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.

History of Photography Seminar: Image and the Abyss

Toronto-based visual artist Annie MacDonell gave a compelling lecture-meets-artist’s talk, discussing her work in an open-forum manner at the Research Forum on 1 May.

She began by reading her interpretation of two pivotal postmodernist texts, Craig Owen’s ‘Photography en abyme’ and Rosalind Krauss’s ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde,’ both of which have largely informed MacDonell’s practice recently, as she has begun to question notions of authenticity and originality in her own art making and in contemporary artistic practice in general. When these texts were written, photography became an important allegorical device for theorists to employ when trying to unravel some of the impenetrable issues of postmodern discourse in its early days. To some extent, MacDonell has translated this methodology into an artistic practice that incorporates photography, film, sculpture, and installation.

MacDonell’s exhibition ‘Originality and the Avant Garde (on art and repetition)’ at Mercer Union in Toronto includes all of these elements of her practice, with a selection of five photographs as well as a mirrored structure the size of her studio. The space within the structure functions as a screening room for a short film, which also reveals itself as a camera obscura: as the film comes to an end, the images from the gallery space appear as projections on the wall.

The mirror is crucial in relation to the texts by Owens and Krauss, as it is the surface that causes an abyss in its endless repetition. This can be understood quite literally, as light reflects on the mirror in a camera, which MacDonell physically translates into the gallery space with the mirrored structure and the camera obscura. Then, there is another layer of mirrored space, as the photographs themselves include mirrors or other reflective surfaces, creating a chain of projections that have no beginning or end. It is this aspect of the mirror that informs MacDonell’s understanding of appropriation. All of the images pictured in MacDonell’s photographs were found in an image archive in Toronto, where, over the years, various archivists have determined categories and sourced images from an indiscriminate array of periodicals, organizing a vast amount of visual information in an almost entirely arbitrary way. The idea of an original source becomes obfuscated in this mass of imagery, and even further removed through its appropriation by MacDonell.

MacDonell confessed that her work is ‘self-explanatory to a fault,’ but actually, it is not as obvious as it may seem. In the short film included in the exhibition, a young man implicates the viewer, engaging in a theoretical diatribe about the very ideas that are explored in the exhibition: originality and authenticity. His confidence in these ideas will resonate with viewers of MacDonell’s work, as its presentation is so in line with its conceptual underpinnings that it verges on becoming too obvious, too self-referential. But his confidence also reveals his naïveté, reminding the viewer that what appears most obvious may be more complex than it initially appears.

Memorabilia from an Age of Troublemaking – Liu Dahong and Katie Hill in Conversation

Liu Dahong, Gazing into Space. Oil on Canvas, 2011. Courtesy the artist, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong and Rossi & Rossi, London

Chinese contemporary artist Liu Dahong began his presentation on 30 April by stating that he has lived through three dynasties—the first being Chairman Mao’s reign, the second when he left power, and the third the current regime. He explained that this is the lens through which all of his paintings must be viewed. Liu’s work illustrates the merging of past and present histories by weaving references from his own childhood with contemporary political issues. It not only reflects his own histories, but also the nature of history as both an account of factual events and a myth composed of personal memories.

Sotheby’s Institute of Art lecturer Dr. Katie Hill engaged Liu in dialogue about the overarching themes present in his most recent series of work, ‘Childhood’, currently on view at Rossi & Rossi. This show presents the work, along with written text by Liu, in book form. During the conversation, Hill described this book as a kind of ‘textbook’ that was available for visitors to purchase and contribute to. As Liu explained, alongside the pages of his images and explanations were also blank notebook pages to which spectators could add their own impressions and thoughts about his work. This concept, he noted, comes from his continued practice of journal keeping, again bringing elements of his childhood history into his contemporary practices, merging his own history and opinions with those of his audience.

I was particularly interested in the dialog regarding Liu’s painting, Battling the Seaweed Sea (2011). Liu introduced this image with a folktale from his childhood about children who were brave enough to stay out with their sheep during a storm. Thus the image depicts two mischievous children peddling through the water ‘battling the seaweed.’ But as Hill suggested, the image also reflects contemporary ecological issues: the green sea signifies the extreme pollution. Again, Liu brings together the myths of his childhood with current histories, creating a visual link between the past and present.

