Incidentally Capturing the city


Berlin is not beautiful like Paris, rich like London, or charming like Amsterdam. Prewar buildings in the German capital are pockmarked by bullet holes, while postwar architecture testifies to the city’s division due to the Cold War — American, British and French sectors were restored or rebuilt, the Soviet area, by far the largest, remains filled with vestiges of a severe Stalinist civil experiment.

The Wall was pulled down almost 17 years ago, but Berlin’s ascension remains very much a work in progress. Which can be a good thing — the city has an extraordinarily low cost of living compared to other European capitals, and an abundance of cheap, raw and big spaces. These conditions, combined with generous government cultural grants and subsidies since reunification, have made contemporary Berlin into something of an artists’ paradise.

While increasing international participation has lent a sameness to many biennales (and more so to art fairs), visiting the Berlin Biennale last week I was pleasantly surprised by how intimately the exhibition fits the spirit of its host city.

Titled “Of Mice and Men,” the fourth incarnation of the Berlin Biennale was curated by the New York-based curators Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick, and comprises work by more than 70 artists in 12 locations spread along August Strasse, a gallery-lined street in the city center.

The exhibition’s disparate locations include a graveyard, a disused school, several private homes and a church. Roughly in the center of it all is the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Biennale’s headquarters and one of its larger venues.

There is a lot of photography throughout the show, including a striking series of eight prints titled “Spiritual Midwifery Rush,” by American Corey McCorkle. They are a close-up and goopy documentation of a home birth — the mother bent forward, a purple-headed baby extracted amid a flood of afterbirth. I think the piece caught my eye because it is the sort of work we would never see in Japan, due the graphic representation of genitalia. Let’s face it, birth is a frighteningly intense phenomenon, finding and celebrating the beauty presents a challenge most Japanese galleries are unprepared to tackle.

Another thing you wouldn’t see in Japan is the community participation here. Several of the Biennale venues are private homes — the exhibition guide instructs visitors to “please ring the bell for Grzeszykowski and Ortega” for example, in order to go in and see work from these two artists. The unusual curatorial decision reflects Berlin as an environment where art lives in people’s everyday lives.

Says Subotnick, “In Berlin . . . you just need an apartment and your friends and you have a show.”

Also at KW is “The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz, Insurance Clerk from Vienna,” an installation featuring a collection of handmade model houses bought en masse from a second-hand shop by the artists Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser. Not a lot is known about Peter Fritz, who apparently spent a lifetime building the models.

There are established artists here as well, many with well-known works. Gillian Wearing’s 23-minute video, “Drunk,” shows people who’ve had way too many drinks; Paul McCarthy’s “Bang Bang Room,” a 1992 room-within-a-room installation with four doors mechanically and repeatedly slammed; and the on-and-off lighting concept that controversially won Martin Creed the 2001 Turner Prize.

But what I enjoyed more was the contributions from emerging artists — things like Klara Liden’s “Paralyzed” (2003), a 3-minute video following the artist’s frenetic intervention on a commuter train. She writhes, kicks, strips and dances badly while stone-faced passengers either stare or pretend not to see. The whole episode is clumsy, bad even — but that spontaneity, the “what if I did this?” practice-over-theory energy is what makes the work so watchable. Though she’s a Swede, here Liden is very “Berlin.”

Which brings us to the organizers claim that they didn’t set out to make a show about Berlin, aiming instead for “a series of reflections on the human condition as a terrain of fear and subjugation, of malaise and revelation, illuminated by spontaneous interludes of beauty and stemming from questions of birth and loss, death and surrender, grief and nostalgia.”

But that is exactly where Berlin is coming from, and so the city is very much in this show, thanks also to the high number of locally based artists and to the atmosphere brought by venues such as the Jewish Girls’ School, a four-story building across the street from the KW that was closed 10 years ago but pressed into service. The peeling wallpaper, the paint hanging from the ceilings and rusty pipes create a perfect counterpoint to the white-cube galleries on August Strasse. This is a great exhibition for experiencing art in unexpected settings — the reality that defines Berlin’s vibrant creative community.