“It is a waste of time hating a mirror
or its reflection
instead of stopping the hand
that makes glass with distortions
slight enough to pass
until one day you peer
into your face
under a merciless white light
and the fault in a mirror slaps back
what you think
is the shape of your error
Good Mirrors Are Not Cheap
I’ve just burnt my tongue on a steaming hot espresso. God! Haven’t I always hated my coffee too hot? With eyes glancing on the screen, intermittently checking out the flight information, I tried writing down some ideas about this trip, before they vanish into the air like the steam coming out of my cup. Let’s make things more tangible, go inward in this jammed coffeeshop chain and set out my intentions on how I’d want this trip to pan out. Like a Costa Rican and Guatemalan blend, this text is also infused with a mix of ingredients, elusive this time. One-part confusion, one-part excitement induced by the anticipation of a brilliant summer and the lack of any assurance. Yes! I’ve got that restless feeling! Trying to feel everything before it happens, trying to capture the essence of it! Because everything is going to be superb!
I admit -and I’m sure you’ve already noticed- I began writing this paragraph before I actually got to Berlin, hoping the 10th Berlin Biennale would brilliantly jump-start my summer full of travel, adventures, ideas and new people. I knew it would! Why wouldn’t it? Though I was barely aware that I was unhealthily relying on this trip to change my mind about the city…. to make things right. Because last time I was in Berlin, I left a piece of myself there. Last time I was in Berlin, I also got to attend the 9th edition of the Biennale. I must make this clear though, these are two unrelated events by some unseen forces became entangled in my synopsis, continually shooting out electricity, switching places, back and forth, up and down.
How can I look back on my summer of 2016 and separate KW Institute from heartbreak? Was I not the one trying to absorb the texture of its cobbled yard through the sole of my sandals as a means of distraction so as not to burst into tears, in a state of defeat by the hands of my own inner conflict? More importantly though, how can I separate the Biennale from Berlin itself? I simply can not. Berlin is a city of contradictions to me. My “hero” Audre Lorde lived there, but it’s also a city fully laced with memories a tad too unpleasant, a place I vowed not to go back to. Berlin sits somewhere between a momentary marvel at bohemian ‘expats’ drinking cheap beer in luscious parks all day long and the inexplicable joy to be able to walk into a falafel shop in Kottbusser Damm at 3 am and say without hesitation “Merhaba abi, nasılsın?” knowing I’d be understood, immediately followed by the crushing realisation that I do belong with the latter. Berlin is a place which smells like home yet has managed to escape from the shackles of oppression, unlike my hometown. Last time I was in Berlin, I was heartbroken. I felt abandoned. This time, it is the Biennale team’s job to make me feel I belong. After all, aren’t they the ones who’s once asked: “how do we get out the cycle of history?” I’ve been trying to find out just that! Personal or collective! How the hell do we change the pattern?
The Biennale this year came with a statement telling us to do away with our heroes, but what exactly did that mean? Finding power in Tina Turner’s words “we don’t need to know the way home” does the Biennale suggest, perhaps, we should plunge into a future that’s void of known paths, safe approaches and familiarity? Is it then, too much to expect that this experience should make me feel at home, help me find my family whose values I beautifully resonate with? I took a final sip of my espresso and placed my Moleskin in my backpack. I got up to make my way into the departure gate, perfectly aware that I’ve confused myself and my intentions even more.
Simone Leigh, Untitled (M*A*S*H), 2018
I walked up and down the stairs of the KW Institute for hours, in the blazing Berlin heat which turned the building into a tagine pot. I made sure I saw all there was to see, felt all there was to feel. I came across a few well-known artists such as Simone Leigh and Lubaina Himid whose works were critically engaged; alongside a controversial name like Luke Willis Thompson, a white-passing man who was criticised for capitalising on the violence towards black people.
Lubaina Himid, Why are you looking? from the series On the Night of the Full Moon, 2018
I also bumped into a few works by artists whose visual and thematic complexity wouldn’t have exceeded that of an A-level art student. The rest of the time, I diligently strolled around to find out if I could unearth anything which might have been hidden from a careless eye. Anything that might convince me I hadn’t come all the way here just for this. Alas, there was nothing more! There were the names I knew and the rest of them.
As I gulped down my Aperol Sprizter on the very courtyard I had once thrown away a chunk of my life, stopped fighting and given up; I began questioning my internal reactions to what I have just seen. Perhaps, behind the underwhelming facade could lie a mind-blowingly clever trick, a sleight of hand so to speak. Above all, perhaps, I was so used to seeing the biennales in considerably similar exhibitionary formats that something this remarkably ordinary and humble toppled me for a moment. It was almost as if I found myself in front of those carnival mirrors, and observed in horror and amusement while it was revealed to me just how distorted something so familiar could become. It was no trick! It was merely a refusal of the familiar, the well-known, the pattern, the tradition! What we have so long relied on biennales to act like… to discourse, scrutinise, hold a mirror to the society, engage, shock; and what we have always expected them to be…. progressive, critical, impressive, ambitious, political, thematical, global….. a saviour, a “hero”.