Another link present throughout Liu’s body of work is one between the Far East and West. The first work Liu presented was a digital tour of a ‘Chinese Church’ to highlight the differences between Chinese and Western culture. Many of Liu’s works utilize Western, particularly Christian, motifs and structures to display distinctly Eastern themes. During the audience question-and-answer session, Hill and Liu discussed his reasons for adopting this format. Utilizing Christian iconography, but placing Chairman Mao’s image in it, demonstrates the widespread influence Mao had, comparable to that of Christianity. The Western forms facilitate the translation of the influence of Chinese political figures.

Overall, Hill and Liu highlighted this idea of translation—translating various histories and myths, translating childhood experience, and translating Chinese culture and politics into visual forms that can be understood and experienced by a broad and diverse audience.

Utopia III: Contemporary Russian Art and the Ruins of Utopia

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment, 1968-88

In February, I attended the Utopia III conference held through the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre. The conference was the third in a series addressing the theme of ‘utopia’ within Russian art, with each focusing on a different time period; Utopia III focused on contemporary art. This was the first of the conference series I was able to attend, and it left me regretting that I had missed the previous two.

Days later, I still found myself thinking about the idea of utopia, both as it concerned Soviet art and as it connected to other realms of my academic and non-academic interests— particularly, my penchant for reading dystopian novels, which normally constitutes a wholly non-academic escape. I found the keynote speaker, Mikhail Epstein, particularly intriguing in this respect. His topic, ‘The Philosophical Underpinnings of Russian Conceptualism’, drew parallels for me between the concept of the utopian he described, which he argued was grounded in philosophical ideas predating Soviet ideology, and the philosophical exercise that seems to be at the heart of many dystopian novels. Central to the genre, of course, is the desire to posit the ramifications of Soviet-era politics and totalitarian moments of 20th century history, but also often motifs drawn from classical-era philosophies of government.

Though by a strict definition, ‘utopian’ and ‘dystopian’ are opposing ideas, they exist in tension, with the second reliant upon the first to exist. Both are united in a joint exercise in constructing an alternate version of reality: one optimistically plausible, the other existing in order to identify the fundamental flaws in the former. Though the term ‘dystopia’ was not investigated at this conference, I often detected the blurry line between the two. One example, used by multiple speakers, was Ilya Kabakov’s “The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment.” This installation artwork depicts the aftermath of the apartment belonging to the eponymous man in space. His cramped living quarters, wallpapered with Soviet propaganda, are now furnished by the aftermath of his successful space mission. Through the work’s highly narrative composition, the viewer is able to infer the action that preceded the current tableau, while simultaneously detecting the cracks in a supposedly utopian Soviet society: the propaganda feels suffocating, and must be escaped.

Epstein proposed that conceptual art is the visual counterpart to philosophy, and has been understood this way by some of the artists themselves. This proved somewhat controversial in the Q&A portion following his talk, although I found his argument fairly convincing. In my understanding of dystopian literature the connection seems apt: conceptual art, like literature, becomes a method of exploring abstract ideas in a concrete sense, as if running a simulation to prove exactly where grand theories, in our imperfect reality, will fall short.

Natalia Murray on the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the Quest for the New Art

Street festival May 1926, Leningrad

At the end of January, Natalia Murray spoke about ‘The Proletarian Art Enigma’ as part of the Modern and Contemporary Research Seminar. She began with the social and historical background of the Russian Revolution of 1917—aimed at establishing a homogenous socialist state and culture to serve purely political needs—and ended with the year 1921. In her lecture, Murray sought to question whether proletarian art was a reality or a contradiction during this interlude.

The French Revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries set an important precedent for the Bolsheviks. Influenced by the writing of Gustav le Bon, renowned French social psychologist, the Bolsheviks understood the power of the image for manipulating the masses. In his work on the psychology of the crowd, Le Bon believed that sentiment, not rational nature, is key. It follows that images, not words, are more powerful in controlling and manipulating crowds. Note that le Bon has been quoted by Mussolini, Stalin, Lenin and Hitler.

