Berlin Biennale 2014

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.

Tonel - "Commerce" (2014)

Tonel – “Commerce” (2014)

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…


Kartenrecht – “Weltall” (2014)

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.

Zarouhie Abdalian - "a caveat, a decoy" (2014)

Zarouhie Abdalian – “a caveat, a decoy” (2014)

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.

The Visual Arts and Music in Renaissance Europe c 1400-1650 (Second Annual Postgraduate Renaissance Symposium, 18 January 2014)

The Amaryllis Consort at the Temple Church

The Amaryllis Consort at the Temple Church

It is not every Courtauld conference that starts off with a concert in an authentic Gothic interior. But the Renaissance Art and Music programme has been an exploratory endeavour throughout. On a moonlit Friday evening, the Amaryllis Consort regaled an audience in the Temple Church with music from the high Baroque, Burgundian Gothic and English Renaissance schools to much applause. However, visual references were confined to our programmes, and it was not until after the next dawn that images would take the commanding focus of the lecture theatre’s projector.

Professor Thomas Schmidt’s keynote took as its main theme a giant choirbook in Jena, considering an illuminated folio of a chant of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin beyond a usual iconographical analysis. The arrangement on the page of the four parts, their page-turning rubrics, and how the donors’ figures would work as ever-present supplicants to the Marian prayer being sung all went together to manifest the sort of four-part polyphonic performance we had witnessed in the Temple into a tangible artefact.

Brian Keene and Kelly Lam at the conference

Brian Keene and Kelly Lam at the conference

These themes were restated and developed throughout the day. Moritz Kelber’s paper picked up on the meeting of note and page with a “singing shield” at the beginning of some printed musical scores for the diet of Ferdinand I. A coat of arms emblazoned with a solmized representation of the name of German Emperor was presented as “eye music”, where the score itself could make visual play with the musical script. Brian Keene’s paper on a dismembered antiphonary from the Carmelite Friary in Florence placed it within the daily life of the church, but also explored its creation through the agency of the friars, lay confraternity members and of course the artists who laboured on the church’s manuscripts and frescoes.

But the day was not just about objects that were at the centre of musical performance, but also reflections of it.  Alex Robinson’s consideration of paintings of balls and ceremonies in the court of Henri IV showed how bands of musicians were more often convenient cultural signs than accurate records. Kelly Lam’s analysis of The Music Lesson, a National Gallery canvas newly attributed to Titian, also showed paintings as untrustworthy documents: the bass viol (which Titian himself holds in Veronese’s Wedding at Cana) is held in a near unplayable position. Both Simon Jackson, on the metaphysical poet George Herbert’s creative links to the courtly masque and Daniel Walden, on the Garden of the Villa di Pratolino, relied heavily on textual accounts and documentary evidence to recreate even more ephemeral displays and the intellectual and musical culture around them.

Titian - The Music Lesson (National Gallery, London)

Titian – The Music Lesson (National Gallery, London)

This conference by no means solved the inherent epistemological problems on how much we can ever know about creative links between visual artists and musicians, and how the dual experience of their outputs was received by contemporary audiences. Like the concert the night before, the truth of the experience can only be completely accessible to those who were there.