On the second the day of the Biennale, as I walked through the Tiergarten on a strangely tropical morning, I could almost smell in the air the forecasted thunderstorms. The Akademie der Künste emerged between the tall pine trees like a hidden ancient temple. Everything about it shouted tradition and order. No space for quirks and plot twists! I observed its quiet and lacklustre facade, I then knew to let go of my expectations attached to a pressure to like and internalise, the pressure I felt in my being all along.
And so I walked into the venue with a clear mind, a state of Shoshin -“the beginner’s mind’ as one would say in Zen Buddism. I walked around a while; then I sat on a black Ikea chair, one of many which were casually arranged in rows of threes in front of a dual screen. For what it felt like hours, I watched in awe and disbelief Mario Pfeifer’s reenactment of the court case concerning the disappearance of an Iraqi refugee in East Germany.
Mario Pfeifer, Again / Noch einmal, 2018
For another large chunk of time, I sat in front of Belkis Ayón’s mural which looked misplaced within the walls of this bland, European institution. I sat there meditatively and stared at the delicate details on her prints, flavoured with Afro-Cuban iconography. A pair of dark eyes stared back at me as if to make me aware of my own demons, make us aware of the foibles in our society, in our institutions.
Belkis Ayón, Temores infundados (Unfounded fears), 1997
Moments later, when I turned around I came face to face with a few leaves of yellow reeds, spawning out of the museum’s stone flooring. “Trans:plant” made me aware that although the transplantation of ideas was completed, the actual transition from the colonial institution would not be abrupt; it would require defiance and persistence. In the end, it would be a transition manifesting with a subversive undertone, bursting out of stone to say ‘we exist’ and nothing more. Growth wouldn’t be loud, it would, in fact, be quietly strenuous but graceful. The seeds of change have already been planted! Too obvious a metaphor, perhaps, but a beautiful and much-needed one nevertheless.
Sara Haq, Trans:plant, 2018
On that day, I was no longer hard on myself for not initially being blown away by the Biennale. As I came to understand there was something running deeper, underneath the surface, something constantly boiling but never quite over spilling from the edges. A profound meditative state which would only hit you once you released your presumptions and expectations, like Sarah Haq’s reeds.
On my commute back from the Akademie der Künste, I had an unexplainable smirk on my face. I skipped along the busy streets, slicing through kofta smells. I stopped at Oberbaum Bridge, and I watched the most breathtaking sunset over East Berlin. Rays of sunshine breaking up in sharp patterns, reflecting off slender arms of the cranes rising to the sky which was tinted with the warmest hue of orange. Have I got my answers? If not what am I to take from this trip? I rummaged through the parts of my brain which became somewhat too crowded with the amount of visual information it recently soaked up. I came to a conclusion that it is not only ok not to know the way home, but we must also look for alternatives to the things that are all too familiar. Like our expectations from biennales. I came out of the exhibition venues in Berlin not feeling as if I’ve attended a biennale -whose specific format has long become the norm- but as if I’ve visited a museum whose collections displayed in a state of pure anarchy. No medium was higher than the other. Again and again, fragmented voices were emphasised as if in some sort of cut-up poetry. Yes, it was a disjointed mass but containing within a multiplicity of voices, given to us without a presumption, a logical flow, preferences or even an aesthetic taste.
Despite this (absence of most elements which, to me, always seemed like the core of curating) in every venue existed a strange presence that’s conscious of itself, so unmistakably diminishing dichotomies with its persistently vivid and radical pluralisms. Was the Biennale team actually trying to show us how to re-curate the institution free from systemic and personal biases? Is this how we can break the routine? Institutions as transitional spaces through which the human history merely passes by? To my amazement, has someone actually cracked the code?! For a moment, this sounded too good to be true. I have just seen the 10th Berlin Biennale, so I was not going to hastily put another “hero” on a pedestal. I have to decolonise my thinking, renounce and unlearn all that is familiar to me. Because to be able to collectively remember who we are, as people of colour, we have to collectively forget what is indoctrinated to us. Ultimately, was this not the underlying message? I took out my pack of cigarettes from my pocket and lit one right there, in the middle of the bridge overlooking the River Spree, with an intention to stay still and not move….until the sun disappears behind the industrial landscape.