Russian Futurists and Leftist artists were quick to support the Bolshevik Revolution and moved to the forefront of new proletarian art . Murray took us through images of the first expressions of this art: from the Futurists’ sculpture of a fumbling eagle located at Peterhof Station nearby the Summer Palace of the Tsar, which symbolised the collapse of autocracy, to agitational propaganda on trains and trams with slogans in German due to the influence of Karl Marx to street decorations reminiscent of parade floats from the French Revolution to items of porcelain and posters by Natan Altman and Vladimir Lebedev.

Possibly the most well-known surviving artistic work from the period is the dramatically staged “Storming of the Winter Palace” by Soviet Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein. Recall the heroic toppling of the statues and masses with torched flames clambering over the palace gates. He based his film on the 1920s public re-enactment of the supposed legendary event of the 1917 Revolution. It epitomised Bolshevik mythology and points towards social manipulation, as in fact the Red Guards entered the government buildings to take control without a shot being fired.

Did proletarian art achieve its individuality; did it create a seismic effect on socialist society? Art as propaganda certainly continued beyond 1921 and was successful for agitational purposes. However the Futurist artists were removed as they ultimately failed to engage the workers who preferred more realistic decorations in a conventional style.

Mark Cheetham, ‘Landscape & Language: from Conceptualism to Ecoaesthetics’ and Mark with Mariele Neudecker, ‘Re-Inventing Landscape Traditions for the Present’

N. E. Thing Co., Quarter Mile Landscape, 1969.

In the late 1960s, the N. E. Thing Co., a Canadian art collective, produced a series of interventions exploring the connection between landscape and language. They set up road signs next to nondescript stretches of countryside with messages like ‘You will soon pass by a ¼ mile N. E. Thing Co. landscape’, highlighting the fact that all it takes to turn mere land into ‘landscape’ is the addition of a short text. Landscape, the signs suggest, is simply where we are directed to look. For Mark Cheetham, speaking on a Monday in early October 2012 in the first of two events on the role of nature in modern and contemporary art, works like these are a stark reminder that our experience of our environment is always culturally mediated. In his talk, he went on to analyse some important recent artworks which approach nature through the medium of language. One early conceptual piece by Richard Long, for example, consists solely of lists of instructions on how to arrange sticks and other natural objects in the gallery. The lists draw attention to the display conventions that ‘tame’ nature when it is brought into the gallery, yet are themselves instances of these conventions (which usually remain unwritten); as such, they reveal the impossibility of capturing nature in a unadulterated form, even when, as with Long’s sticks, it appears to survive the conversion into art raw and unworked.

Mariele Neudecker, I Don’t Know How I Resisted the Urge to Run, 1998, mixed media including water, acrylic medium, salt and fibreglass, 75 x 90 x 61cm (with plinth).

The second event the following day gave us the chance to think further about these issues in relation to the work of artist Mariele Neudecker, who joined Cheetham to discuss the question of how the Western landscape tradition has been reinterpreted in recent art practice. Neudecker began by offering a survey of her career, focusing on particular works which speak to this theme. Characteristic of her thoughtful approach to the landscape tradition are her tank installations: backlit vitrines which contain miniature landscape dioramas submerged in hazy coloured fluid. These eerie, beautiful works reference the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich through their titles and appearance; at the same time, their relationship to this giant of the tradition is not one of straightforward emulation. As Cheetham noted later on, in the way that they demand to be viewed from different angles, and in their refusal to hide their central framing device, the vitrine, Neudecker’s tanks reveal the extent to which Friedrich presents a vision of the northern landscape cut off from time and embodied experience. I agree; but perhaps the tanks’ sensuous and explicitly visual response to Friedrich should also alert us to the fact that – for artists at least – the dialogue with tradition tends to be conducted in aesthetic as well as linguistic or conceptual terms. This can be an uncomfortable fact for art historians, who work within a discipline afflicted by an iconophobia so profound that it often seems more acceptable to look at anything (diaries, archives, inventories, texts, contexts) rather than the artwork itself. Events like this stimulating encounter between an artist and an art historian help us all to see a little further beyond our self-imposed boundaries.

Martin Myrone, ‘“Like a great circus tent”: folk art, art history and the museum’

George Smart, The Earth Stopper, early 19th century applied felt on watercolour paper background, 32.5 x 44cm. London art market, 2006.

