The tenth Berlin Biennale, titled ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’, “…proposes a plan on how to face a collective madness; it offers a platform for collective dreaming and for action.”[i] In place of a direct curatorial theme or framework, curator Gabi Ngcobo instead proposes the biennale as a space in which to retreat and reflect, camouflaged by its dazzle ship-inspired pink and grey branding.
This emphasis on dialogue and discourse is also evident in Ngcobo’s collaborative approach, inviting Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula Souza, and Yvette Mutumba to join her as a curatorial team, building critique and reflection into the processes of making the biennale.
For the biennale itself, this process has resulted in exhibitions across five venues – primarily at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Akademie der Kunste, and ZK/U Centre for Art and Urbanistics, with the Volksbuhne Pavilion and Hau Hebbel am Ufer hosting event-based performance works.
While some artist’s work, such as Lubaina Himid’s paintings and Luke Willis Thompson’s ready-made and bronze sculptures, appears in multiple venues, tracing a line across the exhibitions, without a clear direction or trajectory, the biennale sometimes felt a little untethered or aimless.
This feeling though may be the product of expectations of transformative, bold political and artistic statements, that we are so used to in these settings. Indeed, in diverging from this, the subtlety and space of the exhibitions (particularly in the beautiful and precise exhibition design at the Akademie der Kunste) allow for certain artworks to stand out.
Arriving at KW, we first encounter Dineo Seshee Bopape’s installation “Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings]” (2016-18) which includes brick arrangements and water fountains along with artworks from three other artists (Jabu Arnell, Lachell Workman, Robert Rhee) and a video of Nina Simone’s 1976 performance of Feelings, an assembly that sets a tone of deconstruction and multiplicity. In the same venue, Okwui Okpokwasili has created an installation centred on a space of contemplation and exchange, enclosed in thin translucent plastic sheeting that flutters and pulses as viewers – shoes removed – quietly move around.
In the basement of ZK/U, works by Tony Cokes combine bold scrolling text statements with pop music soundtracks to produce engrossing video moments and one of the highlights of the biennale. At the Akadmie der Kunste, Sondra Perry’s video work is another standout piece, which brings together video game basketball players and museum artefacts to question the relations between digital bodies and real world spaces.
As well as the collaborative curatorial approach, and the diversity of artistic practices included – in medium and geography – several artists also undertook residencies in other parts of the world, including Brazil, South Africa, India and the Netherlands in association with the participation in the biennale, hinting again the centrality of exchange and reflection in this edition’s approach, in place of lofty goals or displays. This thoughtful way of working, though not necessarily visible to an exhibition visitor, is perhaps this biennale’s strong point.
[i] Gabi Ngcobo (2018), “Dear history, we don’t need another hero” (curatorial statement), Berlin Biennale Guidebook, p. 18