The Worlds We Hallucinate Together, Thoughts on Berlin Biennale

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Nil Yalter, installation view, 12th Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art; Photo: Silke Briel

The English version of the text at BLOK Magazine

First appeared in nd (Neues Deutschland)

The Berlin Biennale, under the title Still Present!, curated by artist and intellectual Kader Attia, addresses nothing less than the yoke of colonisation. Fascism is the violence exercised by the colonisers that has returned to the old continent under the mask of modernism, Attia explains in the catalogue’s introduction. The weight of this statement casts a dense shadow over the entire event and its six exhibition venues; coming to terms with the traumas of this world in a heated cultural capital is a difficult but not impossible task.

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An important task the Biennale sets for itself is to provide a platform for decolonial feminism, hence the works in KW Institute for Contemporary Art that speak in women’s voices: A film essay by Mónica de Miranda on the Angolan guerrillas and the revolutionary role of water, precisely the Kwanza River, in the struggle for independence; Ariella Aisha Azoulay’s installation Natural History of Rape, which shows the history of rape as a “natural” and universal weapon of war – here rather selectively, as it is only illustrated by the testimonies of German women during the Second World War – or Zuzanna Herzberg’s work, which recalls the figures of Jewish women fighters who took part in the Warsaw Uprising. Herzberg’s installation is one of three works in the Biennale that take an Eastern European perspective. This modest representation of artists from this part of the world may suggest that there is only Western imperialism in the decolonial perspective, which here manifests itself as the relationship of the prosperous North (Europe without the East-West divide and the US) to the exploited South. The hegemons such as Russia or China are not given any space or attention here. Thus, the exhibitions mainly show the perspectives of artists from Vietnam, India, the Middle East, North Africa, Sudan, but hardly from former German colonies (Namibia, Tanzania, Burundi) or Eastern Europe and East Germany. Astonishing is the complete absence of artists from Ukraine and Belarus, countries that are only a day’s journey away from Berlin, where in recent months revolution (Belarus) and war (Ukraine) have broken out and which, together with Poland, Romania, and the Balkans, represent a reservoir of cheap labour for Germany and the entire Western world, as the period of pandemics and the subsequent lockdowns have clearly shown. Is the unequal relationship between the European states too complex a topic for the biennale? Are they simply located too close to find an appropriate perspective which, on the one hand, does not unreflectively adopt postcolonial discourses developed primarily in the English-speaking world and, on the other hand, acknowledges the differences that undoubtedly exist? How can one talk about inequality without reinforcing the racialising ethnic differences enforced by systems of domination?

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