It can be easy to forget how restricted a view of art production most of us really have. The works sitting pretty in our major museums and galleries are the towering emergent trees in our cultural ecosystem; while often wholly unrepresentative of mainstream forms of creative activity (being, as we say, ‘original’), they nevertheless absorb a disproportionately large share of the available resources: scholarship, exposure in exhibitions and publications, and money. At the other end of the scale – in the murky zone below the forest canopy – are the various popular practices known as ‘folk art’. This term encircles a formidably diverse range of phenomena. It can refer to artefacts which are recognisable as works of art, such as the small felt collage pictures made by George Smart, the tailor from Frant, as a sideline to his business. But it also encompasses context-specific performances (morris-dancing, story-telling) and activities so ephemeral or routine – traditional jam making, for example – that to refer to them as art at all requires a stretch of the imagination for most historians. In his talk on 1st October 2012, curator Martin Myrone explored the museological issues raised by the British folk art tradition, focusing on the question of how this fascinating but deeply problematic body of material might best be offered to the public in an upcoming exhibition at Tate Britain.

Lion figurehead, c.1720, wood and oil paint, 234 x 51 x 58cm. National Maritime Museum.

As the case studies which Myrone presented to us reveal, a key difficulty associated with folk art is its resistance to the various labels (author, date, genre, etc.) which museums rely upon to contextualise and interpret objects for their audiences. One of his most striking examples, the ship’s figureheads preserved in British naval collections, illustrate some of the complexities involved here. These anonymous wooden sculptures cannot really be viewed as instances of a period style because over the centuries they have been repeatedly stripped down and repainted. Nor does their level of craftsmanship allow them to be presented as ‘timeless’ aesthetic objects which can be appreciated by museum visitors without a supporting framework of historical information. Like most folk art, they occupy an uneasy position between high art and the straightforwardly functional.

The ambiguous status of folk art also carries a political charge. As one contributor in the discussion session pointed out, to transplant a work from, say, the Reading Museum of Rural Life into a prominent art museum like the Tate is a significant act of redescription, one which involves certain risks. If the work falls short of the high aesthetic standards with which its new home is associated, it may end up seeming hopelessly clumsy, vulgar or irrelevant; a gesture intended to celebrate folk art may expose it to ridicule. On the other hand, bringing unusual materials into the museum can also help to refresh our ideas of what counts as art.  It will be interesting to see how Myrone and his team choose to manage the challenges of folk art in a few years’ time.


On the 20th of June 2012 I had the pleasure of attending Curators in Dialogue on the Persistence of Histories, part of the Revival: Utopia, Identity, Memory project led by Dr. Ayla Lepine, the current Andrew Mellon and Research Forum Post-doctoral Fellow.

As one of a series of events associated with this project, the evening’s presentations by Dr Scott Nethersole (Courtauld Institute of Art), Abraham Thomas (design curator, V&A) and Sonia Solicari (Principle curator Guildhall Art Gallery), were followed by a lively panel discussion chaired by Dr Caroline Arscott.

Revivalism was presented as a creative act that entails varying degrees of historical referencing ranging across historical periods, cultures, and media. The presentations addressed how collections, spaces and exhibitions can function as vehicles of revivalism, while the discussion brought up issues such as concepts of kitsch versus irony, the use of the term ‘neo’ and the different forms of mediation that are put between one period and another. By the end of the night, it was clear to me that revivalism has little to do with the recreation or reconstruction of forms from the past. Rather, it is about constructing new meaning through what Dr Nethersole called aestheticized evocations.

What struck me most were the layered levels of revivalism that were present in all three presentations. Each revealed revivalisms within revivalisms that extended beyond simply the appropriation of stylistic references.

Dr Nethersole spoke of his curatorial decision to evoke, but not replicate, the original viewing conditions of 15th Century Italian altar pieces in order to emphasize their function within a church setting. For example, Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (c.1450), is placed within a classicizing Florentine Renaissance context as a result of its permanent setting in its own small room in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, itself a post-modern neo-classical revivalist design. However, it was originally hung as one of many elaborately framed altarpieces in a church, and when it was acquired by the National Gallery it was framed in a Victorian gothic revival frame. By emphasizing the viewing conditions over a continuous historical narrative, Dr Nethersole was able to achieve a revival of 15th century displays that created new opportunities for interpretation of the objects.

