Listening to the sounds of a classical string quartet on the terrace of a beautiful lake-side villa in Berlin’s affluent Zehlendorf neighbourhood evokes an image of the past; somehow reminiscent of Berlin’s Golden Twenties. This grand venue is however, not the setting for a glamorous garden party, but part of this year’s Berlin Biennale. The sound is part of Carla Zaccagnini’s installation Le Quintuor des Negres (2014), inspired by an interest in the reconstruction of history, in particular the idea of the noble savage as featured in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Zaccagnini’s work pursues the question of how idealisations of the primitive featured in the music of German Romanticism, and the piece is based on a fragment by Nepomuk Hummel she discovered during her research, transcribed for string quartet by Frankfurt-based composer Theodor Köhler.
This sort of scholarly investigation provides a good example of the manner of conception behind the majority of the works at this well thought-out Biennial curated by Juan Gaitán. The research process is the starting point in the creative process, which is then condensed into an aesthetic form.
The traditional centre of the Berlin Biennial – the grand hall in the KW Institute of Contemporary Art – sums up the principle of this biennial exhibition. It resembles an artistic research centre, in which Tonel (like Zaccagnini, an art historian turned artist) engages with commerce from a Cuban perspective. But the emphasis on research does not prevent visitors from aesthetic encounters. In fact, one can discover a lot if one looks closely. For example, the installation Weltall by the artist group Kartenrecht. Do these broken wooden balks comment on the fragility of borders, or do they allude to the garbage flying around in the Weltall? There is definitely space for imagination…
Judy Radul’s Look. Look Away. Look Back (2014) provides an interesting cross-reference from the top floor of the KW to a further venue of this year’s biennial: the Museen Dahlem. Radul’s vitrines touch the controversy of the relocation of the ethnographic collection from Dahlem to Berlin’s Mitte. Gaitán’s decision to exhibit well-known artists, such as Tacita Dean, Goschka Macuga, Anri Sala and Wolfgang Tillmans, in Dahlem raises awareness for neighbourhoods other than the hipster-esque Mitte, Friedrichshain and Kreuzkölln. Gaitán here makes a clear statement against Berlin’s urban planning.
Those mourning the lack of aesthetic seductiveness at this biennial ought to climb up to the last step in the KW, where Zarouhie Abdalian’s owl watches over the buzzing city. Her gaze is directed at the TV tower, lovingly called ‘Alex’. Might this be the owl of Athena, an attribute of the Greek goddess of knowledge? Maybe it is exactly this: the beauty of knowledge, which transpires through the 8th Berlin Biennale.
Sarah Hegenbart is a PhD student at the Courtauld.
The Eighth Berlin Biennale ran from 29th May to the 3rd August 2014.