5°3’23”E, 2012/2017/2022, investigates the Béryl incident, a classified nuclear weapons test undertaken by the French military in the Algerian desert in 1962. Using a series of montaged photos and a documentarystyle video, Bouras investigated the literal fallout from the event, the effects on the ecology of the mountain that was excavated in order to contain the blast, the highly radioactive dust cloud that was emitted after the French military greatly underestimated the power of the explosion, and the ongoing health effects within the local population, who now face the highest rates of radiationrelated cancers in Northern Africa. An ongoing political battle also continues, as Algerian civilians and authorities seek restitution for the damage caused by the disaster. The work is investigative journalism, political advocacy and a reanalysis of history through image making.

Although most of the venues for the exhibition are contemporary galleries and museums spread throughout Berlin, one site in particular is the most historically reverberative: the former headquarters of the East German Stasi secret police, today called the “Campus for Democracy.” In the repurposed headquarters is a startling, refreshing video work by Haig Aivazian, THEY MAY OWN THE LANTERNS BUT WE HAVE THE LIGHT, EPISODE 1: HOME ALONE., 2022. The story is constructed using short scenes cut from a variety of old cartoons, all rendered in black and white, collaged together into a nightmarish narrative about a child left alone at home, as the parents head for a night out at a cabaret. Light is the work’s primary medium; the logic of the story is undercut by its dreamlike brevity, which whips the viewer between interior and exterior urban scenes animated with light and enlivened with a patchwork soundtrack of narrative storytelling, music and disorienting, often incomprehensible, sounds. The work is held together by the appealingly flat aesthetic of 20thcentury cartoon animation paired with narration, which guides viewers through the story.

Featuring nearly 100 artists, the exhibitions that make up the Biennale are geographically expansive but informationally dense. The concept of repair is a generative force, albeit an imperfect one, and it remains difficult to assess the reparative capacity of a project at such a scale. The most successful moments were when the audience was able to come into contact with the specificities of the artworks; the logic of the curation was most reliably embodied in those moments where generality was set aside and the actions of the artists were prioritized. ❚

The 12th Berlin Biennale took place at various venues in Berlin, Germany, from June 11, 2022, to September 18, 2022.

John Patterson is an artist and writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Treaty 1 territory.