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Berlin Biennale 12, repair draft

The 12th Berlin Biennale (BB12) started on 11 June and ends 18 September, divided into six different venues: Akademie der Künste (two locations), Hamburger Bahnhof, Stasi-Zentrale. Campus für Demokratie, KW, and Dekoloniale Erinnerungskultur in der Stadt. This year’s edition, curated by Kader Attia, assisted by Ana Teixeira Pinto, Đỗ Tường Linh, Marie Helene Pereira, Noam Segal and Rasha Salti wants to approach the notion of collective trauma from different perspectives, always based on the notion that any wound can only be healed if it is first embraced and made visible.

In BB12, this act seeks above all to repair. Not least because the wound referred to – the scars of the colonial, enslaving, authoritarian past – does not only concern the pain, but also the structural dysfunctionality in division, inequality and violence. For Attia, given it non-practical nature, artistic work can slow down and bring about the necessary rupture for dialogue and discussion to take place. Within this possibility, there is also a privileged and intimate access to the wound. This brings us closer to it, almost as if it were a forum.

We don’t find it strange that most of the works presented seem to have been chosen so as not to alienate the audience from their research background. Overall, there is a clear emphasis on the idea of archive and practice, along with their underlying pitfalls. These include the invasive look beneath the images of colonial archives all the way through to the material conditions that preserve them. That insistence is evident. In the different exhibition venues, documents from the Archiv der Avantgarden – Egidio Marzona are scattered. Whilst not forming an artwork, they serve as a leitmotif and contextualisation.

Moreover, there are several works, such as Complexifying Restitution by Jihan El-Tahri, Air Conditioning by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, or Reading Wood (Backwards) by Uriel Orlow, which take historical documents without much detachment or abstraction. In that vein, Poison Soluble: Scènes de L’occupation Américaine à Baghdad by Jean-Jacques Lebel is perhaps the best example of facts prevailing over abstraction. Housed in a room with a trigger warning at the door, the work consists of public archive photographs of various prisons in Iraq at the time of the US invasion. We see bodies of Iraqi prisoners tortured, dismembered and piled up while American soldiers laugh, standing proudly next to them.

Despite the violence of these voices and stories, the invitation we are given to enter and listen is gentle. It is perhaps one of BB12’s key elements: regardless of how close the facts are, there is a literary prominence, given the importance of listening, assimilating and rethinking, seeing, reading and understanding. There is a degree of hermeneutic prevalence. The space seems to have been designed for this. Most of the works are exhibited in isolated rooms, asking visitors to spend some time there. The register is one of immersion and, above all, it is discursive.

There are also cases where the way of telling the story transforms it, like this undreamt of sail is watered by the white wind of the abyss, an installation by Thuy-Han Nguyen Chi. On the same stage, there is a boat, a stretcher and a video where we hear a shipwreck survival account. In the first person, the narrator describes how she ended up alone in the ocean, fleeing Thai pirates, without ever explaining how she survived. And Path to the Stars, film by Mónica de Miranda, where the artist is also an actress. She reads a poem by Agostinho Neto with the homonymous title, on the threshold between a wounded portrait and an almost heavenly imagination, without ever leaving the same place: the Kwanza River.

Archive or report, past or future, the general atmosphere seems to succeed in making things visible – one of Attia’s major objectives for BB12. This principle seems to have two moments or two roles when presenting the work: first, to fill the space; second, to communicate and introduce a voice. The idea is clear: to arouse visitors’ curiosity so that they may investigate and that this investigation changes the visitors, transforming them into interlocutors. Making visible permits to enlarge a concern. On the other hand, being present leads to a relationship that transcends the exhibition site.

Putting together a programme like this is not easy. Building sites of pain and showing them also entails the responsibility of thinking about with whom one is seen. But isn’t seeing excessive, when we talk about a wound? Isn’t the transformation proposal limited by pain? Isn’t that only possible for those who are predisposed to self-transformation? Someone who is already curious even before the encounter? And, as the key point seems to be dialogue, we could also question whether some conversations are more relevant than others. Are some wounds more important? How to define a curatorial criterion starting from an artistic vision where the discourse is a priority?