Abraham Thomas addressed the importance of the Alhambra for Owen Jones in the creation of his Grammar of Ornament (1856), and the subsequent interest in his version of Arabian motifs from the Egyptian Khedive. The romanticized photographic image of the crumbling and exotic Alhambra combined with Jones’ 19th century interpretations of its decorative motifs inspired the Egyptian leaders who sought impressive palaces that represented the latest in design and technology and yet harkened back to a non-western culture.

Finally, Sonia Solicari spoke of the self-conscious engagement with the reinterpretation of historical motifs as central to determining a definition of Victorian revivalism, or neo-Victorian. Here, the complex layers of mediated evocations at work in any revival were most apparent. The Victorian era was loaded with historical revivals: from Gothic, to Middle Eastern, to craft, and these were combined with vast advances in science and technology to create what we now consider Victorian ‘style’. Twenty-first century culture has engaged with its own revivals of these references, through steam-punk, taxidermy, a renewed interest in craft techniques and the cabinet of curiosities. In planning an exhibition of current neo-Victorian art, Solicari is faced with determining not only what makes an object neo-Victorian, but also why we are turning to this era once again. Her examples included Timorous Beasties’ ‘Devil Damask’ flocked wallpaper and Dan Hillier’s artwork for ‘Flush’, a track by Losers feat. Riz MC and Envy.

I left the talks wondering about the political motivations behind revivals. Though this was not addressed directly by the presentations, it was nonetheless apparent in the objects that were talked about and the various curatorial approaches to exhibiting revivalism that were offered to us throughout the evening. I am looking forward to delving deeper into revivalism, and its many facets at the conference in November.


A response by Jane Scarth


“This is something essential to art: reception is never its goal. What counts for me is that my work provides material to reflect upon. Reflection is an activity.” – Thomas Hirschhorn

Having reflected on my notes from this lecture repeatedly, I am still not quite sure how to make sense of it all. This seems bizarre, because Thomas Hirschhorn’s purpose seemed to be to rationalise his art practise, and specifically his huge, immersive installation for the 2011 Venice Biennale, CRYSTAL OF RESISTANCE, (Fig. 1) which I had seen this summer.

What I understood was that in using a belief system to justify what art is and should be (“because in art it’s a matter of believing”), and so Hirschhorn presented us with the three questions he needed to answer to reach the conclusion of the work. These were set in a framework of ‘The Four Parts of the Form and Force Field: LOVE, PHILOSOPHY, POLITICS, AESTHETICS’, at least two of which, he tells us, must always be present in his work, and all four are found here. Within and from these constant elements, Hirschhorn finds an appropriate motif, which is then integrated to create the whole. Each element leading to more inherent questions and each has an answer specific to the artist (taking the form of motifs, materials, themes, etc.).

To over-simplify the logic, in CRYSTAL OF RESISTANCE they take these forms:


LOVE = the motif of crystal.

PHILOSOPHY = a desire for universality.

POLITICS = urgency and panic.

AESTHETIC = the crystal meth lab/B-movie set.


The result is an artwork that is explosive, an onslaught of ideas and references, fluctuating between being at times enlighteningly coherent and at others impenetrable. But such is the creative mind. It was explained that to enter the installation you go inside the head of the artist, and on leaving you will be taking home ‘a bit of my head in your head’.

The thing I found most inspirational about hearing Hirschhorn was his unrelenting questioning of himself and his position as an artist. He creates intricate mind-maps, which are works of art in themselves, (Fig. 2) to place himself in relation to his work and so he can always refer back and reassess where he is coming from. I think that this is similar to the experience of the visitor to the show in the sense of getting lost in an extreme train of thought and having to hold onto certain reference points to relocate yourself.

Therefore to my understanding, it is entirely appropriate that one of the four banners spray painted with Edouard Glissant quotes was “You have the right not to be understood”. At times in the installation I think I understood, and at times in the talk I certainly did. However now, with the two collected experiences, and retrospect, I am not really sure that I do. Yet I don’t think that it’s a bad or even an ignorant thing, but part of the nature of the work in its process of finding logical, universal conclusions to questions that are at times without answers.