These questions are important for several reasons. First, the artwork has a transformative function here. Understanding how effective the work is in that role is important, but also who it is targeting. Next, ensuring that the stage of this transformative proposal – the museum, the city, the country, the West – does not bolster its dominance by making room for its wounds is crucial. After all, the decolonisation of the museum is also one of BB12’s foundational goals. When discourse has a central position, curatorship plays a practical role beyond the mere exhibition. And this requires more care because, in some situations, the mere intention to render visible can be counterproductive.

A clear example is the presentation of exile is a hard job, a work by Nil Yalter at KW, which brings together in the same room several videos and photographs of Portuguese and Turkish emigrants, describing the difficulties of adaptation to France in the 70s. In the recordings, the Portuguese emigrants talk about their marginal condition, explaining the relationship between the racism they feel from the French and the bidonvilles where they lived. On the perpendicular wall, photographs are silently displayed. What connects seems to be their shared experiences. As if being Turkish or Portuguese were only a form.

At the same time, at the Akademie der Künste in Pariser Platz, there are several references, in particular to the work of Moses März, to Operation Green Sea – a secret military attack of the Portuguese army in Conakry in 1970. The mission’s objectives were to trigger a coup d’état in Guinea-Conakry, capture the country’s president Ahmed Sékou Touré, and disrupt the PAIGC’s logistical system. The operation resulted in 500 Guinean deaths and had particular features. White Portuguese soldiers attacked the Guinean capital with their faces painted black and wearing wigs. The attack has not been recognised to this day by the Portuguese state.

The conflict between these two works shows how the promise of making something visible depends on the visitors’ prior curiosity, but also on the confusion that absence can cause. In both cases, compassion has an obvious place. Clearly, Portuguese immigrants in France are victims. And, in Operation Green Sea, they are aggressors. On the other hand, the chronology of these antagonistic positions – the 70s – is the same. But this is not stated anywhere. It is up to visitors to discover this.

How can we explain that, in the same decade, crowds fled one country to live in slums, while at the same time one country was decimating cities on another continent? Perhaps the best solution would be to put these points in conflict, in the same space, problematizing the context and stimulating discussion. In the next room, we see Mathieu Pernot’s photographic work on the Gorgans, a gypsy ethnic group living in France. The previous question gets lost along the way.

In addition to all this, there are numerous practical issues, in particular the return of artworks by Western countries to the nations from which they were stolen during the colonial period. This is recurrent in BB12. Why exhibit works like Self-Portrait as Restitution – from a Feminist Point of View by Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige, through a sculpture that replicates her body, showing that women like her were treated in the past? Why do it when museums like the Neues Museum – partly funded by the same BB12 patrons – make millions by having stolen artworks like Nefertiti as their attraction? How effective is the discourse in practice?

There is also a relevant issue here, which BB12 will have to face: ensuring that the beneficiaries of the process of making visible will not be the same ones who have benefited from the invisibility. As Samira Ghoualmia says in one of the introduction texts to BB12: “artistic mediation practices are not shielded from hegemonic Western positions, which seek “objects of charity”, labelling marginalised bodies as the other to educate them to fit into an institution. These “illusions of care” try to control the other, while imposing their exotic alterity as an exhibition in the name of diversity”. We must not forget this concern.

Some of the BB12’s goals are harsh too. Perhaps that is inevitable. Naturally, an act or attempt at reparation, wrapped in an overall context of violence, has contradictions, ending up posing more questions than answers. But that is probably the first step towards overcoming them. Among all these contradictions and conflicts, BB12 mostly manages to make the discourse a form of immersion. Visitors listen to the stories that cross their way, drafting an idea of forum. In an aggressive, blind and distant context, this becomes a much more relevant act.

Guilherme Vilhena Martins (1996, Lisbon; lives in Berlin) works as a writer, curator and cultural programmer and holds a degree in Philosophy from Universidade NOVA in Lisbon. He is currently doing a MA in Philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin. He has curated several exhibitions in Portugal and Germany. His literary work consists of two books - 'Háptica' (douda correria, 2020), 'Voz/ Estudo de Som' (author's edition, 2022) - and texts, chronicles and reviews written for several editorial projects in Portuguese and English. He is one of the co-founders of the EGEU project, established in 2019 in Lisbon. There he managed and edited 'Alcazar', an interdisciplinary literary project that brought together writers and visual artists around the idea of collective transdisciplinary writing. Both her philosophical interest and creative work are grounded in the notion of fictional indeterminacy and desire and place a strong emphasis on urban environments and their structural unsustainability.

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